Insomnia is the same at 31 as it is at 13. It’s the same as its always been.
There’s something about the waiting. Something about the heaviness of your limbs coupled with the lack of escape. Insomnia makes everything feel so familiar but so far away. The constant strain of being awake is a low droning noise, the kind that evaporates when you’re not paying attention.
It’s exactly how you think it would be. You are laying in your bed, comfortable or uncomfortable. Fully wrapped up in the covers or with the sheet splayed open, wrapped around your legs. Maybe just your feet poking out the end of the blanket. The bed dips just slightly with your weight and you roll to the side, rearrange all your limbs, and close your eyes. You flip to the other side after 15 minutes of restless awakeness hoping that you’ve just chosen the wrong direction. You haven’t. There are no choices to make. There is only the chemical reality of awakeness and you don’t get to turn it off.
A lot of people think insomnia stems from anxiety or worries. But if that were true I’d have never fallen asleep a day in my life. Instead I think it’s punishment sometimes. Instead I think it’s a mechanical failure where something inside me cracked and it can never really be fixed. Instead I roll on my back and take measured deep breaths, counting them out slowly. Letting the syllables form on my lips, letting the words turn into spells.
I learned that trick early on.
Just after that I learned an even better trick: a story. I tell myself a story and then I retell it until I wake up. The story helps. The first time I tell the story, I fall asleep right away. The next time it takes two reruns but it keeps working eventually, so I keep the story. It’s a simple story at first, short enough to be told a few times in one night but in an act of rebellion bolstered by particularly rough awakeness, one day it gets longer. The story starts sprawling and spilling out over the edges of my mind – complex and strange and too unwieldy to be told even over multiple nights. It starts and it never ends. I start it again and again for 20 years – maybe it will never end again.
When I feel the heavy weight in my arms from exhaustion, that’s when I start the story over. When I’ve only been awake an achingly normal amount of time, I tell myself the next chapter. Fast forwarding and rewinding my mind as I please. Desperate to control something while I spiral out of control.
Sometimes, if it’s only been a short awakeness, I try to reset my nervous system. Stand up, look out the window, catalogue the sky, search for meaning, walk to the bathroom, touch the door, get a glass of water, pet the cat, lay down in bed again. Routines help. I do this before I go to the sleep every time so sometimes when I repeat this, two, three, six times I trick myself into sleep. If it’s good, once, but sometimes you get it in four. That’s not too bad either.
But it’s the same. It’s the same to lay in bed and stare at the ceiling with the light just starting to peak over the top of the curtains. It’s 5 am and you’re defeated by the sun. It’s 8 am and you’re defeated by the sun. It’s 11 am and you don’t know why you thought you could pretend to be human. You’re a poor facsimile. You don’t work right. They should send you back.
It’s worse when there’s company. Worse if the company doesn’t share your damage. That’s when the awakeness feels othering instead of just like a personal failure. It doesn’t feel like it would make much of a difference but the light feels so much more damning when it wakes your companion and you don’t wake.
It gets better over time, slowly. The first decade it was constant alert and awareness, by the second decade it’s only a night or two a week wondering if you’ll die awake. Now it’s sporadic and unpredictable but mostly you can tell yourself the worst is over. 48 hours awake doesn’t feel like the same hardship as it used to anyway. It’s not as dull as an adult. There’s plenty of things to think about. Plenty of things to be done. And you’re more aware that you’re running out of time now.
And I get used to it. I get used to sleeping when my body feels like sleeping instead of when I feel like sleeping. I get used to running on only six, only four, only two hours of sleep. Used to the roller coaster of emotions that spike and dip when you’ve been awake too long, when you don’t reset correctly. The adrenaline that never seems to cut out. The special hell of being so tired that you’re sure your body doesn’t even know how to fall asleep anymore.
The fixes and suggestions don’t work except for the breathing and the story and the routine. And even those only work when they work and when they don’t, there’s this (there’s always something to do, no one has any time these days). But it’s better this way because the drugs made me a disaster, as if the forced sleep had burned up part of my brain. The others techniques, especially relaxation techniques made me even more anxious, more keyed up.
Relaxing so much I became too aware of my awakeness. My malfunction.
In the end when I finally give up (and I always give up), I lay there awake in the dark and I try not to think about how this is killing me.
How it has always been killing me.