Medicine

Daring Experiments with Sleep. I used to think sleep was a weakness… | by Dr. Caitlin Blau | Dec, 2023

Photo by Abhishek Koli on Unsplash

I used to think sleep was a weakness. My inner guilt and perfectionism, combined with the way I was always pushed for more and better as a gifted student, dovetailed with the toxicity of our capitalist culture to ensure that I never felt like I deserved to rest. I would push through fatigue, emotions, pain, and anxieties toward what I believed I should achieve.

This constant sense of urgency worsened exponentially through medical school and residency. There is no room for rest in medical training — you are expected to do what is asked of you for twelve hours a day, six days a week. I recall the deep sense of powerlessness that came with being told I wasn’t studying enough on one medical rotation — even though I was commuting ninety minutes each way to get to the hospital. This was one small instance out of many; I could write endless examples of feeling belittled and beaten down by the pursuit of something that once filled me with joy. In brief, medical training is an exercise in withstanding sleep deprivation; literal legions of literature on the negative effects of said sleep loss on learning be damned.

Medical training reinforced what I’d explicitly and implicitly learned as a child — acceptance is conditional on your productivity, and your ability to smile through any amount of abuse.

This all changed when I read two books: Burnout by Emily Nagoski, and Rest Is Resistance by Tricia Hersey. I was in the throes of burnout, characterized by a bone-deep sense of fatigue, feeling ineffectual at work, and burning with resentments. These epiphanies occurred in late 2022 and early 2023, but had been brewing for some time.

In 2020 when the world shut down, I caught a little glimpse of freedom. Our tiny independent clinic made the difficult decision to turn away COVID patients, leaving their care to the county-organized testing and treatment centers, in order to protect our essential services in providing abortion care. We quickly shifted into a new workflow. Each of our four providers spent two days per week in the clinic, and on the other two days, we saw patients via telehealth. Our telehealth days were fairly slow initially — there were gaps in the days as patients and staff adjusted to the new technological approach. And in those gaps — I found peace.


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