The Three A.M. Club

As 2020 lurches to a close, it seems more people are waking up at this ghastly liminal hour, unclaimed by neither night nor day.

By Guy Trebay

Videos by Isak Tiner

It was that ghastliest of hours — 3 a.m. — bedtime a distant memory and daylight an eternity away. In the silence of his Salisbury, Conn., house, the interior designer Matthew Patrick Smyth jolted awake.

Semiconscious, he felt himself in a strange state of turmoil, his thoughts a tangled skein of hopes and expectations, though mostly fears: about the toll of Covid-19, voter suppression during an epochal election, racial tensions, an economy that may not rebound for years.

Against his best judgment, Mr. Smyth, 66, did what every sleep hygiene expert advises against. He fired up his phone.

“I go on Instagram and start scrolling and see people liking photos and remarks and wonder whether it’s impolite to answer,” Mr. Smyth said.

To do so would be to acknowledge an awareness that his followers were awake at an awful, liminal hour at which, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, foreshadowing the Age of Amazon, “a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence.” And — worse yet — that he was up, too.

But of course he was.

According to a new survey conducted by the Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of adults in the United States — or 68 percent — view the divisive 2020 election as a “significant source of stress in their lives,” a stark increase from the 2016 presidential election, when 52 percent said the same. So chronic a source of stress is a seemingly unending pandemic that no polling statistics are required.

At least they were not for Maria Bonta de la Pezuela, the chief executive officer for the Americas at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. “I try to do breathing exercises,” to restore calm when undifferentiated terrors arouse her at 3 a.m., Ms. Bonta de la Pezuela, 54, said recently by email. “I end up scrolling nine out of 10 times. The anxiety is real.”

And the remedies for the new night terror seem to vary as broadly as its sources. For Dave Herndon, 63, a freelance editor in Santa Fe, N. M., guided meditation apps assist in “reprogramming negatively firing neurons,’’ induced by “the Covid anxiety dance,” as he said by phone.

“Then, rather than starting to flip out about how you’re not getting enough sleep and are not going to be able to do what you need to tomorrow, you have this distraction from the ruminations that accompany waking up at three in the morning,” Mr. Herndon said.

Relief, for Jacqueline Coumans, 77, a retired decorator and French instructor, from fears induced by what she termed “our political chaos” has recently come from reciting the fables of the 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine. “I could not fall asleep at all after the first debate,” Ms. Coumans said in a Facebook message. “I was waking up at 3 a.m. sweating with anxiety.”

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