What It’s Really Like Being An Insomniac

I’m driving down the main street in Salinas and on either side of the road, vast rows of crops disappear into points on the horizon. Soon the crops give way to small farmhouses, a gas station and a local grocery store. I’ve driven down this street nearly every day for the last three years. As I pull up to the intersection, however, my stomach begins to burn with a mild panic. 

I have no idea where I am.

The light is green, but there’s a queue of traffic ahead of me. I glance back at my toddler in his car seat and he giggles. Unsure of where I’m supposed to go next, I follow the line of traffic straight through the light until I realize that, oh, yes, I’m on Main Street. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a year and a half. It’s been less than four hours straight for the last month.

As a person who suffers from low energy to begin with, a bout of insomnia can be particularly incapacitating. In my case, a month of general malaise and fatigue has been followed by a UTI, and now an inability to sleep past 3:30am.

My typical night is as follows:

3:30am: A small amount of pressure on my lower abdomen, a slight tingling, eases me out of a deep sleep. I lay in bed, slipping in and out of my dream, trying to pretend I don’t feel it. I know the minute I acknowledge my bladder, I’ll be awake for the rest of the night.

4:00am: There’s no denying it, I have to pee. I sit up, resigned, and swing my legs around, touching my toes to the cool hardwood and padding my way into the bathroom. I don’t bother turning on the light. 

4:15am: Please go back to sleep. Please, please go back to sleep. You are comfortable in your bed. You no longer have to use the restroom. Your baby is sound asleep upstairs. Your husband is breathing deeply next to you. Just sleep. 

4:45am: Sleeping on my back hurts. I flip to my left side. Sleeping on my left side hurts. I shove my pillow away. Rotate onto my stomach. Sleeping on my stomach with my face flat in the sheets hurts. It all hurts. Maybe it’s my bed. I’ll move to the couch.

5:00am: This is much better. I love my couch. I wish it didn’t have stains on it. I need to get this couch deep cleaned. I wonder who I could get to do it. Are there couch cleaners out there? I bet it costs too much. And it’s not even worth it because the baby will just fuck it up again. Forget it. The couch stays dirty.

5:30am: Did I just sleep? I did, didn’t I. Maybe for five minutes. Why am I up again? Go back to sleep. Go. Back. To. Sleep.

6:00am: Just about to fall asleep. Alarm goes off.

My aunt recommends Tylenol PM. My husband suggests melatonin. I think about Nyquil. I’m ready to try, but I know this kind of insomnia. It’s the kind that defies medicine. Taking Nyquil with the flu will knock me out until next Tuesday, but Nyquil with insomnia just means I’ll be extra exhausted when I wake up at 3:30am. I know there are medicines out there that have helped people, but my particular brand of sleep issue is 100% distress. I’m worried about my fatigue.

I’ve been to the doctor and all the tests have come back normal, but something just doesn’t feel right. Things go in and out of focus. My anxiety about my exhaustion wakes me up, which only makes me more tired the next day, which only further feeds the cycle. 

Month two of insomnia. Desperation and fear sink in. When will I start sleeping? I start to turn to “spiritual” practices — cheesy sleep tapes and relaxation techniques. They help me fall asleep. They don’t keep me asleep. I talk to a co-worker who is going to an energy healer. She tells me about manipulating the chakra, and how she’s releasing pent-up pain from her past. I’m too tired, and I know my east coast sensibilities won’t let me participate fully — I’d walk in there expecting to fail, which is exactly what would happen with that attitude. I feel defeated. I pray.

Rounding the corner on the second week of the second month, I start to see a little light. The antibiotics for the UTI finally start kicking in (first round didn’t work), and the pressure on my bladder subsides. Four hours of sleep turns to five, turns to six. The rusty gears of my brain chug back to life.

Then a setback. The baby has a nightmare and wakes up at 4 am. He refuses to go back to sleep in his crib so I lay with him on the guest bed in his room, silently willing him to stay still, to please not kick Mommy, to please stop fidgeting and burrowing into the pillow and shoving his ass into my face. Devil child will not let me sleep. Finally, after about an hour, he settles down and snuggles beside me. 

And then the alarm goes off.

That one night of interrupted sleep triggers the insomnia again. Miserable, trudging, hazy, foggy mornings are followed by dragging, torturous afternoons. Looking up to realize an hour has passed and not knowing what I did with it. Walking through life as a shadow. The Ghost of Wendy Past. Each evening is met with a mix of relief and dread. Relief that I can lay down and finally close my eyes. Dread that I will open them too soon.

I am a zombie. Driving to work and forgetting to drop Lucas off at daycare. Forgetting meetings at work. House and desk getting sloppy. Meals thrown together. Uneasiness about more detrimental consequences feeds the anxiety. Anxiety feeds anxiety feeds anxiety. Snake eating its own tail. I worry I’m losing my mind.

As inexplicably as it set in, the insomnia begins to fade. I’m sleeping, but it’s shaky, unstable — a fawn on wobbly legs. I’m trying not to overthink it and just accept sleep back into my life, but I know that insomnia is unpredictable, unreliable. It comes and goes when it pleases, like a fuck buddy you don’t want to fuck. A fuck enemy. It is nothing if not inconsistent. 

Insomnia waxes and wanes like a moon phase, cycling itself through life at the most inconvenient moments. (Is insomnia ever convenient?) It’s gone for now, but it’ll be back, casting its shadow and plunging me deeper into the fog. Can I be ready for it next time? Can I banish it from my life for good? Or do I just hunker down and prepare for the onslaught?