'I'm Always Tired.' Navigating High School on Barely any Sleep

3 min
Vincent Nguyen, a junior at Santa Clara High School, says he's "inverted his sleep schedule" so that he can stay awake all night long to do school work. (Courtesy of Vincent Nguyen)

Editor's note: The following story was produced for Youth Takeover week at KQED.

I’m typing this story at 3:44 AM on a Wednesday morning, just a few hours before school begins. If it hadn’t been pushed back a couple of weeks, the SAT would have happened today, and I would have taken it operating on about two hours' worth of sleep. On Thursday, I’ll probably be pulling an all-nighter to finish my work for AP U.S. History.

I’ve never had what most people would call “healthy sleeping habits.” In elementary school, I would go to my cousin’s house for sleepovers, and every midnight, we’d raid the fridge for his dad’s Red Bull, hyping ourselves up on however much caffeine we could find, and pretend we were asleep when his mom came to get us in the morning.

I’m a junior now, and I still drink a lot of Red Bull. I have five empty 24-packs sitting in the back of my closet that can testify to that. I know it’s bad for me. I’ve heard more than enough stories in my life about heart failure, and livers with holes them. But really, energy drinks are the only way I can keep myself awake during the day.

As a result, I’ve developed insomnia, high blood pressure and angina. I’m 17 years old, but I can sometimes feel my heart skip beats when the caffeine makes my blood pump too fast. Loud noises and stress mixed with Monster Energy drinks cause my ears to ring.

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I’ve inverted my sleep schedule so that I’m no longer sleeping during the night, but rather during the day. Typically, I take the bus home after 7th period, put a couple of cans of Red Bull in the fridge for later, and go to bed until about 8 PM. Unless I have nothing to do, I work from then until 6 AM, when I start getting ready for school. Of course, a lot of that work is mixed in with procrastination, but some days — days when things like essays and applications are due — I realize that I don’t have any time to sleep at all. Those are the days I stay awake for 36 hours, and they happen at least twice a month.

I know that I’m not an isolated case. A 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll said that 87 percent of teenagers across the nation are getting far less than the recommended eight hours per night. In a 2014 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics labeled sleep deprivation among kids as an “epidemic.”

Really, it sometimes feels like I have no options. Does anyone? We can try as many things as we want, but it never changes. New diets, louder alarms, stricter sleeping regimens — nothing fixes it. So it stays the same, I stay the same — tired. I’m always tired.

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