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The first chapter of my first novel, A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, opens with a hugely pregnant young woman awakening at 3:33 a.m., just as she does every night.
I was that young woman. Twenty-seven years old, eight months pregnant with my third child, prone to night wandering and fretful about my sleepless older son—a strange, haunting five-year-old who’d recently been diagnosed with autism. His pediatrician told me this was typical: Children on the autistic spectrum often don’t sleep for days or weeks at a time. The cause was then, and remains, a mystery.
But this isn’t surprising. Sleep has always seemed to me as unknowable as the afterworld.
I have never been a good sleeper, according to my mother. (She says this with disapproval, every time.) As a baby, I was colicky. Then I refused to nap at one. I would go down for a scant 8 hours a night, leaving my parents no time for an adult dinner or a movie, plus a good night’s rest of their own. My sister was born when I was two—sleeping maybe six hours a night—but she followed the rules. A sweetly slumbering infant, an easy-to-tire toddler, a kindergartener who came home and snoozed on the couch.
This was, clearly, a harbinger of our personalities. At 44 she is slow to act, tradition-bound and likable. At 46 I am driven and wakeful. Curious, fidgety, admittedly intense. I’m the sort of woman who wakes up when snow ticks against the windowpane or someone brews a pot of coffee next door. But mention insomnia at my age and every professional on the planet, from doctors to psychologists to plumbers, will tell you it’s an early sign of menopause.
“A sign of menopause that started when I was two?” I will ask.
It is never true that you can divide the world into two kinds of people…except, maybe, in terms of sleep. And I know this, because I’m married to one of those other types. John simply lies down—on a bed or a couch or a friggin’ countertop—closes his eyes and he’s out. He can do this at any time of day. He can do this many times a day. Last Sunday, I came home from a yoga class at 4:30 and found him enjoying the weekend’s nap number four. Not to belabor the point, but he can rise from that nap, eat a little dinner, talk to me about his day, brush his teeth, and dive into bed again at 9.
And before you ask the answer is no, he’s not depressed. He isn’t lazy. When he’s awake, he’s one of the brightest, most hardworking guys I know. Last weekend he did all our laundry, changed the oil in our car and motorcycle, fixed our son’s computer and helped me make dinner for company…in between his morning and afternoon naps.
You might think it’s hard for someone like me to be married to a sleeper. But in fact, it’s quite nice. When I go through a bout of insomnia, I take comfort in John’s warm and comatose presence. He doesn’t snore so much as he gently motors. The light doesn’t bother him. I can read. I could play the bongo drums. He would just snuggle up like a large possum and throw one arm across my chest.
But as I get older, as my schedule gets tighter, as I rack up more worries, reminiscences and regrets, I find that I’m sleepless more nights than I’m not. It’s a concern, partly because it makes me DUMB. And I mean it. Exhausted, I am both inarticulate and excessively wordy, which is a terrible combination in anyone and death for a writer. I wish away far too many days because my eyelids feel scratchy and my head is aching and I just want darkness to fall so I can try again.
Now, in addition to the basic discomforts of sleep deprivation—and the very real possibility that I will one day walk blindly in front of a speeding bus—I discover there are also various health risks. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer. Oh, and plain old death. A 2010 study published in the journal Sleep stated that, “Short sleep duration has been linked to earlier mortality.”
But the kicker is, this isn’t something you can control, like getting more exercise or quitting smoking or eating more vegetables. No real insomniac is lying awake purposefully, holding off sleep. Our bodies crave it desperately, the way they would a glass of water if we were completely dehydrated. But for most of us, it becomes more elusive the more we need it. One bad night isn’t necessarily a sentence. But three? That’s when you know you’re in for a loooonnnngg battle. The body starts pumping out alertness chemicals and the mind becomes wary (dare I say paranoid?). You could easily be mostly awake for a month.
A few years ago, I posted this status update on Facebook:
INSOMNIA. I’ve tried Tylenol PM, Klonipin, Ambien, Xanax (you’re going to break into my house now, aren’t you?) Also not drinking alcohol, drinking alcohol, not eating before bed, eating carbs before bed. Hot tea, white noise, mindless chick lit. Anyone have any other ideas?
I received about 35 responses, by Facebook, email, text and phone. But I swear, I could tell immediately—from the tone of the comment or message or call—whether I was dealing with an authentic insomniac or someone who occasionally had trouble sleeping because of the circumstances in their otherwise restful life.
Chamomile was a big favorite of the latter group. Also warm baths, long walks, deep breathing and books on tape.
But the genuine, diehard non-sleepers? My people? Here’s what they had to say: Meditation, hypnosis, Kava, B6, calcium, melatonin, sensory conditioning, yoga, acupuncture, Vicodin (I had several offers), marijuana (ditto) and masturbation. With one exception, and I’ll let you wonder which one, I tried them all.
I may as well have taken up competitive kite flying for all the good it did. Like every other stretch of insomnia in my life, I had a dozen more jazzed and itchy or drowsy, dreamless edge-of-sleep nights until finally the cycle broke. I slept for one solid eight-hour period and awoke feeling new and reset. As if I’d gone through a long, snake-filled tunnel and come out into the gentle, easy warmth of the sun.
That child who once lay awake in the room across from mine, whose energy I could feel as if we were still connected with a cord, is an adult now. And he sleeps like my husband: soundly, often, at any opportunity and with a snuffling joy. What changed in him I cannot say, but I know this new way of life is good for him. It’s both healing and comforting. He’s somehow found the door in and I’m glad.
Now, there’s one less thing for me to worry about in the middle of the night.