The Unseen Laborers (a post inspired by and conceived on Labor Day)

There’s a group of workers who I respect immensely. I tried to be one of them, and couldn’t hack it. They are night-shifters. In the spirit of Labor Day, I want to thank them.
Maybe you know one of them. If you do, cherish them. Give them slack for all the social gatherings they miss, and also the ones they do attend, only to slip into a glassy-eyed coma.

People who work night shift are indispensable. They are healthcare workers, emergency responders, janitors, and everybody else who keeps the system functioning through the night. Ironically, they probably didn’t get Labor Day off.

Some people will tell you that their job is worth it. That they wouldn’t rather be chillin’ with family on Christmas Eve, than, say, cleaning up diarrhea in a nursing home. Dear God, it’s necessary (and meaningful) work, but that is a bald lie. Night shift work can be good, and purposeful, and fullfilling… But it is also tough, and I worry that night shifters’ sacrifice isn’t truly appreciated by society-at-large. I mean, think of your cranky self when you’re woken up at 2 a.m. by the need to pee and let the dog in… and then imagine being at work in that moment. Would you be a productive, professional night shifter???

I don’t know if I’ve made myself clear: working night shift is really really really really hard on your body. Granted, some people claim to thrive in the darkness, but that was not my jam. It’s not most people’s jam. Chances are, the night shifter(s) in your life does it for reasons other than personal health and wellness.

For one thing, sleeping during the day is awkward. For maybe the first 1-3 months, it’s fine. But eventually, your body hits a wall, and demands of your brain: “Why the fuck are we still doing this? Go to bed like a normal person!” Never in my 9 months on nights did I manage to sleep a full 8 hours during the day. I subsisted on a series of naps. Despite eyeshades, earplugs, melatonin pills, and a comfortable sleeping environment, I would awaken from sound sleep for no perceptible reason other than a circadian shift in metabolism. There’s no other way to describe the restless urge to get up and do stuff, because hello, it’s daytime!  If your own damn body doesn’t do it, the world will. Dogs. Babies. Cars. Your upstairs neighbors, and the people on the street outside your window. Roofers that your stupid landlord hired without notifying you, even though you informed him you work nights and really really really need advance notice so you can make other arrangements. I digress. Suffice it to say, earplug and blackout shades are necessary, imperfect solutions. You. Will. Still. Suffer.

And then there’s your social life. Your poor, poor social life. Every night-shifter knows the reality of working Friday night, and then trying to see friends on Saturday. Maybe you sleep a couple hours first, or maybe you just suck it up and stay awake for the whole 24+ hours. Pick your lesser evil. Besides, there’s a point when you’re so tired it hurts… and after that it’s just a sluggish blur, and there is no more pain.

If you can’t sleep right, don’t even entertain the notion of working out. God forbid exercise is something you do for fun, because your body will let your down. On the days you are somehow able to drag your sorry ass to the park or the gym, you will soon realize that the hobbling limp you’re performing is in no way dignified, and you should really just stop. You will probably gain weight.

Speaking of which, your diet will also fall apart, because vegetables are not appealing at 2 a.m. I love salads. I can easily eat a salad every day in the sunlit world. But at 2 a.m., a salad is nothing more than a wad of cold, slimy cellulose. All you will want is sweets, salt, and fat. Myself, I survived night shift on electrolyte drinks, cliff bars, and hot chocolate. Lots of hot chocolate.

Saddest of all are the holidays. Say you are tired of missing out on days of national frivolity, and decide to take Labor Day off. Your Labor Day request is granted, and yet here you are at work on Labor Day, until your shift ends at 7 a.m. and your ‘holiday’ begins. And once again, you are confronted with the conundrum: ‘celebrate’ with your friends and family, or pass the fuck out?

Love you, my night-shift comrades! I hope you are alive yet.

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