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Adventures in Insomnia. By Elizabeth Tannen.

March 8, 2014

Adventures in Insomnia. By Elizabeth Tannen.

I’ve begun to have visions.

One night in mid-September it was a man on horseback, his hazy outline emanating outward in shades of fuschia and lime until it became the same man, in sharp silhouette and riding a miniature motorcycle. Then it was a troll. I interrupted these visions to feel guilty that even my insomnia-induced hallucinations are lacking in both clarity and function.

I don’t like to describe myself as an insomniac. It feels misleading, the way it feels to introduce myself as a writer or a native of Brooklyn. All these things are true, and yet all of them carry a specific and weighty set of expectations I’ve never felt secure that I can fulfill.

“You must be so productive!” well-rested colleagues often comment when I mention my difficulty sleeping. They picture me squirreled away in some dimly lit and highly elevated garret, alternately typing out the third in a series of epic children’s novels and reading through the second half of the Great Books.

Their facial expressions—sympathetic, but some envy etched into those compassionate lines on their tilted foreheads—suggest that whatever image they conjure bears little resemblance to my actual nighttime routine: cocooned inside my elaborately concocted sleep zone—foam earplugs in, two fans going, eye pillow strapped and a small pharmacy amassed on my bedside table—spending hour after hour shifting my body in large, repetitive motions that fail to bring on rest.

I am maddened by the romantic association our culture harbors toward insomnia: as though not sleeping reflects some sort of woeful brilliance, and is suffered by people whose minds are simply too vast and complicated to behave like those of ordinary, functional mortals. I understand there have been many brilliant people whose accomplishments were fueled by insomnia. Proust, Dickens, Marilyn Monroe, I’ve heard. Perhaps productivity is what kept them awake. But creative thinking is not what stimulates my insomnia, nor is it what my insomnia stimulates.  My overtired brain busies itself with petty, mundane, sometimes absurd and often narcissistically grandiose anxieties. Like what I will eat for lunch tomorrow and why I’ve had so few healthy relationships.  Whether I’m going to drink coffee or tea in the morning and how many books-I-haven’t-read-but-must I’ll be able to get through during winter break. Whether any of the ex-boyfriends mentioned in my latest online essay will read it and feel offended, or—at long last—horrible about not being with me. Whether anyone should read my essay because maybe it’s terrible and maybe I’m a terrible writer with nothing to say. Whether the man I’m currently seeing is going to lose interest and what I should wear tomorrow to keep him from doing so. What I am doing here and how I will ever sleep.

Have you tried the warm milk?”

My grandmother’s voice over the phone is gravelly, resonant with a hundred and three years of living in New York and speaking intermittent Yiddish.

Grandma Edith can probably count on one hand the number of times that she has left Brooklyn. She knows the definitive solution for every problem.

“I’ve tried everything, Grandma,” I tell her.

“But you haven’t tried the milk! Trust me, you’ll fall right to sleep.”

She’s right, I haven’t tried the milk. And I’m not inclined to. It brings to mind her other arcane treatments, all of obscure provenance and dubious effect: the mustard plasters my father gruesomely recalls from childhood, the red “bendel”—a small red ribbon—that she demands I keep affixed to my body at all times to keep safe from “the Mexicans” and whatever other unknown entities lurk wherever I am, somewhere to the left of Manhattan.  (“Grandma, I’m going to New Mexico, not Mexico.” “I know, but it’s in Mexico, right?”)

But I’ve tried everything else.

Hot baths. Two thick pillows. Tylenol PM. No pillows. Chamomile tea. 19th century novels. Bananas. Extreme exercise. Extreme Darkness. Sex. Yoga. Low-volume radio. The right side of the bed. Lavender. Pot. Masturbation. The left side of the bed. Eventually—at the startling suggestion of a well-traveled acquaintance with a degree in pharmacology—I even stick some skim milk in the microwave.

Occasionally one of these helps, but none are dependable.

When people ask for some explanation of my insomnia, I generally say that my mother struggles with it too. I mumble something unintelligible about whether it is or isn’t genetic, and then trail off. It seems more tactful than waxing on about my abnormal levels of anxiety or how I compulsively obsess about men.

I first remember having difficulty sleeping when I was little—probably five or six, or whenever it is when memories and consciousness first begin to gather. Though one or another of my three older half-brothers (like our father, expert sleepers all) were sometimes around in the evenings, at bedtime—to my perpetual disappointment—it was often just me and my parents in the house. I would insist that one of them sit beside me until I fell asleep, and that they stay on the second floor, where my bedroom was, once I did. I associate this stipulation with a childlike fear of intruders; with an image of a wiry man outfitted with dark, snug wool clothing and Spiderman-like capacities scaling the back frame of the house and entering my room. It felt like a legitimate worry at the time—it was Brooklyn, after all, and cars were occasionally stolen from our driveway—but looking back I wonder if I was really just afraid of being alone.

Eventually I learned to fall asleep without supervision, aided by a sequence of strictly observed nighttime rituals including tea and calisthenics and chocolate-covered marzipan logs that my father dispensed from the top drawer of his clothes closet.

I next encountered insomnia in junior high and then again in high school. I associate sleeplessness with boys then, too, though at that point they wore Jenko-brand jeans and oversized polo shirts and didn’t talk to me in the hallway because their friends thought I was a little bit chubby. I was a little bit chubby. That’s also why I couldn’t sleep.

In college boys did talk to me. In fact—as often happens on small liberal arts campuses—they talked too much. I spent most of my freshman year in perpetual conversation with a boy who everyone thought looked like me. His friends called me “The Nick Girl” while mine called him “The Lizzie Guy.” I pretended not to, but could see the resemblance: both of us had dark wavy hair, Roman noses and wore glasses with thick rims. We met nightly on the black metal stairs between our dorms to smoke more cigarettes than I ever really wanted to and talk about the fact that he wanted to date me but couldn’t because he wasn’t ready: he had to break up with his high school girlfriend, and then he had to find himself, and then he had to brood and write songs about the whole tortured process. (I only ever inspired one, to my knowledge still unfinished, called “It’s Not You, It’s Me.” I’m serious.) After six months he asked permission to kiss me on the steps and announced that he was ready to be together. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep for a week—after which he sat on the floor of my closet-sized dorm room and buried his head in his hands and told he’d changed his mind. I was devastated, convinced that no one would ever love me. I slept.

Insomnia renders life a nocturnal battle between me and my brain. I want it to turn off at night and let me sleep, it wants to stay active and keep me awake.

Everything takes a side. All the vices that insomnia triggers—caffeine, alcohol, unhealthy relationships—choose my brain. And the more the brain wins—the more I don’t sleep—the more ammunition it accumulates: extreme exhaustion and the frantic anxiety that I won’t sleep are its fiercest allies. Leonard Cohen and bubble bath, a couple of my most loyal teammates, are no match for such powers.

I’ve read repeatedly that you shouldn’t stay in bed more than thirty minutes when you can’t sleep. You should get up: do something. Be productive. Tire yourself out. I refuse to do this: instead I insist on lying there, obstinate in the face of more than a decade’s worth of contrary experience that eventually, my brain will relent and I will fall asleep. If I am reading or writing or otherwise engaged—my stubborn, exhausted mind insists—there is no chance that I will sleep. If my eyes are closed, at least, there is the possibility that sleep will come. So I turn off the light and roll from side to side: my heart pounding and mind fretting with the fear of slogging through yet another day without rest.

“Don’t you write?” my peers ask when I explain that I can’t comprehend much less critique their essays because I haven’t slept in four days. “You must be getting so much writing done!”

“Not really,” I respond, sometimes adding, “maybe a little,” for fear that they will otherwise think I am a complete fraud.

On rare occasion I do give in—turn the light on and read for a bit. Sometimes a sentence or scene for an essay will come to me and I will force myself to scribble it down, usually awed by its brilliance in the moment and by morning appalled.

Occasionally, lying in bed at night my body will begin to feel weightless and my brain will eagerly sense that I am approaching sleep. In response, it will zoom slowly out and hover by the ceiling at the southeastern corner of my bedroom, peering at me as though through some large and awkward funnel like the plastic cone my childhood dog used to wear to keep from scratching herself. “You’re getting closer,” it sing-songs, this disembodied, floating ego, but quickly the encouragement turns into a taunt: “You were almost there,” it says, “but now you’ve ruined it by getting all excited. Why can’t you just relax? You are never going to sleep.”

For most of the time that I’ve struggled with insomnia as an adult, Ambien has been my most reliable weapon. But acquiring it is a challenge. Often, it’s a humiliation. Doctors do not like to prescribe it, or at least to prescribe it readily, for fear of fostering an addiction. I suppose I should also be concerned about dependence, but if you’ve ever accidentally poured cereal into a full water glass, sober at three a.m., then you understand it’s hard to be concerned about anything besides sleep when you’re not getting any.

For the years during and after college when I was far from home and without a willing physician, my mother—also an insomniac, but of the pill-averted variety—readily served as my dealer: she got it from her doctor and then sent me bottles in padded yellow envelopes.

“I’m running out!” I would plead with her as my supply dwindled.

“I’ll talk to Bernie,” she’d say, sighing into the phone. Bernie is my parents’ general practitioner in New York. I don’t know much about him besides his handle, and my parents’ reports that it suits his nebbishe personality.

“It’s just helpful knowing that it’s there,” I sometimes tell skeptical doctors about my use of Ambien. This is true in the same way it’s helpful knowing that a pint of Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream is sitting in my freezer.

Recently, at a particularly desperate moment, I considered going to a sleep clinic. I was starting to wake up in the middle of the night even with Ambien and it had been more than a week since my last decent night of rest. I also thought the experience of hospitalization might make for good material.

But then I remembered the insight of my most recent therapist—from whom I’d woefully separated upon relocating for grad school—as we’d discussed my insomnia in the context of my relationships. “You have so much anxiety,” she’d said, her facial muscles curled in an expression of startling earnestness, “it’s a miracle that you ever sleep.”

At the time I was horrified, but feared she was right. And it occurred to me that a sleep clinic, with its white-coat-clad, blank-faced medical workers, wouldn’t likely be the place for pearls of such wisdom. So, instead, I headed over to the student health center to make a counseling appointment.

In the waiting room before my first session, I surveyed the human traffic in hopes of identifying “Linda,” the counselor I’d been assigned. Was it the tall and unusually slender redhead with the white linen jacket? She looked nice. Or perhaps the older, stout, grey-haired woman with squinty eyes and a warm, jowly smile? Certainly, it could not be that woman— that elf-looking creature with pale, bumpy skin and black, horse-shampooed hair, shrouded in a lycra medley of baroque floral prints. Surely she couldn’t be a counselor at all. She was older, fine, she wasn’t likely to be a student, but perhaps she worked at reception sometimes or in the lab on days when she remembered her lab coat. I watched her scoot, sideways, up and down the corridor and felt assured that no one could be expected to focus on their problems within any proximity to her most peculiarly small hands. Seated three feet across from her, moments later, I tried my best.

It was an “assessment,” which apparently means asking the same questions repeatedly, disguised mainly with slight variations in tense.

“Are you depressed?” she asked.


Later: “Do you get depressed sometimes?”

“No, not really—I mean, I get sad sometimes. But I wouldn’t say I’m depressed.”

“Suicidal, ever?”

I couldn’t help myself. “Why do you seem to think I have depression?” I asked. “I’ve told you twice now that I don’t. I know what a depressed person looks like. I’m often attracted to them. It’s a problem I have. I have problems, but depression is not one of them.”

She peered at me smugly, evidently impervious to my outburst.

“Do you always try and mindread in your relationships?” she asked. Her tone was so deadpan that it took me a moment to retrieve my indignation.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “Again, I do have problems in relationships but they do not include mindreading.”

She moved on.

“What do you think about when you’re not sleeping?”

My instincts told me to skirt the question: with the notable exception of uncommonly tall and transparently unavailable men, I am generally quick to judge the potential value in relationships and invest my energy accordingly.

“Teaching!” I told her. “I’m very anxious about teaching.”

“Say more about that.”

I may be judgmental, but I am not a good liar. Reluctantly, I confessed that thoughts of the man I was not then technically dating but spending all my time with and felt desperately attracted to occupied my sleepless mind more aggressively than anything else. Then I quickly sidetracked.

“And, you know, stupid stuff, like what I’m going to wear the next day and what groceries I need.”

“It’s easy to think about the little things to avoid thinking about the big things,” she said. At which point I started crying and talking about how badly I wanted a boyfriend.

At the end of our appointment she suggested making another one, soon, “so long as you feel good about our connection.” Clearly I didn’t, but no matter the context it’s always difficult to tell someone you never want to see them again. So I let her escort me to the front desk and schedule another visit.

The next day I called to cancel. Lying awake in bed that night, I imagined her asking whether I was always so passive aggressive.

Once I actually did date the man I’d told her about and didn’t sleep for the entire three-week duration of our relationship, I again confronted the likelihood that the “big things” she spoke of might mean men more than anything else.

When I first saw him, on the second day of TA orientation, I was intrigued but skeptical: he was too aloof, too good-looking, possibly gay. He drank green tea from a painted ceramic cup and rolled up the right pant leg of his brown Dickies; he claimed not to know about blogs. But then, that evening, I ran into him at the local co-op: me sorting through a pile of organic bananas and him regarding the cheese display as though taking in a particularly obscure Rothko. As I coyly returned his advances in the produce section, I made a mental check of my age—still twenty-five—and concluded it was still permissible for desire to override intuition. Over beers at a bar next door his soft-spoken manner and contemplative brand of affected speech reminded me of my last serious boyfriend, who I was attracted to because I thought he was more creative, more intelligent, and more conventionally attractive than me. Both of them also turned out to be more neurotic. Like most men I pursue, they project an image of enigmatic cool but have the emotional maturity of teenagers—likely stunted, my latest therapist suggests, by early-onset substance abuse.

We spent all our time together for the next week, during which we hardly touched and I hardly slept. Then we did touch, abundantly, and he quickly made clear what I’d known the instant I saw him: he couldn’t manage being in a relationship. Could we be friends? Fine. We stopped touching, mostly, but otherwise continued to be constant companions. I grew addicted to the anticipation: constantly wondering whether he would confess that he couldn’t physically resist me or remember to ask about my day. Needless to say, my brand of constant anticipation does not subside at bedtime: I was without pills, and barely sleeping. I cried, from exhaustion and anticipated heartbreak, I explained, in the office of a pink-faced doctor named Peggy who handed me a Kleenex and offered to prescribe some Ambien. I slept.

Occasional moments brought heightened suspense. One night at a party in the woods he and I started nuzzling over beers and smore’s on the back porch and wound up alone in a basement bedroom. Before anything had happened, he sighed and turned to me:

“I thought after a month you’d have realized I was an ass hole.”

“I realized you were an ass hole a while ago,” I replied.

“I just don’t want to make my shit your shit,” he whined, before pulling me to his chest for continued platonic nuzzling.

A month later he announced that he’d made a decision: he wanted to be with me. Are you sure? I asked. Does this mean we can fuck? He said yes; really, he’d thought about it a lot that day and he was excited. I was skeptical, but allowed myself to trust him. For the next three weeks we touched more but talked less and it was clear from his increasing distance that he still wasn’t ready: he alone and not us together needed to work through his drinking problem and hopelessly arrested development. I lay awake, my brain fuzzy with hypnotic meds, thinking that it was my fault for being insecure in relationships—and dreading the moment when he would back out.

The night before he admitted that he’d screwed up and broke things off, I didn’t sleep at all. We sat outside at a cafe for three and a half hours, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and solemnly gazing into the distance like characters from a Godard film: dramatically protracting the end of an attachment neither of us wanted to accept had been delusional, or doomed.

“You don’t know how to be with me and you don’t know how to not be with me,” I said. “We can’t be friends, at least not now.”

He said I was right and kissed my shoulder before I walked away, my legs heavy with exhaustion, sadness and some relief: thinking I might never have a boyfriend but that maybe, that night, I’d finally sleep.

Elizabeth Tannen is a writer, editor and teacher based in Minneapolis. She writes the blog Dating in the Odyssey Years, and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She’s currently an Artist in Residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.


Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station.  She’s leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is NYC in March followed by Dallas, Seattle and London. 

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