My hours in bed are an exercise in diminishing returns.
Back in college, I’d call myself a night owl. It was a point of pride for me: here was the aspiring writer, up all night, reading the classics, writing (bad) poetry, chain-smoking, thinking tall thoughts. I was a walking cliche, of course, completely run-of-the-mill. In my mind, though, I was mysterious and artistic. I liked not sleeping. So I didn’t sleep. It was a choice.
Then college ended, and I started working at a law firm. Rest became slightly more important. Every other night, as 2.30am rolled around, I’d pop two Tylenol PM tablets and drift off. It wasn’t long before I was swigging Nyquil straight from the bottle.
During this period, “I’m a night owl” morphed into: “I’m not really a morning person.” Ever so gradually, it morphed again into: “I haven’t slept in days.” Suddenly I’m pushing 30, and sleep remains as elusive as ever. I’m not a night owl. I’m a chronic insomniac. And recently, my insomnia hit its nadir.
It was 8.30pm on a Tuesday in June. I was sitting on my sofa, staring at a three-month-old copy of the New Yorker and struggling to make sense of it. The words wouldn’t sit still. They kind of shifted in their rows, but slightly, like hesitant foosball figures. I dropped the magazine and stared at the floor. The carpet swirled a bit.
At this point, I’d been awake for more than 72 hours. My hands and arms tingled. My eyes were warm to the touch, soft-boiled and bloodshot. My skull throbbed. I couldn’t stop yawning, but each yawn felt mocking, a laugh at my own expense.
For the first time in my life, insomnia moved beyond exhaustion and into the realm of physical and mental anguish. I’d become sick from an excess of consciousness. Sleep became my only thought, the sole object of my anxiety. The more I obsessed over it – the more I needed it – the more I couldn’t do it.
As a result, my days were spent half-awake and dreading the coming night. For an insomniac, nights are an eight-to-10-hour prison sentence, long stretches of pillow flipping and staring at the ceiling, of racing thoughts and eventual frustrated pacing. And panic. A panicked disbelief often takes hold: “This is actually happening again.”
Most nights I would eventually sleep – about two hours here and there – and wake with a jolt, disoriented and unsure if I’d drifted off at all. I’d search my memory for the remnants of dreams. Delirium set in.
I considered swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. It’s not that I wanted to die; it’s that I couldn’t fathom another day awake. I was the cartoon character stranded on the desert island, and the bottle of temazepam on my bedside table was beginning to resemble a glistening ham.
I needed someone to tell me not to eat it. So four days in, somewhere around 3am, I called a suicide hotline. The man on the phone didn’t quite know what to say, but it was a human voice after hours of late-night bedroom silence, and that was enough. I threw the pills away and remained awake until dawn, watching the shadows on the wall soften into morning light.
When I got out of bed, I began making appointments. I called hospitals, sleep centers, therapists. Until then, it had been years since I’d stepped inside a hospital. I work in print news, so, naturally, my income is low and my health plan dismal. Nevertheless, when you’re gazing lustily at prescription drugs, it’s time to take action.
It took years of denial, and one week of hell, for me to finally acknowledge insomnia as a legitimate illness, one that afflicts roughly 60 million Americans.
Now my evenings comprise running down a lengthy doctor-and-internet-recommended checklist, an inventory of dos and don’ts. Do: turn off all screens an hour before sleep. Don’t: drink alcohol. Do: make some tea. Don’t: think about work, at all, not even a little bit.
I’ve been sleeping fine enough the past couple weeks. But I know a drought’s coming, sooner or later. It always does. During the next bout of insomnia, though, I’ll concentrate on remaining calm and remembering that it doesn’t last forever. As bleak as the wakeful nights can be, there’s always an end to it. Sleep does come. There’s comfort in that.