Insomnia, well, it’s lousy.
You might use a different word for it, perhaps a word with more umph and profanity, but I think we can all agree that not sleeping is horrible.
For those who wake in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep, I hear you. I lie in a dark room, trying to think calm, soothing thoughts. I follow the breath, in and out and in once more. I turn onto my other side. I reach for blankets to be cozy, or thrust them off because I hot. I no longer have clock on my nightstand with which to watch the minutes, hours, of sleeplessness tick by. But there is my phone.
I’ll just check the time; I say to myself. Just to know how long I have been lying here, determined not to sleep. Once I pick up that phone, however, the allure of “just checking” my email, my texts, Instagram, the news — well, I get sucked in. All that blue light from the screen is supposed to be bad for sleep. And then interacting with the world – texts, email, Snapchat, what have you — that will wake me up for sure. Even just knowing the time is unsettling. I begin to count backwards from my morning alarm: if I fall asleep in the next 10 minutes, I still have 4 hours of sleep! Now only 3 ½. I both wish morning would come already, and dressed it just the same. Without enough sleep, I have migraines, and the next day, I will be exhausted, more anxious than usual, sort of miserable.
At some point, though, I just give up. It’s 3:30 AM and I’ve been up since 2? Let’s call it morning. I turn on the light, fire up my computer, and try to decide if I should take my morning medications now, or wait an hour or two until the sun is up and it is officially the next day. I eat some breakfast, and try not to go right for the instant gratification of eating something full of sugar. I read the news online, and check Facebook. I turn on the TV and pick up my knitting. Perhaps something can be accomplished with all the extra time I get by not sleeping.
And then there is the other type of insomnia: getting to sleep in the first place. Confession time: I take a sleeping pill every night, and sometimes I have to add a benzo (anxiety medication, such as Xanax) before I nod off. I take medications for other stuff that should make me tired (and it does), and I have, essentially, chronic fatigue ever since my stroke 19 ½ years ago. I need SO MUCH sleep to function. I am talking about 10-12 hours of sleep nightly, just to function. And yet . . .
Some nights, I fall asleep over my book, still resting on my pillows to read. Some nights, I put aside the book, lie down, and wait for sleep to come — and it does! But, other nights, I just lie there. Exhausted, headachy, medicated — all these come together, and nothing happens. The voice in my begins to panic: I will never sleep again!! How will I function tomorrow if I have been up all night? Should I get up and read some more? Why aren’t my calming thoughts helping?
I know all about sleep hygiene: go to bed and awaken at the same time each day; cut down on the blue light of electronics before sleeping; watch your fluid intake, so that you are not up all night going to the bathroom; if you are not asleep after 20 minutes or go, get up and do something non -arousing, like folding towels; use your bed for sleep only. I do most of these things (except the last one). Sometime they help; sometimes not at all.
There is no magic involved in going to sleep — but there should be! It is a combination of tiredness, calmness, and, frankly, luck. The same bedtime routine that works 50% of the time do not work the other 50% or so. There are times when I am able to accept my lack of sleeping, and just rest. I quiet my mind, and think about happy memories, safe and loving spaces. I notice how my thoughts drift from one thing to another, and, if I get anxious, I try to turn my attention to more pleasant things.
I picture vacations from my childhood, up “at the lake” in Northern Minnesota, a place that is so beloved by me that it feels almost sacred. Slowly, calmly, I guide the images in my head through many stages of those family vacations: the car trip; arriving in Virginia, MN and stopping to fill the car with groceries for our house-keeping cabin; driving the next 30 minutes or so with bags of food on my lap until we reached Cook, MN; the gleeful anticipation of the last 15 minutes or so on back roads until we get to the dusty parking lot; calling to the island itself on a crank phone; unloading our stuff and getting a tour of the newest additions to the small, island resort. And then I remember the stuff of the vacation itself: waterskiing; boat rides at night when the lake calmed in a reflective pool, like glass; heading over to another resort by boat, where we bought gas for our rented motorboat, and purchased MilkyWays for my mom; sitting at Sunset point and watching the colors change as evening arrived; wandering all over the island by myself, with only my imagination for company; playing basketball with my dad; and even just settling into my room in our cabin (the cabins were Sundown, then Dawn, and finally Northern Lights) — putting my stuff away and delighting in all the books I would read over the next two weeks. And, of course, s’mores.
The times up at the lake felt, in my memories at least, idyllic. My sister and I had a sort of vacation truce, and didn’t really argue when we were up north. We had wonderful family time, but also, at least for me, lovely solitary time, in a place that was safe and beautiful and my own.
Sometimes, those memories help me drift off to sleep. When they don’t, at least I can lie, resting, with a smile on my face.
I think the dread of not sleeping is almost worse than the actual experience being awake past my bedtime. There is the aloneness of being awake at 3:30 AM, knowing that I have no one to reach out to at that hour. There is the way that time passes so slowly when I am trying unsuccessfully to sleep. There is fear that, as I mentioned, I will never sleep again.
Bu the truth is, eventually sleep will come, If not tonight, perhaps tomorrow evening. Acceptance helps calm the panic; reminders that, in the past, it has gotten better might soothe my anxiety. Ultimately, if I allow myself to be awake now, even if it is late, even if I am exhausted, then sleep, like a muse, will return to me. For that, I am grateful.