1. Napping is essential. It doesn’t matter how late you sleep in the day of your night shift, if you do not get in at least an hour-ish nap you will feel like poop. Actually you are going to feel like poo regardless. But if you don’t nap you will feel like you are coming down with ebola. Which brings me to…
2. You are not getting sick. I cannot tell you how many night shifts I have worked where I have been CERTAIN I was coming down with some vague but very real illness. You will feel feverish. You will feel shaky. You will feel nauseated. Your nose will get stuffed up, your throat will be sore. You will have both a cough and an upset stomach. You will feel like you are coming down simultaneously with the flu, a stomach bug, measles, and maybe even America’s first documented case of dengue fever. This will be even more certain when you work with kids (like I do) and all of their so many germs. But power through. You are almost certainly not getting sick. Your body is just so, so tired and so, so desperate for sleep, and it is trying to trick you into going to bed because it is 3 in the morning and your body is mightily pissed that you are still vertical.
3. Breakfast foods are the best foods. When you work a night shift you will need to eat. I personally have a really hard time having a standard “lunch” at 3 in the morning. I also have a hard time eating a standard “dinner” before I leave for work (usually because I just woke up from a nap and am in post nap zombie mode). I have learned that breakfast foods meet any food need during a stretch of nights. I usually eat a big bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter before I leave for work, various cliff and granola ish bars while at work, and then a big bowl of cereal when I come home.
4. Sleep on the couch after your last night. I do not always follow this rule, but it’s a good one. After my last night I like to only sleep until noon-1ish, so that I am not completely screwed up when I need to switch back to a normal schedule. If I sleep in my comfy, cozy bed in my dark bedroom, getting up with the alarm at noon is one of the most disorienting and awful experiences I can describe. I am always certain I have overslept for something. Sometimes I can’t remember what day it is, where I am, or what my name is. Sleeping on the couch helps. You still feel like a monster with a hangover when you wake up, but it’s slightly easier.
5. You will feel like a separate species from the rest of the human race. There’s always a moment, usually between 2-4 where you have this strange out of body experience to not only be awake but to be working. You know everyone you know is probably asleep. Your patients are “trying” to sleep. You are sneaking around in dark rooms trying not to make noise while you go about all of your typical work tasks. The hospital is not quiet, but much, much quieter than any other time. It gets weird. And surreal.
6. You will be expected to be smart and function and make important decisions while you are totally and utterly sleep deprived. You will have to double check the most basic math you can imagine (I’m talking very simple multiplication, like 2×2, with a CALCULATOR). And under these hazy, middle of the night conditions, you have all the same responsibilities. That is why…
7. Caffeine is your GOD. So much caffeine. Baths of it. Fountains of it. There are no cleanses on night shift. There is only the coffee and the diet coke and the sugar. They are the sweet, life sustaining stuff of dreams.
8. Sleeping after a night shift is the most glorious feeling in the world. My favorite part of working a night shift? Sleeping after one. I have almost been brought to tears by the sight of my bed after coming home from a night. You are tired in way that I don’t think anyone can imagine until you’ve stayed up working all night. It’s a very distinct tired from even what happens after the busiest day. It is a tired so deep that you feel it in every inch of your body. But more than the physical is the mental fatigue. Thinking hurts. You’ve had to think all night and you just are so ready to shut it off. Your head its that pillow and it is just rainbows and kittens and puppies. And if it is a rainy day, just forget it. Night shift workers talk about rainy days in tones usually reserved for the way people talk about their weddings or the day their kids were born. Reverently and with a twinkle in the eye. It is just the best.
9. Walking out of work when everyone else is walking in is also pretty damn great.
10. If you have the energy and the tenacity, there is also something pretty great about a post night shift trip to River City Diner. I finally did the for the first time the other week (usually when someone suggests going out for brunch after working a night I want to either laugh maniacally or slap them and yell “GET IT TOGETHER”). It felt slightly dream like, not only because it was 8 in the morning on a Wednesday and I was drinking a mimosa, but also because the diner was full of people in scrubs talking freely and openly about all of those gross medical things that any normal person would blanch. There are some shifts where a drink with your coworkers is not just a perk but a necessity. And then with a full belly and a slight mimosa and sleep deprivation buzz, you go home, fall instantly into a sleep coma while the rest of the world is awake, and tell yourself that maybe nights aren’t so bad after all.