The Brutal Mindfuckery of Chronic Insomnia
A Glimpse into the Hellscape
You’re in bed, and it starts with an onslaught of thoughts.
Will I sleep tonight? Am I tired? Why am I not tired? I was tired all day. What if I don’t sleep? How will I manage tomorrow? I have to finish that report. I wonder how mom’s doing. I have to call her. I hope she’s feeling better.
Then, the bubbling up of memories.
Remember Ashley from sixth grade? That day you wore the red pleather dress and she told you you looked like a hooker? Then at home later you lashed out at mom because she’s the one who bought the dress? Fuck, sorry mom. What a horrible day. I hope something bad happened to Ashley. Not too bad, just, you know, karma. Wait, does wishing her harm make me a bad person?
Then, back to worries.
Fuck, why am I still awake?
But it’s not just thoughts and worries. The radio knob for each of your senses is turned all the way up.
You notice every noise in your house. The click of the heater coming on and off. The whir of the ceiling fan. The toss and shuffle of your spouse under the covers. The murmur you can’t quite place that convinces you there’s an alien spaceship outside preparing to kidnap you. Cars spinning their wheels on a rainy night. You swear you can hear every drip of water as it’s spit from the back of each tire.
Then, there’s the visual. You’re a cat at night. Even with the lights off and black curtains on all windows, you somehow see everything. And god forbid there’s a full moon (or worse, a supermoon) — you catch each sliver of light that leaks through any uncovered spot in your house. It might as well be a day at the beach.
Then, the physical discomfort. You can never find the right temperature. You set the thermostat to 67 degrees. After a few minutes it feels too hot, so you knock it down to 66. But then you feel cold. But you can’t set the thermostat to 66.5 degrees. So you’re always up and down, adjusting the dial like a crazy person.
And the worst part is, each time you adjust the thermostat, you have to get back into bed and find a satisfying position — but you can’t. You try the fetal position, but that doesn’t work. You lie on your stomach, but you never know what to do with your arms. Do you put them under you, or place them above your head? Maybe one of each?
You know you can’t sleep on your back, so you don’t even try that one. Also, you don’t feel right unless one of your feet peeks out from under the covers. But having a foot out also makes you feel vulnerable — like those aliens from earlier will be able to grab you more easily. You realize how silly this is, but it doesn’t make you feel any less scared.
When you finally discover the optimal comforter configuration, you realize you have to pee. You don’t understand this at all. During the day, you’re a camel. You hold it for hours at a time. But at night? You become a 5 week old puppy. The slightest tingle sends you running to the bathroom. You’re OCD about it too — you cannot have anything in your bladder. Must be 100% empty at all times. What the fuck.
So you’re out of bed every 10–20 minutes, adjusting the temperature, or going to the bathroom, and then each time you come back you have to fix your comforter configuration, and you’re back to square one, trying to get comfortable again.
After performing this ritual several times, you grow frustrated enough to leave your bed. You try a breathing exercise on the couch, but it doesn’t relax you — it only reminds you of why you’re doing the breathing exercise in the first place — because you can’t sleep.
You consider taking a sleeping pill, but at this point it’s too late and would probably make you groggy in the morning. Besides, you took one last night, and the night before, and you’ve heard too many stories about addiction, so you decide that’s a bad idea.
You turn on the tv and close your eyes, listening to Jimmy Fallon’s voice. You hope this lulls you to sleep, but it doesn’t. You don’t understand why this is so hard. If sleep is something we need, why won’t your body do it? Why can’t it be a thing that happens automatically, like digestion or circulation or respiration? You don’t have to tell your heart to beat, it just does. Why can’t it be like that with sleep?
It’s 2:03 am and the loneliness kicks in. The truest, deepest loneliness you’ve ever known. Everyone in the world is sleeping soundly except for you. It’s during these moments when you understand why insomnia is associated with increased suicide risk.
There’s no one to talk to. Your spouse is asleep. The dogs are asleep. Everyone is at rest, but you’re alone with the knowledge that you must face tomorrow — another day — on no sleep. And although the loneliness now is awful, it’s nothing compared to the torment that awaits you during the day. When you have insomnia, there’s no reprieve. Days bleed into nights bleed into days. One day feels like it’s 48 hours long — because for you, it often is.
You trudge back to bed, praying you drift off. When it doesn’t happen, you breathe into the darkness, watching your brain churn more thoughts, worries, and memories. You’re tired, but for some reason you can never cross the bridge from awake to asleep.
Tomorrow comes, and you run on adrenaline at work. You wonder if your coworkers see the exhaustion on your face. You wonder if it’s the lack of sleep that’s caused the newly etched-in lines between your brows and on your forehead. You envy your coworkers, who you presume have all slept a full 8 hours.
You wonder how much your sleep deprivation has impacted your work performance. You’ve seen a million articles on the Huffington Post about how people make more errors at work when they’ve slept less. You try not to think about how many errors you’ve probably made. And how much better you’d probably be at your job if you could only manage to sleep.
Then there’s the articles about how lack of sleep is associated with increased mortality at a young age. These articles have an almost admonishing tone — telling you to make sure you clock your 8 hours. Well, god dammit, what if you’re trying to but can’t?
During your lunch break, you retreat to your car to take a nap. Except you’re too self aware to fall asleep — afraid that if you do, you’ll never wake up in time to get back to work. In lieu of sleep, you close your eyes, recline your seat, and meditate for half an hour.
Back at work, you feel nauseous, but you push through, executing the bare minimum. The minutes at your desk are torture. Periodically, you close your eyes and take deep breaths, imagining what it feels like to sleep. You hope no one sees you doing this.
On the drive home, you think about all the articles you’ve seen informing you that tired driving is as bad as drunk driving. You wonder if you’re as good as drunk right now.
At home, after suffering a 9 hour work day and 2 hours of commute time, you have no energy to do the things you’re supposed to do — no energy to make dinner, no energy to exercise, no energy for chores. Thank God you don’t have kids.
You throw something in the oven. You slog through light exercise — a few squats, some sit ups here and there — but all you want to do is lie down.
You do something mindless until bedtime — read, scroll through social media, watch tv. You hope you’ll sleep later, but the worries are already starting.
You think about going to bed early, but it’s not an option. You’re always a little too tired to do anything productive, but too awake to fall asleep. You’re always a zombie.
Your spouse is worried about you, and now you’re worried about your spouse’s worrying. You worry about being the cause of worry. So you don’t complain. If your spouse asks, you say you’re feeling fine — you’re used to surviving on little sleep anyhow.
Once it’s reached a reasonable hour to go to bed, slumber often doesn’t happen — because you fear it won’t. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bed itself is a source of fear. Your nerves flare, your heart pounds. This is stupid, you think. Why am I afraid to go to bed?
If you’re lucky, you’ll clock 2 or 3 hours of sleep. It’s not much, but many days you manage at least that. Fortunately, those 2 hours often provide the deepest sleep and the most elaborate dreams.
After struggling again until 3 am, the universe gifts with sweet sleep. You’re so drained you drift almost instantly into dreamland.
You dream you’re invited to a Christmas party at Donald Trump’s D.C. hotel. For some reason you show up wearing drab sweatpants and a velour robe. Ivanka and Jared glare and point at you. You wonder if they’re going to call security. You’re embarrassed and worried, so you sneak out a back door.
The hotel itself was dilapidated, but you’ve just walked into the most beautiful courtyard. Cherry trees are in full bloom, even though it’s winter. Petals drift off the trees like pink snow onto grass and cement. Just ahead, a fish-shaped fountain gushes into a koi pond.
You want to walk forever in this bizarro universe, free from exhaustion, free from worries about sleep.
But there’s the blaring alarm. It’s 6am and you have to get up. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.
You start the cycle again. Claw your way out of bed and into the bathroom.
The shower feels ok. This is the best you’re going to feel all day. A momentary warm corner away from the demands of the world.
You’re glad you slept at least a little. Maybe tonight will be better. Maybe eventually you’ll figure this thing out.
You have hope, at least.
There’s always hope.
Author’s note: The story you just read outlines my experiences with insomnia. Fortunately, I sleep a lot better these days. If you’d like to read about how I got to this point, and/or you suffer from insomnia yourself, you might be interested in this piece: 8 Counterintuitive Things that Helped Me Fix My Chronic Insomnia.