Open Letter to South High Students: Stop Sacrificing Sleep

Lillian Lin

Dear South High students,

Recently, we completed a survey in my psychology class about how much we slept everyday. When my teacher saw that nearly 50% of the students slept less than six hours on average, she laughed, suggested that this was the reality for us students, and then talked about how sleep deprivation increased the risk of high blood pressure, decreased our ability to focus, and severely hindered memory formation. 

These possibilities are, of course, old news to us. We have heard them repeated so many times that, at this point, we are completely desensitized. My classmates joked about how many years of life they have already lost, the short-term memory problems they already suffered from, and the debilitating amount of caffeine they had each day. “If I didn’t stay up to study, I would have had to drop this class already,” someone said to a chorus of nods. 

In ninth grade, I slept five hours every night for two months straight. I would sleep at midnight and wake up at dawn to work on my science research project. I wrote most of my manuscript during these early morning sessions. Sometimes, exhausted from working, I set an alarm and slept for a few more minutes. Other times, though, I peeled my eyes away from my computer screen to watch the sunrise. In the springtime, the sun rose early, and brilliantly colored light streamed through my window while I fought to keep my eyes open. 

For two months, I moved through the motions of everyday life in a barely conscious state, all for a class I did not even like. There was no end in sight to this cycle, which made the exhaustion all the less bearable. I repeatedly asked myself, “Why are you doing this?” I had no answer. 

Soon, I developed terrible stomach pain. It initially only occurred once a week. Then, twice. Three times. Four times. I started to feel the searing pain on a daily basis. During those random episodes, I could not see, though my eyes were wide open. It felt like there was a metal band around my stomach, constricting my breathing and impairing all conscious thought. In June, the pain worsened to two or three episodes per day. I took my biology final with tears in my eyes, unsure if I was crying from the constant pain or the panic that I wouldn’t finish the test in time.

Later, I visited a doctor for the pain. “It’s not a physical condition or virus,” he said. “Your body is just exhausted and stressed all the time.” He compared my symptoms to those of another patient, an elderly mother who recently lost her son in a car crash. She experienced the same searing pain I did when she drove past the spot on the highway where her son had been killed. As it turned out, I was putting my body through an experience as traumatic as such tremendous loss. 

Looking back now, I know why I obsessively starved my body of rest. When forced to choose between academic success and my health, I relentlessly pursued success. I did not care for science research, but, somehow, I had convinced myself that a bad grade on this project would be my demise. Somehow, I had convinced myself a high school research project would determine the trajectory of my future. As students, we are always looking for the next crisis. Every assignment, project, and assessment, though insignificant on their own, could spell the beginning of a long spiral downwards. We thus readily prioritize schoolwork, making small concessions everyday to handle an endless stream of responsibilities. We sleep a few minutes less to finish an essay. We sleep a few minutes less to study for a test. We sleep a few minutes less to practice a presentation one more time. These minutes accumulate, and we soon find ourselves going to bed at one in the morning, convinced that a little less sleep is a worthwhile exchange for a better future. Before we doze off, one last thought crosses our mind: “It will all be over soon, and it will all be worth it then.”

But, when will this happy ending arrive? Will it ever?

It is difficult to consider that our aspirations may remain unrealized, no matter how much we sacrifice. Still, deep down, I think we all know how fragile and arbitrary our visions are. After all, isn’t the variability of the future the reason why we work ourselves to the bone in the first place? We do everything in our power to maximize our chances at success because we realize success will always be just that: probability, luck, chance. We simultaneously love and fear the future, and this combination drives us to be reckless gamblers, giving up everything just for the slimmest possibility that we will win at the game of life.

A full two years later, the episodes of searing pain still return regularly, especially when I relapse into a cycle of high stress and little sleep. I have since dropped science research, realizing after freshman year that I had grown to fear the program. Science research will stay with me forever, though. It will be the morning hours I store away for myself, the time and freedom I gain by sacrificing my sleep. It will be the shadow by my side as I stay up again and again in my future, rushing to meet this deadline or that, as the mentor who first taught me such destructive habits. It will be the joints that throb with pain in later years, the physical manifestation of a lifetime of concessions and compromises.  

As I sat in the doctor’s office that day, avoiding my mom’s anxious gaze, the irony of my situation suddenly occurred to me. The hours of sleep I sacrificed put me no closer to the successful career I desperately wanted, but infinitely closer to the health problems that will certainly haunt my future. All my misery had led to was an increased risk for high blood pressure. I scored 100 on my research project. What else did I gain?

I know it feels like we don’t have much say in this lifestyle. We feel forced to sacrifice our health because there seems to be no other way to stay afloat in school—in life, even. Twenty-four hours are simply not enough for us to handle the dizzying mess of work we face every day. But we are only juggling ten different tasks simultaneously because we believe that all ten will help us achieve our elusive vision of the future in some way. Fate is fickle, however, and our lives will almost certainly unfold in different ways than how we imagined. What use is there, then, to sacrifice the present for the future? 

In our haste to make that desired future inch ever closer to reality, we have neglected the reality we currently live in. But the present moment was part of that precious future, too, at some point. If the present is a hard-won gift from our past selves, holding the same value as the future does for us now, how can we justify spending it in misery? How can we justify living out every day sluggishly from starving ourselves of rest, barely experiencing the very joys we worked so hard to obtain? 

Being our present selves, we have a choice to make: let go of a future that may never come, or let go of the present that is already here. As acquainted with chance as we are, I am sure we will make the right decision, which starts with granting our body the rest it deserves.