How to Love Insomnia and Still Try to Get Some Sleep | by Susannah B. Mintz | creative nonfiction

Born to Run plays on a turntable sitting high on a window shelf behind the couch whose cushions I’ve arranged to build forts to hide inside—coffins, really, if you think about it; the space is that tight. I look out the living room window at the street, whatever is happening there, kids I’m not riding a bike with, skateboarding with, stubbing a toe alongside or laughing my head off at the sight or jokes of. Maybe I can’t remember why I’m not out there. Maybe I remember feeling self-righteous about that. Springsteen is a Jersey boy and I’m a Jersey baby. I’m in Philly now, nine or ten years old, staring through a window. Can’t remember why I’m not outside. Can’t recall not being able to fall asleep in that house except when I had a fever. Or when it was hot and my sister and I had only one square fan to share between our two rooms on the third floor. Fantasy of being a Russian lady sleeping rough but protected by blankets, tucked in a twin bed tight against the wind across the Steppes blown from the fan beside me on a desk chair. The Doberman puppy liked to sleep under the covers with me but before she was housebroken she sometimes peed in the bed.
When you tell a doctor that you have insomnia, they will ask if the problem is falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early. There’s never enough room on the questionnaire to explain that you suffer at both ends; some nights I’m up till five and others I’m up at five. The first time I can remember waking up from a good night’s sleep was the first time I took Ambien. Doctor Quack, I called him (because he would write prescriptions for whatever I said I wanted, and I wish I hadn’t quit him before reviving an affection for codeine). He gave me Nexium for the heartburn and Ambien for the heartbreak that was keeping me up. I was forty then. Twenty-seven years of bad sleep. A lifetime fearing the consequences of that. How many articles must I read about insufficient sleep as the number one cause of dementia? It was a core precept of nineteenth-century lunatic asylums that the insane were driven so by want of sleep. If they could just get a good night’s sleep, declared one Amariah Brigham, first superintendent of New York’s state mental institution in 1844, “they will not go insane.” In pre-modern times, I learn from Eluned Summers-Bremner, insomnia was felt as a symptom of both lovesickness and possession, two sides of the same.
Parents with infants who can’t sleep strap them into car seats and drive them around the neighborhood. They say the hum of the engine and the rocking motion recall the womb just enough to lull a fussy baby. I can fall asleep with lights blazing and Netflix cranking and be wide awake the instant I extinguish it all. Like the switch that turns off the bedside lamp awakens the machinery of rumination. Radio, artificial sound of rain (sounds like applause, like being praised even before you’ve achieved the thing, too much pressure!), meditation app, hysterical snorting-snuffling noise of my little dog dreaming: not soporific. Turn the light back on, finish up whatever story from the Collected Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I’m in the middle of, pop a quarter Xanax, ignore the clock, turn the radio on/off (soothing tones of BBC World News taking me back to September ’02 when the heartbreak/burn started and talking to him every night made me more sad and sleep less). Some nights, nothing works. And the animals! Cat on the back of the armchair in a full Oroborus on top of two pink long-sleeve tees laid there to air dry and the pup semi-circle on his special blanket at the foot of the bed, face tucked in a fleecy fold—infuriating, how their bodies sink like that, at one with the surface and their minds apparently not awash in regret for that thing they did. 
I know exactly when sleep troubles started but that story can’t be told here. I was twelve. One week before turning thirteen, to be exact. I can pinpoint it almost to the night. Middle of eighth grade. Plane to LA, wretched week crashing with Dad’s new work friends, couple nights in a sleeping bag on the floor of a new room, hideous orange walls, and boom, lifetime of Tylenol PM, melatonin, trazadone, lavender spray, warm milk and nutmeg. (Nutmeg, now I know, having psychedelic properties, can paralyze your legs if taken in sufficient quantities.) You can stay awake all night trying not to hear what you’re afraid you’ll hear, more than the sounds of a house talking to itself. You can crave sleep as the antidote to embarrassment, shame, the awakening energies of a body, and at the very same time fear sleep as the analog of death, shadow of death, dry run for dying. 
Some nights, a funny kind of friction of content versus form, when the thing you need is contradicted by the way you’re trying to get it, and staying awake feels like extreme sport, a limit experience. Like I’m trying to not be able to go under. Why is this? No one is watching. No: no one cares. Am I vying with myself, testing some idea I’ve had that I’m this much of an insomniac? Living myself into the story I’ve told about my sleep issues. A thrill in the performance. Experts call this “Insomnia Identity.” Because we think of ourselves as having insomnia, we … have insomnia. 
My father had a bad year at college, failed a course or two. I had a bad trimester my first year, failed two courses, in some insistent way. Deliberate—to see what would happen. Things were bad; I was overwhelmed by the independence, surrounded by temptations and lures. My parents were splitting up. I was smoking a lot of weed, feeling adrift. Maybe I wanted to be like Dad. Not a cry for anything (I knew that wouldn’t work). Proving something. To merit it, in a twisted way. To be a person with … edges. Qualities. Insomnia as imitation. I had a lot of trouble sleeping in the dorm, where it was never fully quiet. 
My father was a night owl and late sleeper for as long as I can remember, aside from some few years when his new children were very small. “Night owl” has always sounded like a lifestyle, a temperamental choice, and I’m one too, liked having that connection with him, liked staying up late, when it’s quiet and you don’t have to worry about anyone needing you, wanting anything from you (to be unaccountable; but also, unaccounted for). But recently Dad told me he has a delayed sleep-phase disorder, meaning that his circadian rhythm is shifted several hours off of a conventional sleep pattern. He stays up till four or five in the morning and emerges from his room at around three in the afternoon. Like he’s working the night shift—which, in a sense, he is, because he’s a statistician and has worked mostly from home for a very long time and can keep doing so even at 80, on his laptop in bed at two a.m. He could correct this phase displacement, he said, with a few weeks of enforced sleep-wake retraining, but you only need one interruption to the new pattern and you’re back on night-owl time, and somehow that risk isn’t worth it to him. It’s his way of entirely reorganizing the spacetime continuum of his household. 
	It’s odd to be a guest under those sorts of hours. How does his wife put up with it? 
Soften the edges. Meditation practice encourages a simple easing-around the prick and sting of our worries. I try this at night when I first extinguish the light and some kind of vasodilation process kicks in and my whole body feels like fire ants are eating their way toward the surface. (Hot flash? I’ve been menopausal for five years now; some other psychodynamic event seems more likely.) It feels like betrayal. I lie down, pull the covers up, luxuriate in the soft surroundings, lean toward I’m safe and you’re OK and then boom! Licks of hot pain and restlessness. Soften, I say to myself, taking deep breaths to trigger the “vagus brake.” This rarely alleviates the problem. Two nights ago, I wondered if it would help to think of the nightly agony as my body’s way of settling in, a necessary preamble to relaxation rather than an enemy obstruction. A pregame of sorts. A tunnel. A guide. 
	I’ll try that tonight and report back in the morning.
	What if the release of sleep mimics not death, but parting? That might explain the chalky melancholy that fills my chest when I near the inevitable moment of letting go, why actually rousing myself feels not so much like failure but an act of self-preservation. 
Do we take off our thoughts as we shed shoes, clothing, empty our pockets, remove eyeglasses and hair ornaments; do we rinse away the mental traces of a day’s worth of consciousness as we wash our faces, brush our teeth, eliminate bodily detritus before retiring to bed? Or: what if we could do this as reliably as? What readies, steadies, the mind prior to sleep? If in sleep we withdraw our attention from external stimuli, enabling—or exposing us to—our inner landscapes, do we then crave sleep as protection from fright in the waking world or do we avoid sleep as a dangerous encounter with ourselves? Does sleep allow for creativity- and sanity-sustaining reintegration of layers of consciousness that waking life requires us to partition, or does it threaten us with a loss of self-unity in a Bosch-like kaleidoscope of fantasy and desire? I believe that if I believed any answers to these questions, I would get more sleep.
	“I confess / that I forgot the person I had been,” writes Edward Hirsch, in the poem “After a Long Insomniac Night.”
I am watching my dog burrow a nest to sleep in. He is “digging” a hole by raking his paws across the blanket covering the cushions of the couch. (It is a photo blanket my sister made for me featuring a giant image of my dog’s face. He is about to go to sleep on the bridge of his own nose.) He is not actually in the dirt, he is not actually making a hole; these motions satisfy some urge, trick the brain that a hole has been dug or simply satisfy the brain that something has happened. He has taken action in response to his need for a certain kind of sleep location. I think of the micro-adjustments that characterize my process every time I try to go to sleep, a yank of the t-shirt here, a tug on the blankets there, the pillows moved half an inch this way and that, arm two millimeters that way and this, etc. (“Just pick a position already!” someone once growled at me.) At the end of some anciently prescribed amount of digging, the dog circles three times and then plops down with a satisfied grunt. 
	Two seconds later he has catapulted himself off the couch to investigate a squirrel outside the window/cat throwing up in the kitchen/sound the bodies of the universe make as they traverse their celestial paths. 
	Split-second transitions between one phase and another. Perpetual readiness to fling oneself into experience, unconcerned repetition of the rituals that prepare bodymind for rest. Sometimes I laugh as he scrapes a paw across the clean, flat surface of a blanket-that-isn’t-the ground. What are you doing, puppy? I say, like it’s so silly, his diligent self-care, as if it’s futile. But who am I to interrogate a purpose that works? 
	He pauses, stands stock-still and looks at me with those big black eyes, then gets back to it. 
	I only just realized he’s showing me how to love insomnia and still fall effortlessly to sleep.
I declare “sleep hygiene” a repugnant phrase that moralizes our sleep habits and blames us for our own sleep travails. If we can’t pull off an eight-hour straight-shot slumber, are we spiritually dirty? In fact, our contemporary vernacular for sleep regimens as a matter of “cleanliness” does impart a kind of moral taint to disordered sleep that’s but a holdover of older beliefs that sleep irregularity manifested some deeper corruption of the soul. 
	I claim the right to awaken at 6:00 one morning and 8:30 the next free of repercussion and shame. To have animals in bed with me. To want to stay up late and wake up early, equally, incoherently. 
	Tonight, I can barely keep my eyes open, drop the book onto my chest to nestle further back into the pillows and close my eyes with relief. They are scratchy from reading in bad light. The laptop is in the middle of the bed between my left thigh and the dog, something I’ve seen a hundred times before playing on low to counteract the silence. Please do not mention blue light. 
	(The phrase “blue light” has a particular meaning for me, referring to the underwater glow of a room in which a body lay curled around its own death. It was dusk or a television was on or the filter of memory has distorted my vision. His name was Bob. I’ve written about him elsewhere. For years after I had trouble opening doors, but that’s not why I can’t sleep.)
	I claim the right to ignore the dangers of blue light and still long for sleep, to feel sleep actually steal upwards as if from below the bed, a warmth or a depth that invites, that is not fickle, that is asking for me, and then to open the book again and read four more pages. To repeat this cycle in active defiance of a felt need to sleep and the possibility of sleep and the lure of forgetting. 
We are how we sleep. Or: sleep is not a matter of simple biology but a complex expression of prescribed norms and narratives about what it means to “function,” to contribute, to properly socialize or play by the rules or be “okay.” Wakefulness has been a metaphor for both social energy and the rigors of modern expectation, sleep trouble an analogue to pain or a symptom of all the ways our cultures mishandle us. In Wild Nights, Benjamin Reiss warns of the conformity-inducing imperatives of commodified sleep: packaged sleep, eight hours or you’ve failed, out of the crib and into a bed in a darkened room or you’re weird/unsuccessful at infancy/destined for psychological distress. What if distress is the parade of headlines about sleep disorders as the precursor to heart disease, obesity, and madness? 
The question is how humans would sleep or have slept “naturally” when freed from socio-temporal patterns of work and productivity, or beliefs long engrained in us about privacy and appropriately boundaried identity. I used to think I got close to that kind of unfettered sleepfulness during summer breaks from academia, when I could indulge the penchant to stay up late and wake with the sunlight or just whenever. Freedom to turn off the clock radio. Wriggle out from under pressure to start writing by 7:15! which is when I used to sit down at the desk with a cup of tea when I was a lot younger than I am now, before Major Life Ruptures #1 and 2, before 9/11, the day the radio was suddenly broadcasting static and the world listed and lurched. Before streaming, if you want to get less arch and more realistic about how I currently spend a lot of my hours, which is not necessarily in informed study of global politics. 
	But what life is immune to external prod—to the kids needing breakfast, the dog wheedling a walk, the job requiring arrival by 9:00 a.m. or 4:00 p.m. or 8 or the crack of dawn? Even in Thoreau’s day (that perpetual sufferer of nighttime travails) the intrusions of mechanical noise, incandescent light, and increasingly available headlines were contributing to a nation of cranky sleep-deprived Americans. Snug in his cabin at Walden Pond, where he’d retreated to try to reset his physical and psychological systems away from the temporal restrictions and aural cacophony of modern semi-urban experience—indeed to investigate through his own experience the effects on his contemporaries of rapid, discombobulating shifts in how life was being lived—Thoreau had still to endure the thunderous roar of the train, the “iron horse” with its “snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet,” rocking the pondside domicile with its “tramp and defiant snort.” 
	When a boyfriend sleeping over for the first time asked me about the train we could hear through the open window of my bedroom, I realized I’d never actually registered the sound of it. It certainly wasn’t the thing keeping me up at night. That noise was all in my head. 
	About that, the pitiless critic who lives with me by day and morphs in the dark to a version of the little girl who thought she was having a heart attack at age ten because the ending of a novel was so sad it constricted her chest in an unfamiliar way—well, she and I stay up late a lot of nights, proofreading the megatome of life’s actual disasters. 
Those times when I feel myself retreating from the brink of sleep out of fear of losing consciousness: letting go like that is terrifying if we’re aware of it, which I guess is why the brain ensures we’re not. Once, getting an endoscopy for stomach ulcers, as the anesthetic was taking effect, I was briefly conscious of a sensation so amazingly pleasurable that I thought I understood in that instant the allure of heroin. 
	One summer au pairing in Paris I couldn’t get to sleep without drugs for ninety nights in a row. OTC French drugs are, mwah! formidable. 
	Why do we call it a catnap, when cats are asleep more than awake?
	It’s said that in a small region of Russia, land of my forebears, peasants practice lotska during times of food scarcity, a kind of semi-hibernation referred to as “winter sleep.” Each day throughout the cold months, families eat a little hard black bread, a supply of it baked ahead of time, and huddle around a wood stove to sleep whole days away. They take turns banking the fire and keeping watch. Then at some point in spring, impelled not by a clock or calendar but by lighter mornings, warmer air, a scent of grass or the drifting musk of other stirring animals, they set about being awake again.
I’ve read that the panic of waking up in the middle of the night—oh my god the night is ruined—has more to do with what we’ve been exhorted to believe about proper sleep than any innate reality of what our bodyminds need; in fact, some researchers suggest that humans once naturally slept in shifts with a mid-night interlude of wakefulness for contemplation, intimacy, maybe a snack. We’re quick to ascribe our fatigue the day after to so-called disrupted sleep, but what if it’s the system to blame, because we’re forced to function according to rigid schedules of arrival and endurance? Flipped the other direction, what if our workplaces allowed grown-ups to take post-prandial naps? If you’ve ever sat at your desk fighting, or succumbing to, an overpowering urge to close your eyes and drop your forehead to the keyboard, you know what I’m talking about.
	A co-worker once informed me—he didn’t ask—that I had trouble falling asleep because I was writing late into the night. He so wanted wanted my insomnia to be romantic, not mundane. Perhaps he’d read Walden himself and remembered Thoreau rhapsodizing the moonlight (“You could sit up as late as you pleased,” the author exults about living fully in nature). At the time—in my early twenties, before grad school—I was rarely doing that kind of creative work at night. I wrote poems at the end of a soul-sucking workday sometimes, sitting on the floor of my studio apartment in San Francisco, scribbling in a red-covered notebook, but never was I was so inspired—or so bound by deadlines—to be keeping myself up by overtaxing some writerly genius. I recall feeling like I’d somehow let my colleague down. I was obviously not a real writer. Also not a bona fide insomniac.  
	But when I think of how it feels to be at my father’s, the house in a strange state of suspension (even though Dad could sleep through a backyard explosion), one’s wakeful body restrained in an eerie sort of quiet through the day, waiting for Dad to wake up as if only then could the day properly begin, it’s disorienting. Frankly, I find it depressing. Is it troubling to him, to be out of sync that way? I don’t think I know. Maybe, like Thoreau, patron saint of the sleep-disordered, he’s just “differently timed,” and the hours spent stretching his solitary mind into the deepest part of night is precisely rejuvenating.
I’ve been searching for someone in whom to place my trust. Like, a financial advisor, say, or a parent, or an evolved brain in a jar radiating intelligence. You can’t cuddle up with a brain-in-a-jar at night, though, and financial advisors are strangely hard to locate without paying them the very money you wish you grasped how to manage. Doesn’t it take trust to fall serenely asleep? My mother tells me that I used to sleep in a bassinet rocked by my father’s foot, as he sat on a couch doing post-grad-studenty things.
	I think it doesn’t bear rehearsing how sleep, like most of our modern habits, tendencies, and needs, has been subjected to the policing effects of cultural norms. I get that sleep, like other qualities of our embodied selves, might happen more easily, more gently, with less negative self-talk and money/time/psychic bandwidth devoted to trying to corral it into some state of predictability. But I don’t believe I’d sleep any easier out in the woods (bears!), or divorced from (oh, not just the man who snores, but right, quiet does help) the strictures of workaday chronicity. And that’s not just because fears are in me for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the advent of technology or even the shocking imminence of total global meltdown, though that’s there. (That’s there.) It’s because when I think this is not working, turn the light back on, rearrange the pillows again, count down the hours, wonder how little I can get by on, imagine the relief at the end of a day of fatigue when I can try, again, to sink into sleep, something clicks in me about this life I’m moving myself through. If it’s true, as my mother says, that even as a baby I defied the textbook guidelines for appropriate infant slumber, then these nocturnal disruptions constitute history. They enact me-ness. Not a failure to succumb or release but a defiant consolidation. Tugging back, recalling self to self. And maybe it’s cool to love that, the nightly operatic suspense of getting to sleep, just a little. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Susannah B. Mintz is author of a memoir called Love Affair in the Garden of Milton: Poetry, Loss, and the Meaning of Unbelief and has published extensively as a writer of creative nonfiction. Her essays have received numerous accolades, including notable mentions from Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. A specialist in disability studies and scholar of autobiography, she has also authored and co-edited seven critical books and volumes. She teaches at Skidmore College.