Wakeful: A Year in Sleep

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Illustration by Annie Turpin

 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 8:12pm

Yesterday morning, I drank decaf coffee. Last night, I crawled into bed a little before midnight, but did not fall asleep until 3:30 or 4 a.m. And yet, now, at 6:11 a.m, I am a piercing, alert awake.

I shove my phone back onto my desk and push my eyes closed. The light from my phone’s screen creates an imprint on the insides of my eyelids. Instantaneously I begin to feel nervous (a feeling I now grudgingly call anxious), but, because I refuse to be a victim, I get up, tuck my hair behind my ears and reach over to pull heavy blue curtains open. Sitting on my bed, staring at the eerie morning light flooding across my crumpled blankets, I open my laptop. There’s a word document titled “insomnia” saved in a folder titled “2015,” within another folder titled “don’t go there.” This document was created on February 21 at 7:19 p.m. It was reopened and added to on March 7, March 23, April 7, 8 and 25. My pointer finger double clicks the document open and begins scrolling over the 5,000 plus words that exist inside.

As I type these words I have coursing waves of nerves brushing up and down through the inside of me. They originate in my gut, folded up behind my top abdominal, in the fleshy part of the cartilage that connects my top two ribs to my sternum. Sometimes a wave of nerves comes every time I take a breath in, sometimes a wave of nerves comes when I hear a noise, sometimes a wave doesn’t come and the lack of its not coming surprises me. I think about the lack of it, why this time the wave is absent, and, like clockwork, the wave does comes. It knows I’m thinking about it.

This word document contains the story I want to tell: about how anxiety leads to insomnia. But now that I’m upright, no longer attempting to fall asleep, reading over the words I wrote last year, I’m not anxious. I’m listening for those waves of nerves; I’m trying to feel for them. They do come sometimes these days, but today I can’t find them. This lapse or lack (I’m not sure which one yet) is the story I need to tell.

I’ve spent a year asking why my brain won’t let me sleep. I have found a lot of answers in a lot of different places. This summer I thought I fixed my sleeping, but in recent weeks I have been living too many 6 a.m. mornings. Fixing is complicated and identifying the need to fix it is even more problematic. As I read tirelessly through my old writing, I’m asking myself a slightly different question: Why doesn’t my mind let me fall asleep even after I have understood why it won’t let me fall asleep in so many different ways?

***

Last September I moved into a sorority house with 55 other girls. A sorority house is a lot of things; loud is a good place to start. Floors creak, doors slam, voices travel sharply and into every corner of the house. I wish I could say I had trouble sleeping because I woke up when I heard noise. Or I wish I could say I had trouble sleeping because I laid in bed for a couple hours thinking about the homework looming over my head, or how I didn’t want to spend next summer at home in San Diego like I had in the past, or my recent and only break up with a boy who’d been my best friend for years — though all of those things I did wake up to and did think about. But sound is sound and thoughts are thoughts, and the two didn’t add up to me not sleeping.

As the weeks got colder and I remembered how foreign scarves and boots look on me, I told my three roommates and myself I had a lot on my mind. “How’d you sleep?” was the most common, courteous greeting, but when directed at me, it became an ache in my chest. It still is. I didn’t bother saying much more than “OK” because though some people are light sleepers and might understand if I said “not great,” saying “I don’t think I ever fell asleep last night” isn’t a breakfast table conversation anyone wants to have. In quiet moments, I did say that last phrase, but the conversation fell bitterly silent because I didn’t have anything to say after that initial observation. Friends would ask why and I’d try to explain what I was thinking about but ultimately end in saying to them, “I don’t really get it.” They wouldn’t either.

I began “going to sleep” as early as I could, crawling into the corner of my top bunk bed around 11 p.m. I’d lie for hours, listening for when each roommate would come in the heavy door. One, two hours passing, three, all right everyone was home I thought. Then I’d lie watching for the sinking into sleep feeling to overcome me. When it wasn’t coming, I’d become frustrated that I wasn’t getting sleep nor was I getting work done. This intersection of two nonproductive truths was a driving center point that I fixated on. Some nights, around five or six in the morning I think I drifted, behind my thoughts, into a light sleep. At 7 a.m. my roommate’s alarm would go off and she’d dress to go on a run and I was wide-awake.

I drank coffee and went to class and went to meetings and wrote my stories for the student newspaper, and though I was exhausted each day that passed I reasoned with myself: I was stressed and college was noisy. I identified what happened at night in terms of when my roommates came home and when I heard noise and nothing more. I told myself I was OK in the morning, and throughout the day I could almost forget I even told myself that. For weeks, it was survivable. Months later, it was unbearable. But that was the trickiest part about all of this, and still is: There is a lot of truth in that simple phrase. I am OK.

***

My sister Robyn is two years older than me, but most people who meet us when we are standing side by side mistake us as twins. We are both five foot six, a hundred and twenty-five pounds, have the same dirty blonde hair, wave our hands the same way when we rant, had the same major at the same school (I get “Hi Robyn” on campus at least once a day) and have identical dream jobs.

In high school I could spend all week with Robyn: sit with her at lunch at school, drive home and do homework in her bed with her, hate walking the ten steps down the hall to fall asleep in separate rooms. When Friday night rolled around and friends would suggest seeing us we could decide to go to our favorite Japanese restaurant — where the waitresses knew us by the “twins” and the menu hadn’t changed in eight years — and I would still feel like I had a lifetime to catch her up on.

Senior year of high school I wrote a profile on Robyn. At the end of nine pages I tried to pinpoint the relationship Robyn and I have — how marvelously strange it is to have someone on this earth who mirrors your same goals in life but is not yourself and can challenge you and make you grow pretty perfectly. Our thoughts weren’t the same hair strands, but they weaved together tightly making us strong.

The two of us want to invent a lot of words. Like for the feeling you feel when you are perfectly full, but not just the word content, it must apply to eating only. Or the word for daydreaming when you are trying to fall asleep but not fully dreaming yet. Or a word to describe a process we always thought was possible: getting rid of the common cold by pretending you don’t have one. Robyn used to always remind me that life is too cool to sleep and we always wanted a name for that quality, the sleep-when-you’re-dead quality about someone, about us.

When we met my older brother’s girlfriend for the first time we thought she was too uptight — she lived alone in a tidy one-room studio, she had her days planned into a scheduling book, she checked off the lists that created her days religiously. I never thought I would become someone who needs to count the hours of sleep I’m getting or brush my teeth at a certain time or make my bed perfectly or tell Robyn I couldn’t go to the Arb at 2 a.m. All of these things I became.

***

In November I took a lot of NyQuil, the blue gels that were shoved in the bottom of my desk drawer that my dad bought me freshman year. Thinking the antihistamines would help me sleep, I began to take the pills every night before going to bed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The pills would make my body heavy and drowsy and craving sleep, yet my mind would still run with thoughts and never stop. It was tormenting.

One night when snow wasn’t on the ground yet, I ran out of NyQuil and walked to Walgreens to buy a box of ZzzQuil. On the second floor they had only shelved the extra large box. When I placed it on the counter along with toothpaste and a bag of almonds the cashier picked it up to scan it.

“Someone’s really trying to sleep,” he said while laughing a bit, low and loud. I tried to place his accent. He sounded Southern, but maybe that was still Midwestern. I laughed, just slightly, more to myself than to him.

“You know, in college I had the worst insomnia,” he continued. I looked at him, wide-eyed, wanting to hear more but not knowing if he’d continue and not willing to push him to.

“My girlfriend broke up with me and all I could think about was how I had screwed it up. I let it keep me up all night. I was a fool. I should’ve just gone to bed!” He smiled at me, as if it was that simple, paused and then after another low laugh said, “I’m just saying you can get really addicted to these things. I know.”

I tried to explain to him that they only shelved the extra large box and I didn’t really need that much. I don’t know if I would have taken ZzzQuil every night if I had bought that box. Before I paid, I asked him to take it off my bill. I walked home thinking that it had been weeks since I had thought about the nights in September when I did think about that summer’s breakup.

As I pull sticky contact lenses from my eyes, brush my teeth and crawl into an oversized t-shirt I often feel physically sick. I dread getting into bed because I know that it will begin my war with sleep. Where I fight to keep my eyes closed as wave after wave of once invigorating butterflies of nerves pulse up and down my body relentlessly. I often lay in bed for four or five or six hours not being able to silence my mind that runs around violently and carelessly with my thoughts. My eyelids tremor unknowing to the confusion beyond my skull and my muscle. When I wake up I don’t feel as if I am waking up. I feel woken, frightened, moved and rearranged forcefully in the middle of the night, but sun is shining through my window.

By January my sleeping got worse and my tiredness evolved into an unfamiliar tiredness. I no longer craved for heavy blankets and my eyes to close. My body buzzed with these anxious feelings, and I began to hate lying around and listening to them. What I hated more was how physically and mentally weak I felt. What I hated most was how I didn’t want to admit these weaknesses. And so I didn’t. The sockets of my eyes began to grow darker and darker shadows. I stood in front of the mirror and stared at the two semicircles of pulsing skin right under my eyes. The skin was colored a grey-purple; if I stared really close there were the tiniest light pink spots mixed in between. My eyes would sting — this sour, painful sting — every time my eyelids closed and reopened. I didn’t recognize both the feel and the look of my own eyes anymore. I don’t know how much of it was in my head and how much of it was reality, but I began to not look like myself. I stopped feeling like myself months ago.

***

The first week of February, I sat in a small waiting room with six black chairs and a coffee table piled high with newspapers and two different succulent plants. I was shaking just slightly, as I scrambled to fill in the mountain of papers on my lap that I was supposed to complete before my first appointment at Ann Arbor Consultation Services.

“Please list who you live with, your relationship to them, a description of who they are, are you satisfied with this relationship — yes or no?”

I began laughing, a shallow laugh, out loud, at myself. A girl or lady — she looked around 25— sitting two seats away looked over. Harsh, black-framed glasses dominated her face. Her hair was red and pixie cut. I wondered why she was here. And then hated myself for asking that question, hated myself for living every cliché movie scene of a therapist waiting room where the main character dreams up what everyone’s problem is.

I wrote down “55,” then the word “girls,” then paused for a moment and eventually wrote the word “friends.” The ballpoint pen I was using left a black blob of excess ink at the start of the “f” of friends; my handwriting looked ugly. I couldn’t muster much else more to begin to justify what my life was in a sorority. Justifying how I couldn’t imagine my life without it brought its own anxieties.

Folded up in a notebook of mine, I have a piece of paper that states in large, spidery handwriting “General Anxiety Disorder” with a string of numbers after it that I was supposed to call and repeat to my health insurance company but never did. It was given to me nine weeks ago by a therapist… my therapist. I kept it because it gave me concreteness every time I opened this notebook that sat on the desk next to my bed, it told me — or by keeping it there I was trying to get it to tell me — a piece of my identity.

“This is the room we have available at this time, it is typically for our younger patients, I apologize,” I was told on the first day of therapy as I entered a room painted blue full of puzzles and toy blocks. I made a joke about loving puzzles, grabbed a piece, and played with it between my pointer finger and thumb as I thought. I spent an hour on a couch every week. I practiced cognitive behavioral therapy on white worksheets. I talked a lot. I didn’t hate it. I learned a lot: how my brain had created unhealthy synapses where when I heard one noise, no matter how small, I jumped to thinking I would never be able to fall asleep when in truth it was a pretty small noise. How other things, like not going to bed on time or it not being fully dark in my room, linked another unhealthy jump in my mind telling me I’ll never be able to sleep. Every time these synapses fire they create deeper and deeper grooves in my neurological paths that release anxious feelings within me. My brain was making these well-worn grooves and I had to train it not to follow down the same problematic grooves every night.

I learned something really heartbreaking about the freedom of thought. I used to believe that every thought was your own and was healthy and true and deserved to be thought about and explored. I learned that this wasn’t true.

***

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. I paid a lot of money and spent a lot of mornings hoping my sister’s car that wasn’t built for snowy roads would survive a 10-minute drive to a therapist’s office to be diagnosed with the most general disorder that exists in the world. And now, I, too, was this basic denominator. I was the statistic written at the top of news articles addressing “mental health awareness” that were pitched in the newsroom.

I have typed the word insomnia into Google a few hundred times. Insomnia can be classified into four categories: transient (insomnia lasting a single night or a few weeks), intermittent (if transient episodes occur from time to time), chronic (if insomnia occurs most nights and lasts a month or more) or secondary (when insomnia is a side effect of another problem, a symptom of an emotional, neurological, or other medical disorder.)

I believe I have experienced all four of these types. The most prominent, and also the hardest to accept, is the secondary type — my anxiety gives me insomnia. But I don’t know if those words are true — the word insomnia and the word anxiety can very much be reversed in that sentence. My insomnia gave me anxiety. Because I could’ve sworn to you those first nights not sleeping there were no waves of nerves, I just simply couldn’t sleep. Or, were the waves there and I just didn’t have a word to call them by? Did defining them “anxiety” make them occur more often? Did identifying a problem help solve it or simply and boldly accentuate it?

***

I traveled to New Hampshire in a minivan with five strangers at the start of May. We had all signed up for the New England Literature Program and would be camping and backpacking while studying the work of New England authors together. As hours of the drive stretched on and secrets seemed to be exposed like they were nothing fragile between us, I told them I was worried about my sleeping. I didn’t know in that minivan that I was about to spend six weeks learning how to sleep again. At night, my body would not feel anxious and buzzing but instead be calm enough to actually crave sleep now that it had been reminded how good sleep felt. There are a lot of things to fall in love with in the carefully crafted community of NELP. Sleep was my largest love affair.

When we spent three days in the pouring rain on the Pemigewasset trail, a trip we had to cut short due to the harsh weather, I faced my anxiety with higher physical stakes. Instead of having to wake up and walk my body through Ann Arbor to class, I had to be rested enough to climb a mountain.

When the last week of the program came and I still hadn’t taken a solo camping trip where you hike out and set up camp to spend 24 hours completely alone, I began to think about and realize why. I imagined all the waves of nerves finding me in a small green tent with thick rows of birch trees and miles of lake water around me. I knew I would spend 24 hours wide awake, counting the waves of nerves pulsing up and down the insides of me. After the dishes were cleaned that night, I signed myself up anyway.

On my solo, when the sun went down and I crawled into my sleeping bag, I couldn’t find the waves of nerves. And where in the past the searching for waves typically brought them running to me, none came. I fell asleep effortlessly, on a slanted hill because I couldn’t find flatter ground, on twigs and branches and rough dirt because I didn’t do a good job of clearing the ground, listening to strange animals thud through the brush. Despite all of the unhealthy synapse-inducing factors, I slept.

***

This year, as I folded sheets under my mattress and pushed pins into a tapestry to hang on my wall, I told myself I was constructing a purposeful place to sleep. I told myself it was going to be different this year.

It is different, of course it is, but sleep doesn’t come like it did in New Hampshire or in San Diego or in Washington D.C., where I spent the rest of the summer. It seems to remember it is unwelcome here in Ann Arbor.  

Sometimes I go to class with the old exhaustion. But sometimes there are days when someone answers my question of "how are you?" with “good, but tired” and I feel like I can actually relate because I feel a normal amount of tired. There is never a night I fall asleep — that luxurious sinking feeling that I miss — effortlessly.

The second week of the semester I sat on a black couch and a boy asked me to explain why I said I didn’t want to see him anymore after a very sudden and short amount of time. I scrambled with too many words, trying to explain how I have problems sleeping and don’t understand it fully and his presence in my life added more waves of nerves and less sleep. I didn’t say to him what I have written here. I fumbled a lot. He looked at me and said, “Claire, that’s the point. You have general anxiety disorder; you don’t have to explain it. It is a clinical disorder.”

Maybe he’s right; maybe I need to get better at understanding the clinical part of my disorder. Maybe I need to pull out that white piece of paper that has my diagnosis on it and study it, learn to cope with the tangible symptoms of anxiety. To accept that my insufficiencies are excused by my diagnosis. Maybe my exhaustion will finally evaporate if I can stop trying to solve my anxiety, to cure it. But here is the difference: It is not as simple as what all the thought catalogs and WordPress blogs from every anxiety-suffering teen who preaches to accept yourself and become not a statistic but a normality, because I have tasted cured-ness. In New Hampshire I was strong. I know I do not have to live sleepless.

There is something sickening attached to what I learned in therapy, attached to this clinical part. I learned that my brain, my self, created unhealthy neurological pathways. I made so many unhealthy choices that I gave myself a disorder. Though I am trying to pull myself out of those deep problematic neurological pathways, I am haunted by this idea that I gave myself a disorder.

***

It is a strange sensation to watch yourself in very real, tangible ways change into a person you don’t recognize. Last year I noticed I’d creep away from loud conversations and into the confines of my bedroom. Outside of my house, I noticed when conversations got loud more often and would remove myself from them, not commenting or speaking up. In these awake times, there were never waves of anxiety. So why was I creating distance between myself and the people around me? Why, when I genuinely liked and wanted to share my life with the people around me, was I reverting more inwardly than ever?

So this week I sat on each of my roommates’ beds and challenged myself to explain my insomnia, something I always struggled to make public. As I opened my mouth an elevator speech of what my insomnia is like flowed from my mouth, and, strangely, I didn’t hate it. I said it seven times, to each of them, and for the first time in a long time I recognized and liked the sound of my own voice. I wasn’t explaining a diagnosis, I wasn’t explaining a definition of insomnia that I had Googled, I was explaining, quite simply, me.

Just like those deep grooves that are the neurological pathways in my brain, I’m typing these words to create new grooves that lead to a healthy explanation of my anxiety. I’m pulling myself out of the problematic grooves. I’m remapping my brain.

I’ll now always think of my anxiety as not general, not the same, most common mental disorder in the country, not everyone else’s. I’ll think of it as this peculiar, hybrid disorder that surfaces only in this unique arena right before and right after sleep. Sleep is a romantic time between self-awareness and self-lost-ness, and I feel lucky my anxiety allows me to exist so alert in these times: They might be the most important. I’ll share what I can about this precious part of me and I’ll know sharing feels reassuring and rewarding. But I won’t forget that there is beauty in the nuances of my secret: There will always be a little bit of all of this that is still unsolved, and I’m not afraid, worried or anxious to keep that part to myself.

I am going to create a new word for my type of anxiety — a precious type that only comes alive in the secret moments in between the conscious and the unconscious. That word will be all mine.