“Sleep is the fuel of life…It’s nourishing; it’s restorative. And when you are deprived of it, you are really deprived of a basic kind of sustenance.” — Gayle Greene, author of Insomniac.
To say I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since my mother’s death would be inaccurate. I go through periods where I sleep solidly for a month or two. But then the insomnia returns…that half empty feeling that seeps in at 2 a.m. and leaves me brittle and restless, turning the light on and off until the dog gives me dirty looks. I read chapter after chapter in whatever book is on my nightstand until my eyes are stinging, waiting for my mind to pass out.
Instead it wanders from thought to thought like a bee pollinating hopelessness. I am behind in my life…in my career…in love…in building a life for myself. I think of where my mother was at my age — she had an 11-year-old, an eight-year-old, a house and a husband. She was in grad school, studying to get her M.A. in Child Psychology. I remind myself of how old she felt in comparison to her classmates. Then I wonder if the time is too late for me to go back to school. To change my life somehow to make it feel better. Then I remember, very little has felt better since she died.
Then the worries arrive. I worry that I haven’t had the baseline mammogram I was supposed to have 10 years before my mother was diagnosed. I worry about the cough I’ve had for over a month that never seems to go away. I worry about blood tests I haven’t taken for my annual physical…I worry I have cancer already.
I take an Ambien. I do not know if I’m depressed or just exhausted from night after night of getting five hours of sleep. Pill sleep. Fake sleep. I miss typos at work. Co-workers correct me. They are sharp, energetic, they sleep well at night. They work out each day. I try to ride my bike, do yoga, to implement the typical insomnia solutions — melatonin (weak as shit), exercise (makes me more wound up), turning off the television and computer a few hours before bed (pointless). Nothing works…except the Ambien on my nightstand.
I know I share this problem with 60 million other Americans. And at 2 a.m., I try to remember I am not the only one involuntarily awake. But what’s missing is some sense of hope. Hope that I will get to sleep. Hope that my life will feel complete again. Hope that I will see some progress, some upward mobility, something other than this crippling fear that I have become a dark person. A cynical person. An unhappy person.
When I couldn’t sleep in 3rd grade, I remember padding down the hall in the middle of the night to my parents’ bedroom after lying awake for hours. I’d hover in the doorway, listening to my parents breathe, waiting for one of them to shift, to show some sign of wakefulness. Then I’d call out, “Moooom???” And I’d hear no reply. (My mother wore earplugs — she was a horrible insomniac as well). “Mooooommm!!!” And she’d jump, and hastily jolt upright. “What?” she’d ask. Her tone would slice through me, make me wish I’d never come to her for help.
She’d walk me down to my bed and crawl inside with me. Once safe in her arms, I felt I could finally relax, finally pass out. And just at that moment when I was about to fall asleep, she’d pull her arm from under my neck and leave me there. The emptiness would return, and I’d lie there, entirely awake, wondering how long I had to pretend to be asleep before I could get her again.
Now when I’m tired and I want to call someone who relates, I have to remind myself there is no one at the end of that hall. That somewhere in other ends of the city and the state my sister and father fell asleep hours ago, the moment their heads hit their pillows. That I am alone in this problem. That I am the only left in my family who is up at 2 a.m.
I remember standing in a dark kitchen in front of an open fridge with my mother over Thanksgiving, in our pajamas at 1 a.m., digging through leftovers with mussed hair, discussing the various pills we had taken to get to sleep that had failed, finding the last piece of pumpkin pie. My mother had insisted that I eat it. “But it’s the last piece,” I’d said. My mother pretended like she didn’t even want it. “But I’ve already got this cookie,” she said, shoving it into her mouth. “Mmmmm.”
And those are the moments, the selfless moments…that keep you up at night.