Living with insomnia

I can’t really talk about sleep without talking about insomnia. Because when I talk about sleep, you might assume I get 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep on a normal night. I do not. But it’s not because I’m a parent (though the kids don’t help). It’s because I am a lifelong insomniac.

When I was a kid, I had a hard time getting to sleep. I would lay there staring at the ceiling for hours on end, night after night. No matter how tired I was, my brain would not turn off. Consequently, from the age of 6 I had an arsenal of tricks to help myself fall asleep.

One method was to listen to cassette tapes. (Yes, on my boom box.) My favorite was a relaxation tape my mom got at a business meeting. It was basically a 30-minute guided meditation session, though of course it wasn’t called that back then. Mom played it once when she came home, then let me have it. I played it until it snapped, and mourned its loss until I discovered the Calm app. I can walk myself through the meditation in my head to this day – I don’t really need a guide. But the soothing background noise is a nice touch.

Another trick I had, back before I grew breasts, was to lay on my stomach, with my ear to the mattress and my hand over my heart, and breathe as slowly as possible while listening to my heartbeat and chanting “S – L – E – E – P…sleep” over and over in my head. I got so good at it that I could almost slow my heart rate at will just by thinking those words. (It doesn’t work so well for me in any other position, and I find sleeping on my stomach way too uncomfortable these days, so I haven’t done this since childhood.)

So yeah, me and meditation go way back. I’ve been meditating since grade school. I just didn’t know I was meditating.

I had other favorite tapes, too. The Muppet Movie soundtrack. A Chipmunk Christmas (which is old enough that, though I had the tape, the first side ended with Santa saying “Okay, kids, time to turn the record over.”) I can, to this day, recite great portions of both from memory, and with a little fumbling can sing all the songs. My favorite? “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.”

I made various mix tapes in my late childhood through my teens, after I wore out the kiddie soundtracks. Doing so allowed me to create a routine that eased my journey into slumber. I occasionally tried to sleep to the radio, but that led to weird dreams when the sound would start filtering into my subconscious. (A local apartment complex, The Arbors, had an annoying commercial that yelled “I caught The Arbors with their prices down!” that led to a particularly bizarre dream of being mooned by a building.) I have similar problems sleeping with the TV on, but that was never really an issue because I didn’t have a TV in my room until last year. (And now I have Netflix, not cable.)

In my teens, I would sometimes call a fellow insomniac friend, and we would talk the sun up. No matter how alone I felt – and when you feel alone, you feel especially so while the rest of the world sleeps – he made me feel like I had at least one ally. No matter how sad or scared or just plain frustrated I was, he could always make me laugh. He’s dead now. I miss him, and our talks.

Since I was a young adult, my sleep issues have been more on the early waking end of the spectrum. My witching hour is 2 a.m. When I am having issues with my sleep, no matter when I go to bed, I will wake at 2 and be unable to go back to sleep.

You learn a lot about your priorities at 2 a.m. What really matters to you. When I was living at home, I’d read – not homework, but books. Or I’d write. There were other things I could have done quietly, but I never did them. Didn’t craft or tidy my room or play games. Just read, and wrote.

When I was living on my own, I’d occasionally use the time to be productive. Did laundry. Baked. Cleaned (no vacuuming; because I was a good neighbor) in a slow, thoughtful, Zen meditation sort of way. Later on, I’d hit Netflix if I were particularly into a show at the time. If I played music, it was always soft, thoughtful, soulful music. Nothing jarring to disrupt my dreamy state.

Now, I usually play on my phone. Smart phones have revolutionized my sleepless hours. I can lay in bed and browse the internet or read Kindle books without waking my family; I have to stay in bed, or the kids will wake. If Kai wakes with me (which he often does; we seem to have a connection in that way), I will relocate us to the living room; then I will do laundry, clean the kitchen, do yoga, things like that, because the bedroom is on the far end of the house. But I try hard not to wake my minions.

I’ve been known to do a little freelancing if my workload is extremely heavy, but I try not to spend those hours working. Insomnia hours are for quiet reflection and indulgence of interests. They are freebie hours. Bonus time. I choose not to spend those unexpected extra hours working myself into a frazzle. That seems counterproductive to me.

And yes, I do consider insomnia to be sort of a bonus now. Even though I am hardly getting enough sleep as it is. Because I get so little time to myself these days, I consider any extra time awake as a gift. I take my me time wherever I can get it…even at 2 a.m.


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