I’ve battled insomnia for as long as I can remember. I was first prescribed sleeping pills when I was just fourteen years old. It comes, and it goes, of course. It’s not like I haven’t slept in fifteen years. I have. Just not well, or much.
“Boy, it’s really coming down out there.”
I always know when a bout is heading in. The clues are there, subtle as they are. I have more energy later at night; it takes a little longer to fall asleep, and whatever sleep I manage is fragmented. Each night seems a little longer, and I’m getting none of the benefits. It’s like seeing a forecast for a storm a week out. You know it’s coming, but when that day of rain and wind day comes, you left the umbrella at home.
I’ll always be a night owl, which is different from an insomniac. I’ve never been one to go to bed early and rise with the sun, probably never will be. The difference is that insomnia won’t let you sleep, no matter the time. Insomnia almost gives you a fear of getting into bed, never knowing if tonight is going to be a restful one or if it’s the night you watch turn into day.
Where it All Began
When I was younger, the sleeping pills worked their magic. I’d take one, and within a half an hour, I was peacefully off to dreamland. Thanks to inept doctors, I was prescribed the pills nearly nightly for months (which is not advised). I was a young teenager who couldn’t sleep. If the doctor told me to take this medication every night, I listened.
I slept almost every night over those months because those pills worked. Until they didn’t. That’s where my learning experience in sleeplessness began. During these years, I learned so much about the noises my house made in the wee hours. I knew which birds started singing and when. I learned the panicked art of counting down of hours until it was “acceptable” to be awake and that sleep and I would probably never get along. I gave up the pills (that no longer worked) and accepted that this is what life was going to be like, night after night.
College masked my sleeping issues. With never-ending parties and all-night cram sessions, I hardly noticed my sleep schedule was different from anyone else’s. My extra nocturnal hours helped me finish papers and essays, ones I, of course, procrastinated doing. If I was going to have insomnia, I was going to have it work for me. It was only after the good old collegiate days did I realize how strong the hold was that insomnia had on me.
A Grown Up Problem
Adult responsibilities such as say, a job, basically require you to be functioning human being. (Especially when said job is teaching a class full of preschoolers). Being a functioning human and being an insomniac are in direct contradiction with each other. Somehow, I was able to be at work every day at 8:00 A.M. as bright and shiny as I could be, despite the fact I had only slept four hours. I always snuck home on my lunch break for a nap. I liked my job and was good at it. As soon as I got home from work, there was no chance I could do little more than sit and read. I was the walking dead. Despite being exhausted from chasing around toddlers all day, when bedtime hit, I was wide-awake. I finally went back to a doctor and gave those pills of old another shot.
Back Down the Rabbit Hole
The first night back on the sleeping pills was blissful. I fell asleep faster and more soundly than I had in a long while. I awoke a little groggy and with a bad taste in my mouth, but it was still better than the zombie I was without any sleep. Still, there were too many nights when my husband (who worked nights) knew he could text me at 3:00 A.M and, more likely than not, I’d reply, “Yup, I’m still up.” By this point, my insomnia came in spells. Knowing that, and my experiences with building such a tolerance when I first tried sleep aids, I didn’t use the pills nightly. I didn’t even use them weekly. I saved them for dire emergencies, like a sleep security blanket, safely tucked away in my bedside table. For a while, they remained untouched. I tried acupuncture, nighttime yoga, and even Benadryl, all things that worked, but only for so long.
New Job, Same Problems
Years later, I changed jobs and given up on a steady relationship with sleep altogether. This new job, for the most part, didn’t require me to be in before ten in the morning. This small luxury allowed me to grab some extra shuteye on days that I was still staring at the ceiling at 4:30. Despite my later starting hour, I began to notice small changes. I was more stressed than I’ve ever been, moodier and gained weight seemingly just by looking at food.
While some nights were earlier than others, the problem persisted. I had a mantra I’d repeat to myself during these sleepless spells. “This won’t last forever.” It was true. Insomnia in its truest form would last two to three nights and then would recede into whatever dark corner if came from. It became harder to tell when it was going to strike.
The Beast Returns
The last bout was rough but beautiful in some strange way. My week had been intense, full of stress and not enough exercise. I knew by the way I got to sleep later and later each night that the beast, insomnia, was coming for me. I laid in bed feeling somewhat tired and took my “in-case-of-emergencies-pill.” Precautions were taken. I avoided screens for an hour before bedtime, remembering blue light interferes with your brain shutting down for the night. Armed with a cup of chamomile tea and my book, I felt comfy, cozy and ready for bed. I even laughed knowing I’ve done everything right and I would outwit insomnia tonight.
Getting more and more comfortable, I felt myself about to drift off. Then BAM! I was overwhelmed with panic; my legs felt as if they were crawling with bugs. My mind was racing, and I’m wide-awake. I gave myself twenty minutes to do breathing exercises before I had to leave the bed. Some research says if you can’t fall back to sleep in twenty minutes, get up and distract yourself, a change of scenery if you will. So I ended up on my couch, book in hand, waiting for sleep to take over. At 4:30, I felt like I’ve had enough and quietly crawled back into my bed. (Thank goodness my husband is a heavy sleeper, with all my tossing and turning). Last I saw of the clock; it was 5:00 and I must have drifted off sometime after that.
The Drink-less Hangover
The next day was hell. I was drained, cranky and unable to get basic sentences strung together. My body was reacting as if I’d pulled an all night booze bender. Sitting in front of my laptop, trying to get words to come out in some sort of readable order was impossible, I was underwater. I had such plans for the day; I wanted to complete my many assignments, go to the gym, and clean my apartment. But insomnia took that productive day from me, again. After slaving away for hours at my computer in a zombie-like fashion, I gave up.
“I Must be Dying.”
By that evening, I was exhausted. I was running on fumes and poised to knock right out. However, I was anxious; knowing the pattern the beast follows. There was no way I was returning to the pill that had so grossly betrayed me the night before. I read my book for an hour and crawled into bed. My husband is snoring away, and I’m telling myself “it’s still early, I can still sleep.” After an hour, I’m about to drift off and once again, panic washes over me. “I must be dying” is exactly how it feels. I take a small anti-anxiety pill for good measure and start in on my breathing meditation.
Thirty minutes later, I’m sneaking out of the bedroom like a bad one-night-stand, leaving my lover sleeping soundly me. I take to the living room and begin some gentle nighttime yoga. It doesn’t do the trick. I try guided meditation with binaural beats. Nothing. I go back to my book. Still wide-awake.
A Beautiful and Strange Hell
Time moves in such a strange fashion when you can’t sleep. The clock moves slowly and quickly both at the same time. I try to avoid looking at it, as time seems like a foreign construct at this point. The quiet in the wee hours never ceases to amaze (or agitate) me. But it’s the time between 5:30-6:00 that’s truly inexplicable. That’s when the first stirrings of the waking world hit my ears.
It starts out quietly and slowly builds. Throughout the apartment building, I can hear soft footfalls of neighbors getting out of bed, doors creaking open and shower taps turning on. The not-so-far-away boulevard begins to fill with the sounds of traffic. It’s nothing like the midday rush, but a noticeable increase from the silence of the night. Owners take their dogs on sunrise walks while businessmen rush to make the early train. A slow, building cacophony of key fobs dinging in the distance signal the start of so many days.
My day will not be like theirs. It’s beautiful and disturbing all at the same time. I take all the sounds in as a thing of frustrating beauty because it’s an experience not many get to have, hearing the world wake up. Insomnia has let me see the darkest of the night and the birth of new days.
Now if only it would let me sleep.