When the clock hands complete their tireless circuitous journey, forcing time forward and delivering 1 a.m. the panic sets in. Ironically, I spend most of my days waiting for time to move. With every new hour, I am free to leave class, walk home, cook dinner. As time ticks forward, so do I — the rhythm of forward propulsion is comfortable, something familiar and inviting. But, at evening time, when I am reminded by the yawns of my roommates that time progresses even through the night, I’m no longer comforted. Even late at night, the 12 a.m. hour still contains the hopeful possibility of falling asleep before 1 a.m. During the 12s, I can convince myself that it’s okay that, even though my body is heavy, my mind so desperately refuses to sleep. But when the clock changes from 12:59 to 1 a.m. I feel as though I’ve officially left the previous day behind. I am consistently awake to greet the new day. Already, I know how the hours ahead will be spent. Already, I know that when sleep finally does come, I won’t be in any state of relaxation.
My own insomnia presents as a difficulty falling asleep, but others with insomnia might experience trouble staying asleep or getting good quality sleep. Insomnia is also not uncommon; more than 3 million Americans are affected by the sleep disorder every year, and stress is one of the most likely reasons that people face this sleeplessness.
In high school, I was comforted by the idea that anxiety was likely responsible for my poor sleep. My mind was endlessly preoccupied with math test studying, essay writing and my constantly moving extracurricular schedule. Unfortunately, even though these days were filled with activity, I was often left with a feeling of emptiness in the evenings. As I laid in bed, almost suffocating between my weighted blanket and racing thoughts, I would realize that much of what I had done that day was not done for myself. I enjoyed doing well on a test that I had spent hours studying for, and I liked spending time with my friends while taping up fliers for a club. But these positive feelings were a result of activities that I had to participate in. I severely lacked any sort of free time. Lying in bed, when sleep was already far from being an option, I was finally presented with hours and hours unfilled by scheduled commitments. As high school progressed, I began to use this late-night free time to read or watch endless episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
While making the choice to click “play next episode” seemed like a good idea in the darkness of 2:30 a.m., it proved awful the next morning. As I dragged myself out of bed after hitting the snooze button one too many times, I would vow to try to go to sleep earlier the next night. I felt the effects of my routine during the day — I fought brain fog, sagging eyes and low energy-levels. But each night, as the hours slipped by, my mind seemed to re-awaken. The coming days, all filled with tests and papers, began to feel more real than they ever did during the haziness of my sleep-deprived days. So, without fail, I continued to reach for my phone as I lay in bed awaiting sleep, desperate to avoid thinking about anything school-related.
At the time, I did not realize that I was engaging in the fairly typical phenomenon of revenge bedtime procrastination: Those who have busy schedules will often sacrifice sleep in order to have any amount of leisure time, even though continually engaging in such a pattern ultimately has negative effects on mental and physical health. The stress driving my insomnia, paired with revenge bedtime procrastination tendencies, only further degraded my poor sleep health. Instead of focusing on tactics to address my sleeplessness, I used this false sense of wide-awakeness’ to engage in activities that had no real benefit. I became reliant on having my phone with me in bed, and while I worried about the general downward trend in my sleep time, I was convinced that once I left the stress of high school behind, I would no longer have to face endless hours of staring at my ceiling.
While I am undeniably less stressed in college as a result of finding a much healthier work-life balance, I still lie awake at night. My inability to fall asleep is now far more disquieting than it ever was in high school; I have no idea why my mind keeps me awake when my body so desperately wants rest. I can’t offer a concrete explanation as to what is keeping me awake — I can’t point to a standardized test or a quick turn around between a staff newspaper meeting and a long swim practice — which only breeds great frustration.
After a few months in college, when I realized that sleep was definitely not coming any easier than it had before, I committed myself to researching and exploring what I could do to help myself. But soaking my feet in warm water before bed didn’t seem plausible in the dorm bathrooms, and making herbal tea presented the challenge of boiling water in my unexplainably loud kettle while my roommate slept peacefully.
More feasible seemed to be the suggestions of taking melatonin and limiting screen time right before bed. But whenever I took melatonin, even if it was only 5mg, the next day I suffered daytime sleepiness and had to be jostled awake by a friend during lectures. Limiting my screen time did help my headaches and made me feel more alert. Unfortunately, I don’t think it had an impact on my sleep. I do not mean to undermine any of these suggestions, as they have undoubtedly helped many others enjoy more restful sleep. However, they don’t work for me, and because of this, I have felt lost in confronting my insomnia.
Although this lack of a solution has been frustrating, it has also led to a sort of acceptance of how my nights will proceed. During the day, the problem of insomnia feels remote. As I hurry between classes and the library, I don’t even think about sleep. Although I may feel tired, I don’t actively resent the fact that, the night before, I tossed and turned in bed for hours; the regularity of sleeplessness makes its effects familiar. But as the hours creep by — as I once again become closer to directly confronting my insomnia — any worries about sleep that are suppressed during the day come back out.
The evening hours, for most, are considered a time of rest and relaxation. People rest their feet after long days of work, turn on music as they cook in the kitchen or give family members hugs goodnight. But for me, these hours leading up to bedtime, leading up to and beyond 1 a.m. are consumed with anxiety. I know that I will not fall asleep easily, and I worry about what strange tricks my mind will play on me.
As I lie awake each night now, in contrast to high school, my mind cycles through a seemingly endless sequence of memories instead of anxieties. These memories range from moments of sadness to joy, but they also include seemingly inconsequential interactions that haven’t been relevant in a very long time. Moments that happened years ago feel as real as if they had occurred within the past few minutes. I think about an awkward encounter with my professor where I was unable to speak eloquently enough to phrase a simple question. But I also think about how, years ago, I hiked through part of the Appalachian mountains with a small group as a way to prove to myself that I could have courage in the face of difficulty.
I think that my mind has turned to an endless replaying of my memories due to a lack of external stressors. Yes, I still worry about upcoming exams, but not in the same, constant way that I did in high school. Insomnia has always been paired with anxiety for me. Now, my memories must take the place of external factors, functioning as a place for my anxiety to manifest. Positive memories become filled with the anxiety that I might never be that happy again. Melancholy memories are filled with a desperation of not wanting to feel that way again. And even inconsequential memories cause anxiety in realization that I can never change the way I chose to act in those moments.
As I try to fall asleep, I close my eyes and lie on my stomach, my head planted downwards. I am convinced the darkness that comes from burying my head in a pillow will help bring sleep. I so desperately try to fall asleep that, during every moment of every memory I recount, I hope that I am, in fact, asleep. Although, deep down, I know that I am still awake, it also feels entirely possible that I might not be. When memories come to me in this state, I don’t care enough to remind myself that they happened years before — I move through them as if I’m dreaming in the present.
This 1 a.m. activity warps my sense of time and self. It seems plausible that if sleep comes at the exact moment a new memory enters my mind, I might slip through the folds of time. Such a thought is so alarming that I often rise from my pillow, making sure I am still in my bedroom, surrounded by my bookshelves and next to my droning fan. Wakefulness is restored. As I eventually fall back into my pillow, the cycle begins again. Only when I am so tired of this not-quite remembering and not-quite sleeping does sleep finally come.
During no other time than 1 a.m. am I so driven toward self-reflection; a self-reflection influenced by the very darkness seeping into my room. The self that comes to me in my memories and the self that I believe I will become in the morning get warped and entangled until I no longer have a sense of who I am. I don’t know which version of myself belongs to “now.”
In my insomnia, I lose more than hours of rest. I lose a sense of concrete identity. Perhaps this confusion is what ultimately welcomes complete exhaustion and finally, blessedly, sleep.
Statement Columnist Olivia Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.