There are few complaints that make me feel whinier than does insomnia, but there’s at least a little bit of pleasure in the whining, because there are also few complaints that produce more immediate, genuine sympathy. Not being able to sleep is no fun, and everyone who’s been there gets it. It’s not for nothing that there are so many compelling critical books out there about insomnia. (Here’s one particularly good one.)
I’ve had pretty serious bouts of insomnia since I was a kid. My childhood insomnia, though, was always of the can’t-go-to-sleep variety. I’d get sent to bed at whatever time seemed appropriate to my mother, and I’d lie there for hours trying to fall asleep, but it never worked. And so of course it was hard to drag me out of bed in the morning. It was miserable, all the way around.
I still have trouble getting to sleep, but since I became a grown-up with my own bedside lamp and reading material and no one telling me I can’t use them, I at least know how to manage times when that difficulty surfaces. And weirdly, I’ve become a super-early morning person; I go to bed at what my mother now thinks is a ridiculously early hour and get up before the sun and spend the first few hours of the day doing stuff just for me. It took a little bit of adjustment, but when I’m working on something I’m excited about, I actually kinda dig waking up at 4.30 and having some coffee and getting to it.
The far less awesome bit of this, which has definitely worsened with age, is the development of the can’t-stay-asleep variety of insomnia. Not waking up at 4.30, but waking up at 1.30 and being unable to get back to sleep for at least a couple of hours, if at all. It not only threatens my best morning working time, but it leaves me fuzzy and grouchy and often nauseated all day.
The first time I remember this mode of insomnia striking with any regularity was during the process of writing my dissertation. I’d wake up just enough to realize I was uncomfortable and needed to roll over or something, and my brain would pop up and say “Oh good. You’re awake. We need to talk.” And that was it: every bit of anxiety I had about the project, money, the job market, and so on and so on would all start bubbling to the surface. At some point, I’d just give up and go to work.
That level of anxiety diminished a bit while I was an assistant professor, though for all the obvious reasons it didn’t exactly go away. It just became a familiar pattern: if I woke up enough for my brain to engage, I’d start thinking about everything I needed to do that I was afraid I was either going to forget or somehow let drop, and I’d be awake for the duration. This was the period when I developed the majority of my getting-things-done habits, as I discovered at some point that the things I’d start worrying about were things that weren’t on my to-do list. As soon as I wrote them down, they’d leave me alone. So I tried to write EVERYTHING down. And it mostly worked.
Now… what to say. I am of an age, and while parts of that age are awesome, other bits are the worst. I have chronic tendonitis in both shoulders, and when it flares up there is no lying-down position that is comfortable for more than a couple of hours. And add to that the various indignities that shifting hormone levels produce, and the result is that I sleep terribly at least a couple of nights a week. Sleepytime tea (the EXTRA kind, with the valerian) sometimes helps. Melatonin sometimes helps (though the resulting hyper-vivid dreams often leave me waking up tired). Serious pharmaceuticals definitely help, but only on the night I take them; most of them produce a killer kickback the following night, undoing the good of the night of sleep I got.
Anyhow. I’ve been writing along hoping I’d get to some kind of conclusion, but I don’t think there is one. Except, frankly, getting even older: I watched my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my parents go through this mid-life set of sleep disturbances, and each and every one of them hit a point at which they suddenly started sleeping like a baby again. Seriously: my parents, who used to get up in the 5.30 vicinity every day of their lives, whether they wanted to or not, can now sleep until 8.00 or even beyond with no trouble whatsoever.
So, something to look forward to. In the meantime, I have whining, and I’m apparently not afraid to use it.
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