A Childhood Connection With Insomnia

I'm Not Asleep by Sage Callen

It’s as if I don’t have a body until I stop moving. Once I’m lying there—feigning motionlessness, my mind takes off. In this moment I try and breathe out into my extremities in a desperate attempt to escape the crevices of my mind. Take the heat off my brain and the slur of rushing thoughts—things I must do, things I didn’t do, what am I doing, where did I come from, why am I here, I should join the gym, what is wrong with me.

Suddenly I’m very conscious of the places I hold tension, and the places where my body meets his. I’m conscious of where he holds me and when he turns away. All of these things seem intensely meaningful under the covers of nightfall. It’s exhausting pretending to sleep. Trying to maintain a regular breathing pattern, deep but not alarmingly deep- or shallow. Trying to mimic regular sleeping body movement, all heavy and blind. I find myself thinking, I’m not quite comfortable lying like this, but it is warm.  I stare at the edges of his eyelashes, thinking about how creepy it would be if he opened his eyes at that moment to see me staring, at 3 am, not sleeping.

It comes out of nowhere, but I can sense when it’s creeping up on me. I’m restless as soon as my head hits the pillow. I come alive. This proportion of mental activity is unparalleled by any amount of caffeine. I say mental because, although it has the capacity to become physical, I remain within the borders of the mattress. I’ve learned to restrain myself because this is when the erratic thoughts bubble to the forefront of my mind. The thoughts bubble and brew until they reach a boiling point, and suddenly I’m convinced that I must leave. I must get out of bed and shuffle through the snowiness to the train where I will wait, alone, probably for an hour in the cold. The closeted paranoias latch on to an idea and all of the sudden I’ve created what feels like a life/death scenario. It’s as though I minimize my physical presence in the bustle of ‘city life’ in order to avoid confrontation. And then, when I’m alone, I’m there. I re-meet myself and the anxieties I’ve silenced for the day, maybe the week, month, year? They take hold of me. I cling to the noise the fan makes hoping that it will drown the repetitive echo of thoughts.

I’ve known Insomnia periodically since I was little. My father knows her well and introduced her to my brother and me. One summer when I was 13 and my brother was 8, we came to New York. We only saw the city through shadows and streetlights. We arrived at our hotel at 5 am, got breakfast (which was really dinner for us) at a nearby deli then fell asleep as the sun rose over the buildings. I can see clearly in my mind the yellow shards of light breaking through a rosy sky over the tops of the huge surrounding box-like giants. Then we drew the curtains. We slept until 4:30 pm and that was how it went for weeks. We got use to the reversed cycle though, every time we lived with our Dad. Sometimes it was torture. But other times, we enjoyed it in an exoticized way. Our world felt like a movie set, abandoned after filming wrapped up. We could walk in the road. We brought a bouncy ball around to play tag. We shared a silent kinship with the late-night employees of diners and drugstores for being of the same breed.

The familiar feeling of isolation accompanied us, as we walked around the Village in the middle of the night—my dad with a New York Times in hand. There were very few places we could eat, which left us to repeat our options. We were anonymous regulars at certain diners and scavengers of the luke-warm hot bars at delis. I was conscious of my body, my person in those situations because I never saw anyone my age. I just didn’t. There are people around New York City at three in the morning, but hardly any of them are sober or having a good time. Practically none of them are kids. We would go home and play cards, or read on the fire escape, or my brother and I would re-watch the same DVD. I’m still very sensitive to the moment, just before the day breaks. The navy turns into this deep-sea blue and then lightens, shades per minute. It starts to charge towards you. You can almost see the yellow light of day mixing in. At the moment of daybreak-- it became all too real. It got our hearts racing. We would try to run from it, draw curtains, run to the bedroom. It still crept through the blinds.

The implications of this lifestyle struck us when the sun crept over the buildings. The people came out with their dogs. People who had just slept for six to ten hours. People brought their young children to day camp across the street. Happy little children were playing around 8 am, and it reinforced what felt like monstrous tendencies in our own habits and severe separation from some kind of real experience. People walked around with coffee cups getting ready to start their day as the sun chased us away from reality, civilization.

Insomnia is a bizarre experience. Naturally, after being a human in the world and doing your daily tasks you’re tired. Insomnia doesn’t care. She takes your mind and leaves your body hostage to its surroundings. Your physical presence becomes a voyeur to the activity that passes by your eyelids. She conjures up uncomfortable, disconcerting material and its as though you have to enter a street fight with these thoughts. Punching and swatting them away, hoping that they perish, or at least feel threatened enough to retreat into the forest. It also doesn’t tell you how abnormal or confused you may feel after re-experiencing all of the things that have bothered you for a while. It doesn’t tell you how strange it is to then re-enter normal life. There’s a lasting degree of separation after re-watching that movie. It takes a moment to adjust, but you drink more coffee and admire the dumbfounded look of the people who are still half asleep.

I still know to this day, when I am lying on my side, looking out of the window. I know what time it is, how close day is. How quickly it’s approaching. I don’t even have to see the sky, I can tell by the way the color of the room changes. The anxiety feeds insomnia; she grows stronger.

When my partner hops out of bed, rested, ready for the day; I roll over lazily. When he asks, “how did you sleep?”

I say “fine.” Because, by that time, I’ve won the war. If you make it until day break, Insomnia gives up. She hands you back your mind in broad day-light, and gratefully, exhaustedly you cling to its lasting fibers, the few standing soldiers. Sometimes it’s not enough to last and as the world wakes up, I slip into sleep.