Do The Dishes: Sleeplessness, Thyroid, and the Secrets of Domestic Success

When describing a prolonged sleep problem I'd suffered through some years ago, my wife, jokingly, said it wasn't much of a problem. At least not for her.

On the morning after one of my particularly brutal dreamless nights, she would wake rested and glowing to find our house rather spotless.

I, of course, had been awake between the hours of 1:30 and 5:30 a.m., sweeping up dog hair, scrambling together the loose ends of junk accumulation, and, on special occasion, dusting baseboards by hands-and-knee scrub. As this was the time before we'd modernized our appliances, I also hand-washed every dish and spoon under the dolorous warmth of incandescent kitchen bulbs, that itchy and atomic burnt sienna glow. My red-eyes ached in the dim light of near dawn, fingers wrinkled and damp.

After my janitorial shift, I'd finally collapse before dawn and mouth breath unconsciously until bird chirps and traffic rumbles became too much commotion to bear.

At the time even I laughed at how horrible I had become at sleeping. I was managing, somehow, on a few hours a night and an early evening power nap. With rest a fleeting thing, I felt there was little else to do but get in on the joke.

What we didn't know then was that an undiagnosed hypothyroid issue I'd been quietly suffering worsened with each bout of insomnia. Accumulating sleep deprivation was not the cause of the problem, but one of many symptoms that I had not been taking seriously and certainly not discussing with a medical professional.

Here's how I spent most evenings: Late night tidying fits followed a decent bedtime, say 10 or 11 p.m. My eyes would shut then from a day's burnout. I could not keep them open. Two to three hours later, I could not keep them closed. Worry, mostly, consumed sleepless thoughts; sometimes they dipped into paranoia or the sad-sackery of a building depression. Frustration increased so that I could not be still next to a sleeping wife, so I rose to pace the house. Eventually, the crabbed gait evolved into furious cleaning. I plowed on until between 5 and 6, an hours or two shy of when I needed to be up and about.

I blamed it all on stress. I was 29 and 30 during this time. I juggled a job, lots of school, and helping my wife manage the financial side of her business. All those responsibilities, I thought, had sleeplessness as a side effect.

But it was all due to a slowly scuttling thyroid gland. The paranoia, depression, visions, weight gain, hair loss, and a slew of other symptoms I can't quite remember at the moment -- the flotsam left by a sapping flood of hypothyroidism.

I near the fifth anniversary of the end of this sick, psychotic, and fatigued period. Five years ago this coming January I was finally diagnosed after a near-death experience that previous Thanksgiving.

I was reminded of that time recently. After one or two too many glasses of wine, I woke after 2 in the morning, hot, uncomfortable, and unable to sleep. I checked my phone (nothing). I tried to read (hard to concentrate). I even tried to wipe my mind clear of stress through deep breathing and counting (don't ask).

I thought back to those harried days and remembered just how much I was able to accomplish in my insomnia. Sure, I felt like shit most days, and was awfully cranky, but damn if the house wasn't clean and school work complete.

So, this recent night, instead of fretting I got up and cleaned. I did the dishes, a big pile of them. It didn't take long, but the hot water frisking my palms stood in for a massage, the thrum of the faucet soothed like white noise. I dried the last pot and went back to bed, sleeping boulder-like until my daughter rose demanding breakfast.

Medicine now keeps me from paranoid thoughts and depressive pits, so I can use the time, next night I'm up and sleepless, to get a little something done, even if it's just the dishes. Some nights it might be paragraphs on a story, or delayed emails to friends, or frantic notes about dream projects. Whatever it is, the act, albeit tiny, will be a victory, against feeling powerless, crazy, helpless, or even just too busy. I'll make it a good night.