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Better Sleep Habits Won't Save Me From the Exhaustion of Academia

As a Black woman graduate student, burn out feels like a requirement for success.

Jan 28 2019, 7:26pm

Photo by Bonninstudio, via Stocksy. 

As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here.

I’m exhausted. In fact, I’m always exhausted.

As a graduate student, exhaustion feels almost inescapable. I’ve found that, in graduate school, there’s an unspoken expectation that the entire process is supposed to be a struggle. My list of theoretical texts to read this year is already 26 books long—and that’s excluding the journal articles.

The workload and academic hoops I’m expected to jump through often feel like a kind of hazing—a multi-year initiation-cum-obstacle course designed to measure one’s worthiness to partake in the most holy exchange of intellectual ideas in the most sacred of spaces. Within this framework, it’s difficult not to convince yourself that fatigue is an unavoidable symptom of the kind of hard work you ought to be exerting in order to prove that you deserve to be there—that you are worthy. There’s a reason that the governing career ethos in academia is the cutthroat “publish or perish.”

In the recent—and quickly viral—Buzzfeed piece, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” author Anne Helen Peterson describes “errand paralysis,” the phenomenon of millennials being unable to complete the easy, mundane tasks required of adults despite being otherwise hardworking. She mentions, for instance, her own contradictory ability to write professionally, plan trips, and move across the country while failing to complete relatively simple tasks like scheduling appointments or responding to emails from friends. She proposes that this inability likely stems from the fact that she is simply burnt out—because she works so hard all the time, by the time she gets to her own self-maintenance tasks, she’s too tired.

When I read Peterson’s piece, I was, unsurprisingly, exhausted. Which is really to say that it resonated with me. The more spent I am, the more unfocused and scattered and unproductive I become. So, I sleep less and work harder, and it becomes a feedback loop. Many days, it feels like I’m trying to run a marathon in a hamster wheel: I’m at the starting line, but as soon as the starting pistol goes off, I’m stuck in the same place, no matter how furiously I try to sprint forward. I can keep publishing essays and working on my coursework and dissertation proposal, but fatigue triggers my anxiety because moving slowly raises a mental alarm about my lack of productivity. That means I struggle to concentrate, and regular tasks take more time and effort to complete. As a result, I sometimes forget to make time to eat or schedule necessary doctor’s appointments.

All of this is exacerbated by the reality of being a Black woman in academia because stressors, labor demands, and resulting energy expenditure are also often racialized. In a follow-up article, Peterson talked to sixteen people whose landscapes of stress, stagnation, and fatigue differ from her own as a self-described “white, upper-middle-class, college-educated woman.” One source, Elly, told her: “As a Black woman, I feel as if I was were born tired.” Gabriela, an immigrant, said: “On top of everything else, you have this constant guilt of never being enough for this country. So you have to excel.” The cherry on top is that even rest is racialized. Research about the racial “sleep gap” names the internalized stress from experiences of discrimination as a reason why many Black Americans achieve significantly less deep, regenerative sleep than white Americans.

As a Black woman grad student, not only do I sometimes feel hopelessly lost and confused about expectations and future plans (that I should apparently already be making) to the point of fear and inertia, I must also navigate a minefield of aggressions, both the subtle sort and the explicitly racially hostile. For example, there was the time that an interim dean patted the top of my headwrap and exclaimed, “Isn’t that cute!” instead of shaking my outstretched hand. (As I stood there dumbfounded, she smiled and asked, “I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?”) There are the professors who have described me as “confrontational” because of my quietly urgent but polite corrections of their racist revisionisms and descriptions. And there is the fact that, in the event I am conditionally able to convince white professors or colleagues of my deservingness to be present (because I was raised by two academics, I am usually successful in presenting a relatively “unthreatening” performance of Blackness), I am then often compelled to endure commiserating complaints about other students or staff whose Blackness presents a difficulty in a way mine seems not to. (Remaining silent in the face of this kind of anti-blackness is never an option for me.)

I’ve found that the academy has evolved from simply being a bastion of white social finishing and a space for acquiring hoarded knowledge into a competitive neoliberal marketplace. Here and now, students are not individuals to be taught: we are commodities to be invested in, and our departments and institutions demand a return on their investment. Our relationship to the academy is simply transactional—we pay tuition to be intellectually groomed and to learn how to “appropriately” produce and compete against other academics.

Our current neoliberal system of awarding individual productivity based on the myth of exceptionalism feels particularly concentrated within the ivory tower, where the general absence of other Black people functions to make you feel special for being among the chosen intelligent few. This Black absence makes the institution even more suffocating and isolating—there often isn’t an immediate and familiar community with whom to commiserate or pool resources (unless you’re lucky enough to have supportive Black faculty, and even then, Black scarcity can mean Black competition). Not only am I tired, I am also very alone.

I think constantly about how the academy consumes Black women, both intellectually and physically. It operates like the power plant in The Matrix, the giant towers dotted with thousands of pods containing humans whose minds power the entire city structure. Just as the structure extracts neural activity from the shared visions and delusions of its inhabitants’ dream states as fuel, the academy thrives off of our theoretical contributions, mines our labor, and leaves us depleted. I feel like I run on autopilot, as my mind and body have become tools conditioned to perform in specific ways in order to meet certain benchmarks and expectations.

During the week, I wake up around 6 AM every morning (sans alarm, I’m a morning person), and often write in bed, which allows a seamless (unhealthy) transition from sleep to work. At the end of the day, I’ll sit on my bed and write, which usually leads to me falling asleep in front of or next to my computer, sometimes waking at 3 or 4 AM to turn my lights off—I can’t remember the last time I fell asleep in the dark on a weekday.

My routine is antithetical to good “sleep hygiene”—the variety of practices and cultivated habits developed to maximize sleep quality and mental alertness throughout the following day. Good sleep hygiene, for example, means having a regular sleep schedule and not using the bed for anything except sleeping or sex, creating distance between work life and resting spaces. It also means, potentially, structuring your entire day to include naps and resting time.

As a student and freelance writer, I don’t necessarily have the luxury of achieving good sleep hygiene—at least not easily. One of neoliberalism’s many problems is how it prescribes the resolution of social problems to individual solutions. (It’s what, for example, transformed Audre Lorde’s expansive and community-centered notion of self-care and self-preservation into bubble baths, yoga, retail therapy, and other consumerist solutions that fail to address the heart of why so many Black women feel constantly weathered and under attack.) I’m a person who takes comforts in routine, but because I lack real financial stability, my school and freelancing workload can fluctuate. Because I don’t work regular 9-5 office hours, I can’t easily carve out a regular sleep schedule for myself. And so, the principles of good sleep hygiene have morphed into yet another goal—another mode of conditioning for success—to which I continually strive, and continually fall short.

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The issue isn’t simply about the quality of daily sleep. What I need in order to finally, truly, rest is not just better sleep hygiene: I need agency and autonomy over what I do with and demand of my body. No number of good nights of sleep or nap scheduling can substitute for being able to fully dictate what kind of work you do, how you do it, and when you do it. It isn’t simply a lack of sleep that exhausts: I am exhausted by the way I am alienated from the work that I genuinely love—and, ultimately, my humanity. I am exhausted by the fact that, for reasons I can’t control, I must choose between either working until I can no longer stay awake or putting myself to sleep in order to be more efficient—never leisurely letting myself fall into slumber.

For now, though, I know that I must learn to rest and stop feeling guilty about the necessity of rest. Thick-rimmed glasses can only hide the bags under my eyes for so long.