Peter Nickeas
7 min readApr 9, 2016


Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

I wrote an essay about working overnights. It was, backwards-facing, I suppose. It hasn’t been published, and I’m not sure it ever will be. I’m batting that around in my head right now. A couple friends have read it, and for me, it was a way to get off my chest some of the formative experiences I’ve had over the years. A retrospective. A way to reflect on, not just nights, but mostly nights.

The first draft was done more than a year ago, and it stopped with me and Erin having a moment in our front room, where I told her that I squeezed a lot of living into those three years. And she said, yea, but what kind of living?

I can’t remember right now, but someone over the last week or so told me I was living dog years during that period. I went through my notes recently, and I don’t even remember where I wrote this down, but I noted that we had 8 scenes one night and nothing came from any of them.

And that was overnights, right? Memory loss and futile efforts at making something matter that, to most people, doesn’t matter. Even in hindsight I might be able to look at my notes, look at the addresses and maybe remember something about those scenes. Or maybe not. I went probably a solid 12 months past what should have been my end point, and during that period I stopped remembering uneventful nights. Guys tell me things, I have no memory of those things.

And it wasn’t just the hours. I could work overnights forever, I think. It’s like everything else — you adapt. If my job was in a factory or something where I wasn’t at a murder every night or couple nights, I think nights wouldn’t be so hard.

If I’m being honest (and I find myself saying this a lot to myself lately, when I’m confronting something I’ve denied myself over the years), my employer didn’t make it any easier. It is not an organization that’s set up to help or accommodate people on that shift. And I get why — because two of its hundreds of employees work that shift. If 1/3rd to 1/4 of the company’s staff worked those hours at the same time, the work load would be different and there would be some institutional respect / understanding. But there’s not. And that’s life. It’s unreasonable to expect anything more — it’s two people out of hundreds. Thousands, even.

It was the pace of it. It was the pace of overnights. Two or three murders on a bad night, or a week where we’re at 5 or 6 DOA’s in two nights and there’s family at each one? It’s nothing at the time because it’s work but it ends up being something later on, it turns out.

And so, I have this essay. And it’s an honest recollection. It stops about 13, maybe 15 months ago. But I have to look forward. Not just look forward, but account for this period where I’m supposed to have been off overnights.

People have joked, and I want to punch them when they joke, “Good, you’re off overnights, you can start dealing with your PTSD.” Fuck. There are few things that make me want to hurt someone more than when people make jokes or make light of something like that.

I don’t know if I have PTSD. My wife thinks so, and her assessment doesn’t seem too far off for me. It wouldn’t be something I’d be afraid to admit. But I’m not a doctor, and I’ve only recently started trying therapy thing again, so I can’t even say if that’s an issue.

There are things I miss about my life from before overnights. And overnights is a cheap way of describing a vastly more complicated period of my life, that term almost does disservice to the shift because really, it’s not the shift. It’s the combination of the shift, and what we encountered, my inability (weakness?) in addressing some of this when it first became an issue. Hell, recognizing some of what came from overnights would have been good, to say nothing of addressing those things.

There isn’t a relationship in my life that is stronger now than it was five years ago. I’ve lost touch with friends, I’ve flaked on personal engagements, I’ve lost energy. I escape once or twice a year to be with friends in Springfield and I mostly just breathe air that isn’t city air and it feels nice, and I love my friends. But I don’t feel things like I used to. And when I do feel things, I feel them a lot more than I used to, and I want to get numb. Hyper sensitive, I guess. I want to deaden the sharper edges of life. The highs and lows aren’t so high or so low anymore and the in-between isn’t usually tolerable.

I have anger issues. I’ve touched on them, here in there, but I need to own that. I’ve patched the holes in my walls that I put there, and I’ve fixed the cabinet doors that I’ve destroyed. But I still know myself well enough to know, I should avoid public places where I may lose control of myself, my temper. It’s not that I want to feel that way. Just that, I know it happens and best to avoid it.

I drink more than I used to. The first good night of sleep I’ve had in probably three or four years was last week, when I drank half a bottle of gin, a healthy slug of nyquil and 40 oz of “sleep tea.” I blacked out, and didn’t dream. Dreamless sleep, a good eight hours, I miss that from before overnights. But my solution is not sustainable. Then I woke up, had a glass of water, and had bad dreams for two more hours before Erin came home from the gym and I woke up to go to work.

I’m tired of hearing screams when I go to sleep at night. Laying, half a wink from no-shit sleep, and being jolted awake because I heard something that wasn’t there. I am tired of that. I miss good sleep. It doesn’t happen all the time, maybe once or twice a week.

I struggle with whether my feelings now are valid. Whether this is normal, whether this is to be expected or whether I should just man up and quit being a bitch about it. So what, I went to murders and shootings. Experiences be damned, this is just life, so don’t dwell on it.

I have a brother who has the names of dead friends on his left arm, dead by Afghanistan or Iraq or by suicide, by bomb or gunshot wound or mental illness. I think of him sometimes and I cry because I think I’m both lucky and guilty, by some happenstance and a combination of decisions, my friends are alive and his are dead. And he’s battling no-shit demons of his own. I love him and my other brother more than anything and so I think, I never had to carry a rifle in Afghanistan, I never stepped on an IED, I never shared a moment of locked eyes with a man trying to kill me and killed him instead. Who am I to carry this pall of overnights with me?

Guys spend their careers on overnights. I know shit magnets who have been in more than one shooting in their careers, people who’ve had their asses beat by criminals or shot a few months into the job, so what that I’ve been to murders and shootings?

I don’t know what will come of this other essay I wrote. I want to see it published, but maybe not. When I look back over that, and think of the things that didn’t make it in, it goes some way toward explaining (for me) why I feel what I do. It makes more sense to me when I sit down and think about the last four and a half years or so.

There’s a quote from a book I’m reading right now that sort of speaks to this. This overarching feeling of melancholy. At some point, I’ll have this inked into my left arm. “The closest bonds we will ever know are bonds of grief. The deepest community one of sorrow.”

So. Here I am. If I’m being honest, and I’ve been forcing myself to be honest as a way of reckoning with my mental health and my future, I can’t deny my feelings. I can’t deny my failures to my loved ones over the last four years — the relationships I’ve let whither because I ran out of energy and the will to make relationships work or because I took them for granted. My negativity, my inattention, my attitude. I hurt people I love. I can’t deny my personal failures — of my own well being and mental health, in not addressing this cloud that I’ve let take over my existence.

I want to live, again. I miss living.

There was an afternoon in Wyoming, of all places, in Wyoming, on the way back from a reservoir in the mountains. And Erin and I had the windows down, I was sun burnt. She was tired, and I was too, from being out in the sun all afternoon. She’s beautiful and in that light, and seeing her smile, and laugh, and her hair in the breeze and seeing the sun setting over the mountains around us. I felt alive. I felt alive. I miss that.



Peter Nickeas

Husband, father. Reporter. Violence, trauma, Chicago. ACEs. Previous: fellow at @niemanfdn @harvard, fellow at @dartcenter. @uispar. Go dark often.