Why is this happening? I've run out of stories to tell myself.
—It’s 1:30 a.m.
In the dark, before seeing the time, I always wonder: did I make it most of the way through the night, or has the night just barely begun? On a better night, I’d have awakened after some, later multiple of ninety minutes, further into the night. Tonight, alas, is not a better night, and so the multiple is one.
I read somewhere, or maybe heard on a podcast, about meditating your way into sleep. Count backwards, one breath at a time, from ten thousand. When your mind wanders, pick up at the last number you remember. “You know,” says Brain, “counting while thinking about something else is not that hard since, you know, you play music. You have fun with that, and I’ll be over here doing something less boring.”
Okay, fine. Ninety-nine ninety-nine, ninety-nine ninety-eight….
When I was ten years old, time passed a lot more slowly. As a newbie insomniac, being awake for an hour in bed felt like an eternity, maybe two. Why is this happening? Does this happen to other people? These days, I’m a seasoned pro. My brain can spin for three hours in bed. Why is this happening? I’ve run out of stories to tell myself. They’ve always been unhelpful, and they’ve also become uninteresting. The angst in bed now is more about doing justice to tomorrow’s commitments than the passage of time. I’ve gotten much better at self-entertaining, self-torturing, and everything in between.
You know, Brain kind of has a point. In-breaths are odd, out-breaths are even, and the tempo is pretty close to One of These Nights, isn’t it? Maybe… wait. No.
Ninety-nine thirty-five. Ninety-nine thirty-four….
—It’s a little after 3 a.m.
In my dream, I was trying to photograph a very large, scale model of Manhattan made of balsa wood. I was flying above it. My flying dreams tend to be tedious—I push off surfaces like an astronaut in zero-G, rather than surfing the air like a bird. Just as I’m beginning to get somewhere, I realize I’m in the middle of someone’s huge kitchen at a dinner party, and there are people milling all around me. Am I in their way, or are they in mine? My dreams always fall apart the moment I have a real question about what’s happening. And so, I’m awake.
I used to think there were two kinds of insomnia. In the first, I can’t fall asleep, sometimes for hours. In the second, I fall asleep immediately, but wake too early, and however much sleep I get is all there is to be had. More recently, I've discovered a third kind of insomnia, where I can fall asleep easily, but can’t sleep for more than an hour or two at a time.
—It’s 4:30 a.m.
Have I been asleep since 3, or did I doze off for just a moment? Honestly, I can’t say.
Years ago, I did a sleep lab; I didn’t have any of the conditions they were looking for. I’m fine. I got rid of blue lighting. I turn down screens at night. I got blackout shades. I got the white noise machine. I've tried melatonin and prescription drugs. I fixed my sleep schedule, to the extent that’s possible. I’ve read more than I ever cared to about sleep, though I’m pretty good at never reading in bed, screens or otherwise. I exercise. I meditate. I've tweaked various diet knobs, and cut the caffeine. I’ve got gadgets to analyze how much sleep I’m actually getting, because in the fog, who can really say? I get a lot of advice about sleep, all well-intentioned, none of it new. But maybe if I try the most recent suggestion one more time, the novelty of it might work just long enough to get me headed in the right direction. Each experiment seems promising for a few days… or maybe not, and…
—It’s 6 a.m.
No need to check the time or look at the window; a faint blue light has already half-pulled the walls and ceiling out of darkness. I can hear birds chirping. On a better (but not great) night, I’d have woken up for the first time maybe an hour ago, wondering what kind of day I’d have after six hours of sleep.
Six hours of sleep sounds mediocre on those nights. Tonight, I’d happily trade for five or six straight hours. Six hours of sleep isn’t so bad. It happens; you deal. The thing that grinds is getting stuck in a rut of five or six hours (sometimes less), multiple nights in a row.
One awful night’s sleep makes it easier to fall asleep the next night.
But I’m not a morning person. I slog through the early part of the day, until Brain lights up in the afternoon and evening.
Maybe that’s the problem. If I were a morning person, I’d just get up now and start the day. But I’m not, and besides, how many real hours of sleep did I get?
Get up now, definitely take a nap later, and risk tonight’s sleep? Or keep trying now and maybe not get any more sleep anyway?
I read once about people who have a circadian rhythm that’s naturally much closer to twenty-five hours than twenty-four. In a bad sleep stretch like this one, I sometimes wonder if that’s me. What would it be like to structure my life around a 25-hour day on a planet with 24-hour days?
Or, maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe, I’m just dying? Hmm. But if I’m dying, I’ve been dying for most of my life.
Somehow, this is reassuring. I imagine a doctor scanning my chart, turning to me with a grave, anxious look, and informing me that I am, in fact, dying. “I know,” I say. “I’ve felt it for a long time, and it’s good to have a word for it. How long do I have?”
There’s a recurring moment when I half-realize my thoughts are spinning in tight circles, but my mind is not quite keeping up. If I let go at the right moment, I fly off the merry-go-round and sail through the clouds into sleep. But if I realize it’s happening, the awareness breaks the trance, and I tumble to the ground. The margin for error is tiny. In this moment, the exhaustion wins.
—It’s almost 8 a.m.
Someone once suggested I keep a sleep log, not of hours slept, but the qualitative way I feel in the morning. I keep forgetting to try turning that into a habit. Tonight’s sleep would get one star out of five.
It is an interesting idea, though. Maybe it’s not about some magic number of hours. Maybe it’s more about when in the sleep cycle I wake up. Being yanked out of deep sleep is terrible.
But, then I have nights like this one, and there’s not much to say. I’m on the outside of all the frameworks, looking in.
In any case, it’s almost 8 a.m. The day lies ahead. I’ve tried to keep sleeping past this point, other days, and it’s rarely as worthwhile as I want it to be. The world is waking up. There’s sunlight everywhere. There’re things to do today. I’ll deal.
And tonight, I’ll try again.
Dreaming of Popsicles
I dreamt Mommy was a horse and I was riding her.
I dreamt we had strawberry heads.
Another time, we had pumpkin heads.
Another time, we were chased by wolves.
Another dream: a big scary spider was chasing my brother and I tried to save him.
But last night I dreamt that an elephant with a broken head was scaring everybody in the jungle. I brought him some water and the elephant caught a giraffe with his trunk and put it in the water and ate it. The elephant was bad, not like the other elephants, who were good.
You ate mud. You ate light.
You wonder where you are,
but you have been here before.
You have been to Ireland
and Argentina. It rained.
You walked for miles between
the Corrib and el Río de la Plata with nothing
but Chuck Taylors and a hunk of bread
you made with your own hands.
They said it was not enough. They said
who are you and where did you come from?
You kept silent.
Even when they crept
close enough to whisper threats
you kept on. When you lost the line
between sidewalk and street,
you learned to close your eyes
to better feel earth
beneath your sneakers.
Sometimes, you ate mud. Sometimes,
absent a corner to sleep, alone, in the grass,
between chestnuts and persimmons,
between banks and stones and every blooming thing,
you ate light.
Birds chirp in early light. Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Make art and/or writing. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish submissions in this ezine or in our first limited edition handbound chapbook.
Behind a Door welcomes your feedback.