Sunday, September 20, 2009

The shifting nightscape of my insomnia

I sometimes have insomnia, the kind where you find yourself wide awake at 2 am, mind racing.
The river of thoughts that rushes through me at these hours used to be frightening. I would torture myself with a full spectrum of what-ifs, which spun my nerves more tightly with each round, until it was all I could do to lie flat on the mattress. During the first years of our marriage, my poor husband would sigh as I slid out of bed and fled toward the study. There, I would turn on a light and read or write, and wait for a feeling of "normal" to pull me back into my life.

This habit of getting up and doing something became an easy habit for me, and one that only made my insomnia worse. If I could grab a last hour or two of sleep before I showered for work, I felt like I had "slept." To my surprise, I managed; in fact, I thrived during the day. The light itself was a tonic, a revelation that everything was okay. And in the middle of the daylight I marveled at how clean and safe everything seemed. It felt impossible that the shadowy loneliness of my wee hours could coexist with the happy days I experienced. I look back at that time, and I know that I must have propelled myself through the world on sheer nervous energy.

The funny thing is, I never dreaded going to sleep. I loved our room, our home, our cozy life. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and my dreams were mostly rich and sweet. It was the slow, dark hours I hated, while I worried myself into a frenzy, my mind buzzing at the low frequency of the traffic on the interstate outside our loft.

In college, years before I had my own sleepless nights, I shared a dorm room with a girl who had chronic insomnia. She was the first person I'd ever met who talked about it and accepted it as a part of her life. When I woke to use the bathroom at the end of the hall, the half-light from our window revealed Lisa in the bed across the room, her eyes wide open and fixed on some spot on the ceiling. Almost always, she would roll over on her bed to greet me in strangely chipper yet sotto voice, "Hi Kirie!" Amazingly, sometimes she would start to engage me in conversation, as though I had just returned to the room after a class.
Lisa was probably only 20 years old, but she was as sensible as a real grownup. She never complained, but instead just took her insomnia on her own terms. Her solution: the radio on her Walkman. During those post-midnight hours, she tuned her radio to AM talk radio hosts, and they lulled her off to sleep just before light each day.

Knowing what I know now, I probably would have made a point to waken just to talk to her. The hardest part of my own insomnia was the loneliness. The otherworldly feeling of the wee hours comes not from the darkness so much as the absence of other people. No wonder Lisa welcomed my waking so eagerly. How I would have loved to wake my husband to talk with me on those interminable nights in the loft!

My insomnia pursued me through several moves, the arrival of our oldest daughter, and some practice with meditation. But, by some stroke of grace, once I got into my mid-thirties, the river of thoughts started bringing fewer and fewer anxieties with it as it coursed through my 2am bedroom. The darkness started feeling less oppressive, the dusky forms of our dresser or the curtains less threatening.

I stopped retreating to a lighted room, and resolved to instead feel the night settle around me each time I woke at odd hours. And on many of those nights, something resembling a calm came to me. Sometimes, I would even find that I could get myself back to sleep. By some small miracle, more and more of my nights were spent sleeping. Insomnia has now become only a sometime companion for me, and for that I am grateful.

When the formula in my life is right, the river of thoughts resumes its path through my night room. But bobbing along with it now are ideas, plans, things to puzzle through. When I wake up at 2 am these days, I am not buzzing with what-ifs. I am dreaming of projects, I am mind-writing, I am hearing music in my head. A few weeks ago I even caught myself practicing the fingerings for a song I'm learning on the piano. It is still otherworldly at night, but now the world feels charged with possibility instead of dread.

When I was younger, waking to the knowledge that I was the only one conscious left me gasping. And far from comforting, my husband's rhythmic breathing made me only all the more aware of how far away he was when sleeping, as though he had receded from me and into his dreams. My panic was practically tangible, like a whispered, frantic mantra of "I'm alone! I'm alone! I'm alone!"

Something has shifted since then, certainly. And perhaps it's because I'm distracted by my burgeoning list of projects, but I no longer feel so lonely when I'm up with my thoughts. Or perhaps I feel more secure in my marriage; fifteen years with my soulmate has taught me something more about trust, and I no longer feel he has fled from me in his sleep. The house itself offers its companionship. Far from frightening, the house at night envelops me, welcomes me, and nurtures some excellent ideas for all the things I enjoy making.

There is still the silence, but it is laced with the sounds from the woods outside our window, the foghorn on the bay, the thrum of the cats as the sleep on the bed. When I do want for a facsimile of human interaction, I find I crave voices. Last year, I realized I could, like my old college roommate, listen to stories through headphones, and I started using my ipod during my night wakings.

Hearing the whisper of a storyteller is intoxicating. I've found that with these voices in my ears, I'm soothed to sleep, but at the same time, inspired by the stories themselves. I've been discovering an unexpected energy in the spoken word, an energy that carries over into my perceptions of the next day. And, most surprising, I have actually started relishing my sleepless hours as quiet opportunities to just listen and dream my waking dreams.

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Maggie May said...

Kirie this is just a lovely essay! I so enjoyed reading it.

Cheryl said...

I'm glad you've come to terms with insomnia and are putting it to good use. I have it too, every now and then, exhausted but still unable to sleep. Sometimes I just get up and get some work done too, but usually I put on NPR or an audiobook which lulls me to sleep after a while.

Dottio, great essay!

Angie Muresan said...

That was such a great read! Insomnia and I are old friends as I have had it on and off through the years since my teens. We've made our peace though, and it no longer bothers me, for I've started doing what you do 'dream my waking dreams.'

La Belette Rouge said...

You make the ordinary magic with the sublime. Last night I had the worst insomnia I have had in years, somehow anxiety snuck in and stole my sleep. I wish I had read your gorgeous piece before this a.m. I could have benefited from your wisdom and maybe would have listened to a story or two.Tonight I my I-pod will be charged and filed with stories just in case the sand man forgets to put me on his route.

Angie Muresan said...

I hope you are doing well and your little darlings are too. Been thinking about you, as I've been checking your blogs every couple of days and not seeing anything new.

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