By Elise Seyfried

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I spent a lot of time with my dad’s mom, my beloved Nana. Nana would rent a cottage at the New Jersey shore for the whole summer and invite our family down for weeks at a time. It was a welcome respite from the brutal New York City heat and our non-air-conditioned apartment. At Normandy Beach, the cool ocean breezes were heavenly. I looked forward to summer all year long.

Once I finally arrived at the cottage, I was always a busy girl, either jumping the waves or designing complicated sandcastle towns. Even if I lay down on a beach towel slathered with baby oil (as everyone did back in the clueless 1960s), I’d stay awake, listening to my favorite DJ, Cousin Brucie, on my little transistor radio, as he played the hits: Three Dog Night’s “One,” The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball” and “See You in September” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Meanwhile, Nana dozed—a lot. She snoozed in her chair under the beach umbrella. She lay down for a nap once we returned to the cottage. She called it a late morning and an early night. After busy years of teaching school and raising my father, Nana thoroughly enjoyed retirement and the chance to stretch out and catch a few winks. For her, sleep was something to be desired, to be cherished. What a huge waste of time! I thought, promising myself I’d never, ever, sleep more than the bare minimum required for survival. After all, there were things to do, places to go, people to see.

Even in my teen years, I might sleep in a bit on weekends, but I’d always make up for it by keeping long evening hours. I found little value in any time spent with my eyes closed. I didn’t often remember my dreams, but when I did, they were usually not happy ones. Who cares to recall a dream about failing an exam, because it was written in gibberish, or being followed by a stranger in a dark alley? Much better to get out of bed and get going!

When I lost my sister Maureen (she died at age 23 in a car crash), I especially dreaded nights. My dreams were often frightening. Mo was frequently the main character in these scenarios, sometimes running away from me, other times regarding me as a total stranger. Every morning I’d awaken, briefly convinced that I’d only dreamt about her death, only to be crushed anew, over and over, when I realized it had really happened. Sleep played cruel tricks and could not be trusted.

While raising five children, sleep was at a premium and divided randomly in small doses between two AM baby feedings and four AM toddler trips to the bathroom. Naps were just something I begged my kids to take (usually in vain). Then when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 49, one main symptom was the incredibly small amount of sleep I was getting: I averaged two to three hours of slumber at the most. During that time, I loved my mania, because I could be incredibly productive. Never mind that much of my “productivity” was pretty useless, such as the novel I wrote in eight sleepless days and nights; I thought at first it was a work of genius, until I read it again and saw its huge flaws and general un-publish-ability.

This article is from the July/August 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.