Meditations on insomnia

I’ve gone through some serious periods of insomnia in my life. When I lived in Edmonton at one point, I remember a span of about a month (or maybe it was shorter, a week or two that felt like it lasted a month) when the only time I slept was on the bus going to and from school. It was about a 45 minute bus ride each way, and because of where I got on, I always managed to get a seat next to a window, so I could lean my head against it and practically immediately just be asleep. Somehow, I also managed to wake up right before my stop every time, in both directions, even though my stop coming home was in the middle of a long straight stretch with no physical cues that would logically have woken me up at that point. I used to wish the buses ran all night long, so I could just get on them and ride around for a while until I had gotten some rest.

Whenever I get bouts of insomnia – now gloriously far apart and very rarely lasting more than a couple of days – I think of how much worse it was then, and I can’t imagine ever going back to that. I also think about how much my tolerance for insomnia has gone down, because after only two bad (not even completely sleepless) nights, I’m finding the basics of life overwhelming, I’m feeling more emotionally raw, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on things I’m trying to read.

People always ask me to seek out a reason for my inability to sleep. Sometimes they point to physical factors (mainly my caffeine intake, which, while rather impressive, generally stops by early afternoon), but more often, they seek out some underlying source of stress or anxiety that is distracting me. “What’s on your mind?”, they ask. I can usually dig out an answer to this question. I suspect, however, that I could do so regardless of whether I were having trouble sleeping, since it’s usually not something that is causing me blatant emotional turmoil or conscious mental strain. At any given point, though, you could ask me that question and I could think of something that might be construed as stressful or anxiety-inducing, be it something to do with school, family, relationship, financial, or just my general sense of well-being. Sometimes all of the above. But I don’t usually lie awake at night thinking about these concerns, or making lists in my head of all the things I need to get done over the next couple of days. I’ve had enough experience with insomnia to know that often there’s an easy solution to those kinds of sleep difficulties, so they don’t tend to reach the point of affecting me, at least not consciously.

If I were to describe what I’m thinking or feeling when I really become unable to sleep, the most common pattern is that I’m incredibly anxious about what will happen if I can’t sleep, can’t ever sleep (because in those moments, that night always feels like forever), and vaguely fearful about letting go and actually just falling asleep. It’s that latter feeling that strikes me as odd. I desperately want to sleep, but as I’m getting to the point of drifting off, my legs tense up and I catch myself.

One thing I always appreciated about Sandman comics was the scariness of Dream. Dream is scarier, even, than Death, who is actually quite refreshing and lighthearted. Comforting, even. She just did what she did and knew what she was. Dream was dark, and full of unknowns, and out of control in a way that Death never was. The boundary between there and here was too permeable, the rules of here sometimes applied, sometimes didn’t, the patterns would sometimes make sense and sometimes write themselves. I don’t know how much of that is in the comics, since I haven’t read them in years, but that’s how the image continues to strike me as I fight to sleep, and fight against sleep at the same time.

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