It may have started with the antique grandfather clock in my childhood living room. The mahogany behemoth bonged on the half hour, and whether I was conscious of its waking me or not, the booming rattled my bones: 10:00. 10:30. 11:00. 11:30. Midnight.
Around eighth grade, I began to struggle with falling asleep. As I lay there, I anticipated—dreaded—the half-hour intervals of time. The midnight gongs were the worst: the official passage into the next day, the extended knell of loneliness, the reminder that I was the only person awake in the world. Around then, I would stand in the hallway outside my parents’ room. I knew it was selfish, but I wanted someone, anyone, to join me in my tragic vigil. I rarely even had to say a word. My mom would sense my presence and whisper, “Just close your eyes and lie real still.” It’s like she, too, never slept.
The stiller I lay, the more agitated I became, the weave of the pillow case’s cotton like a waffle iron against my ear, the clock donging till 2:00 or 3:00 before I finally drifted off fitfully, just to wake for school a few hours later.
On the days I didn’t get sleep, I saw everything through the eyes of foggy despair: I can’t concentrate. Got just four hours. I can’t laugh with my friends. Too exhausted. I can’t live for today because it is just a bleary continuation of the day before.
Young adulthood presented the occasional all-nighter, when I would reverse positions in bed, switch blankets, move to the floor, shuffle to the couch. Sometimes Tylenol PM would lure me into a couple hours’ shallow sleep. And after I married, my husband would always lay pillar-still, gently wheezing, for a blissful nine or ten hours.
Insomnia’s most heinous attack, however, hit in my thirties after I gave birth to my second child. Whether postpartum anxiety was the cause or symptom of insomnia, sleep became an obsession, and even with medicine I found myself waking up earlier and earlier: 5:00, 4:00, 3:00. Adrenalin and the screech of red-winged blackbirds kept me at a feverish frayed end of consciousness as I sustained myself with Frappuccinos and Krispy Kremes.
Every insomniac is different. Some of us have trouble falling asleep, while some of us can’t seem to stay there. Some struggle with both ends of the night, wakefulness induced by stress or chemical imbalances. There is rarely an easy solution. People who don’t understand hardcore insomnia say all the things we don’t want to hear: Wear a sleep mask. Drink chamomile tea. Listen to soothing music. You’ll eventually sleep if you get tired enough. It’s like telling a person in a plate-throwing rage to calm down and count to ten.
One book, however, changed my view of insomnia forever.
In Say Goodnight to Insomnia, author Gregg D. Jacobs discusses NSTs, or Negative Sleep Thoughts, such as “How will I function today after such a horrible night of sleep?” He points out that most people function the same cognitively, behaviorally, and physiologically on five and a half hours of sleep as they do on eight. In fact, getting that minimum of “core sleep” usually results in nothing more than yawning and an irritable mood. And even the bad mood can be influenced more by the response to sleep loss than the loss itself.
Recall times in your life when you experienced sleep loss due to pleasurable circumstances such as vacations, late-night socializing or parties, or lovemaking. In contrast to the frustration and aggravation of insomnia, sleep loss under these circumstances does not usually result in impaired daytime mood because these circumstances are under our control and therefore don’t give rise to NST’s.
After reading these words, I determined to change my attitude about sleeplessness. When I woke before dawn, I practiced shifting my panic to excitement: I had some extra time to myself! I started to walk with the sunrise, and though I craved sleep, I began to look forward to these quiet times in the neighborhood watching my newborn’s eyelids flutter as we passed the blooming lilacs. When I had trouble falling asleep in the first place, I settled down with a book and looked forward to hours of quiet time lost in another world. Not surprisingly, my contentment about staying awake often lulled me to sleep pretty quickly.
Insomnia seems to come and go depending on the seasons and stage of life. This spring has been a little more fitful. However, whenever I find myself wide awake at three in the morning, I remind myself that perhaps the need for “me time” outweighs the need for sleep this week. I will survive tomorrow. I may be tired. No matter. There is coffee, and there are still people to love.
Some of my best memories, for example, have been made on trips during which I could barely sleep. The fog did not destroy my friendships, marriage, or career.
While I try to solve my problems rather than luxuriate in them, sometimes I just need to accept them as my reality, my quirky collection of thorns. I’m sensitive, and although that can make my life—and the lives around me—hell, I can also draw upon those rich neurotic resources for my writing. My revulsion toward conflict helps me act as a proactive peacemaker among friends. And my susceptibility to worrying if people like me? It helps me work toward making others feel included. Weaknesses hurt and wreck all manner of plans, but they can also bring a broken, undefined beauty to our lives.
So I give in. I take prescriptions when I need to. And when those don’t work or I wake up too late to take them, I grab a pillow, go downstairs to my sunroom and open the windows. I revel in my aloneness, counting sheep in a Thomas Hardy novel as the crickets and cicadas electrify the air. And then I’m not so alone, which is what I’ve wanted all along, I guess. Keeping sweet vigil into the night with all the insomniacs like you.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Tania Runyan
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her bookHow to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.
Photograph above by Gaby Av, used under a Creative Commons license.