Though I hesitate to say that all of my problems stem from sleep, it is certainly true that most of my problems are exasperated by my continuous struggles with it. For so many people, sleeping is like eating or drinking–simply a biological function to be turned on or off as occasion demands. My father can fall asleep in five minutes if he wants to, and he could do it even if a marching band were parading through the room just as he closed his eyes. For him, it’s merely a matter of deciding when he should go to bed–though it does generally help him if the TV is on, soothing him to sleep with lullabies of infomercials and tests of the emergency broadcast system.
It’s never been that easy for me. I can’t sleep if a TV is on–or if music is playing or anything else is happening that my mind can attach itself to when my eyes are closed. But even without the outside noise, I can distract myself easily enough with my own constantly running internal monologue. Perhaps, then, it is because I am alone when I am supposed to be sleeping, even if I am sharing a bed, that my mind either imagines a calm, carefully planned conversation, or it picks up the pace to a frenzied stream of consciousness. I can retreat inside myself and close the door, and think merely about what I think is interesting, not having to wait for that perfect segue–or, worse, trying to manage the delicate steering of conversation myself, an effort that usually goes awry despite my best intentions. If someone were to ask me what I was thinking, I would reply, Nothing, because it’s nothing they would be interested in, even if I managed to express it coherently.
I once read in high school that there are two types of insomnia: initiation insomnia and another one for which I have since forgotten the name. My mother has the latter–she’ll wake up several times a night, sometimes on every hour (or thereabouts). I always thought that would be frustrating, reaching the enveloping warmth of sleep only to have it yanked away again by the demanding red numerals of the alarm. Instead, I have initiation insomnia, as does anyone else who has to wait more than a half an hour for sleep to claim her–I cannot fall asleep in under an hour, and generally it takes me closer to two to finally mentally wear myself out to the point of exhaustion.
It was nice finally having a label to attach to my problem, but I was already well aware of my constant wrestling with sleep (or lack thereof). Everyone in my house knew I couldn’t fall asleep quickly, because when I was about eight, I took it upon myself to let everyone know I was still awake. That was about the time that meditation–or rather, the theory of meditation–was introduced to me. I would lie in bed for about a half an hour, then get up and go to my mother, who was normally reading a book in bed at the time, relaxing under the golden light of a lamp as a pair of oversize glasses perched on her nose. “Mom, I can’t fall asleep,” I would say, undoubtedly in a voice perilously close to a whine.
She would slide her glasses down her nose, balancing them carefully on its tip, a feat that always impressed me. They were made of real glass and so were incredibly heavy, as far as glasses go, and her ability to maneuver them so well was a source of admiration for me. “Try counting backwards from one hundred,” she would suggest, in an updated version of the counting sheep cliche, and then she would send me back to my room to my cooling sheets. I would do as she said, obediently starting at ninety-nine and working my way back, being careful not to exclude any numbers. Once I reached zero, I would get back up and tell her I had tried that, but it hadn’t worked and I was still awake. She would tell me to do it again.
“But Mom, it doesn’t work.”
“Just try it.”
She would even walk me through the steps of meditation, teaching me to be aware of my breathing, coaching me as I slowly relaxed each part of my body. My toes. My feet. My calves. My thighs. And I would move this invisible line of relaxation until it was at my head and I would close my eyes and pretend to turn my brain off, though I had no real power to do so. I would lie on my stomach, my hands tucked into the creases of my thighs, as though pinning my arms to the bed would somehow trick my body into thinking it were already asleep. It never really worked at the time, but to this day, I must be lying on my stomach in order to go to sleep.
Sometimes she would pour me a glass of milk and heat it up in the microwave. She would say something about the hormones putting little girls to sleep faster, but all I knew was that I hated the taste of warm milk, and I hated how she made me brush my teeth again after I had forced myself to drink it. It never seemed to help–at least, I never felt any more tired after I drank it. The only thing I really liked drinking at night was cool water. I would put it in my mouth and lay down, swallowing it so it traced a cold path down my throat as I snuggled into my blankets. It was always risky to bring water into my bedroom, though, because I had the propensity for awkwardness that so many children have, and I was liable to spill it all over myself if I wasn’t careful.
What finally tipped me over the edge from childish impatience with home remedies to panic, however, was when my mother started going to bed earlier. When my sleep struggles first started, she would stay up late and read or watch TV–the sound of the laugh tracks was soothing to me, and even today I feel nostalgic when I hear the theme song from Cheers, though I’m sure I’ve never seen a single episode before. The sound of it was proof that my mother was awake and watching over the house, which is what my final thoughts were before I finally drifted off to sleep.
Over time, however, my mother’s anemia caught up with her, and she started going to bed earlier and earlier. I would hear her start to brush her teeth and wash her face, and I would know that soon she would be asleep and wouldn’t be watching the house–but I would still be awake. The thought would clench my stomach. It didn’t matter that my father would probably still be up. I wanted her to be, and I would stare at the clock beside my bed in mounting panic as she completed her nighttime ritual and shut her bedroom door. Ten o’clock at night and all’s well.
But ten o’clock would fade into eleven, and the closer it got to midnight, the more worried I became. I had learned in school that the average person needs eight-and-a-half hours of sleep, and, counting backwards on my fingers, if I fell asleep right that second, I would only get… seven hours of sleep. It is difficult to describe how truly terrified I was of this, and being awake quickly became my nightmare as night after night the bright red numbers mocked me from my night stand. I had to get eight-and-a-half hours of sleep to function, or I wouldn’t work right the next day. As the minutes to morning fell away before my open eyes, I fell apart as my fear became reality. I expressed myself the way any child would–I began to cry. And cry. And cry.
I don’t know how long this lasted, but I would cry every night and well into the early hours of morning, until my eyes became so sore and swollen I finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion. My parents were at their wits’ end, not knowing what to do to help me–or make me–go to sleep. Nothing seemed to work, and my crying became so bad that they finally said, “Either stop crying or sleep in the basement.” We had a big bed downstairs with a quilt top that was soft to lay on, but I didn’t feel that as I lay on top of the sheets and rocked on my back, hot tears burning their way down the sides of my face to pool in my ears and at the base of my neck.
Finally, I was screaming in the basement, my head pointed up just in case my parents couldn’t hear me, and the door to the downstairs bedroom slammed open, my father’s slim figure silhouetted by the glow from the nightlight behind him. He stomped to the edge of the huge bed and said in a voice I had never heard from him before, “Come here.” It was the first time I had heard him sound so angry and mean.
I was confused and gurgled something through my tears, but when he raised his hand, I scrambled backwards, afraid he would hit me because I was being such a pain. I was being difficult, both for them and for me, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to stop. I yelped and crab-crawled away from his raised arm, but he was merely bringing it up to make an emphatic gesture downward, pointing toward the corner of the bed he was standing next to. “Lindsay, come here. Now.” I gulped and crept forward, before he grabbed my wrist and hauled me out of the room, not gently, but not with the force one might have expected from one sleep-deprived for so many nights in a row. He dragged me upstairs and, to my shock, opened the back door and pushed me out into the cold Denver air. “Stay out there until you stop crying.” Then he slammed the door closed and left, presumably to go back to bed.
I don’t remember how long I stayed out there–probably not long, considering my thin pajamas–but I do remember the feeling of absolute frustration. I cried for a while longer, just feeling sorry for myself now, before I went back inside. Perhaps that moment out in the cold best defines my relationship with sleep. It mocks me–always–but there’s nothing anyone else can do as it slips through my reaching fingers. I finally figured out that my parents couldn’t do anything to help me fall asleep, and crying about it would only keep them up. It was just better if I let them sleep while I struggled with the problem on my own.
Even today, I still do these mental calculations at night, counting on my fingers the hours until I must get up to begin my morning routine, and even today, the knowledge of my consciousness in the early hours of the morning can distress me. I’ve learned however, how to solve this problem–I no longer have a clock with lit numbers. Instead, I have a cheap plastic clock with a face that you can’t see unless you push the button on top to turn on a small yellow light. It still takes me hours to fall asleep, but I’m no longer painfully aware of time as it crawls by and I have only the darkness at which to stare.