What Insomnia Feels Like


On nights when I can’t sleep, which are most of them, I sleep with my face towards the wall, my back to the clock, the phone, the computer, anything with an LCD screen that seeks to torment me, letting me know just how little time there is until I have to hop out of bed. (Analog doesn’t bother me; I may not be sleepy, but I’m still exhausted, and reading minute hands seems a poor use of the little energy I have left.) Sometimes I fret over the past, the present, the future; these times, sometimes, I miss the times in middle and high school when being miserable with my life meant that all I wanted to do was sleep.

Sometimes I try to figure out what’s wrong with me, exactly what is physically keeping me from getting sleepy (it’s a basic function in most animals, is it not?) Sometimes, I contemplate if I should get up and take my generic Unisom-knockoff, even though I’ve been taking it for about (To do so would mean seeing that it is, in fact, 3:30 in the morning, and to take a sleep aid at that late/early hour would probably only make me groggier in the morning). Sometimes, I’ll direct all the scorn and blame at the littlest thing—an itchy ankle, the humming of some unidentified electronic equipment somewhere in the house—knowing fully well that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Usually, though, my mind is completely blank, and I can barely comprehend what’s going on until the morning, when I find myself still not sleepy, but unable to speak a sentence without laughing, or walk up the steps without nearly falling into the banister.

There’s a centipede the size of a rat on my bedroom ceiling and it’s trying to win the Indy 500 and I don’t want it to fall on my head in the middle of the night, so I move to the couch. I lay down and avert my gaze from the clock on the cable box, and a few minutes or hours later (it’s always hard to tell), my dog wants water and the cat is roaming between the living room and the dining room with a toy mouse in her mouth, meowing desperately for unclear reasons. When I stare at her or meow back, she’ll drop the toy for a few seconds, apparently embarrassed, but resume the strange, noisy game not long after. The guest cot is in my mom’s home office, and she will be in there long before I want to wake up, and I’m sure that in the basement, behemoth centipedes would be the least of my worries, so it is on the couch I remain, listening to a “Fall Asleep Fast” guided meditation on Youtube, before I slam my laptop closed and shout aloud at the smug voice telling me to imagine myself ascending old stone steps into an idyllic botanical garden, that he needs to shut up. I am trying to sleep, after all.

It’s been this way for at least two summers, since I hurt my leg moving boxes into an apartment in 2011, and I was kept up at night by the feeling that my thigh was trying to eat itself alive. Caffeine-laden Excedrin seemed to be the only thing that took the sensation away, and at the time, late-night jitters and a chance to catch up on my favorite TV shows seemed a better alternative. Except for a few instances (the night after I finally finished up a long paper on IP law in Ecuador and dozed off in the library, the time I got home from chugging umpteen Mike’s Hards at a Def Leppard show and passed out on the couch, having the strangest series of dreams that I can fuzzily recall ever having), I think fell asleep in a Unisom haze, halfway through an episode of Frasier on Netflix, every night that year. This pattern was, remarkably broken, during my nine months working on a cruise ship, during which I worked 70-hour weeks with no days off and fell asleep to the rocking boat cradling me to sleep by midnight, often while I was still at work. The second I sent my resignation to the HR department, my sleeplessness returned—the walls of my bedroom were too bright, I wasn’t used to sleeping on solid ground—how could I possibly sleep when I wasn’t working myself to death?

A month or so afterwards, I thought I’d finally conquered it, through taking certain vitamins, limiting my TV exposure, avoiding coffee altogether. This past July, I think I went a month straight of getting 8 hours of sleep a night; I think that it was one of my proudest accomplishments of the past year, rivaling graduating from college and surviving ship life on a diet of white rice and vegetables. But now it seems I was celebrating too soon. So what happened?

I’m not quite sure, but I’m almost excited for the day when I say, “Screw it, get me a cup of coffee.”