Sometimes the nighttime pulls me awake.
I don’t always have insomnia. This time of year it’s worse than in the long still nights of winter. It’s June, in the northern hemisphere, and the birds are waking up at 4. Lately I wish waking up at four was a possibility for me. This week, I’ve heard the birds wake up more days than not.
Today I waited for them for hours.
I saw a therapist for insomnia last summer when I got really tired. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for sleep is a thing now, a new way of thinking to keep us all in our beds through the small thoughtless hours of the night, when every clock tick rings like a tolling bell or a war drum, when my heart races and my eyes droop but cannot close. We can change our thinking, the theory goes, and the 2000 generations of human evolution that woke some of us up at the hour of the jackal and the creeping enemy to keep teeth and axes off of sleeping babies will fall aside
Don’t get me wrong: my therapist was wonderful. She was a long thin woman with graceful hands, a fact I found fascinating at the time, and hold crisp memories of now. I told her I hadn’t had more than four hours of uninterrupted sleep in over 7 months, that my average was about 2.5 hours a night. I told her I had tried everything I could think of: room colder, room warmer, no lights or screens or exercise for an hour before bed, wake up early, lie down early, eat less, eat more. I gave up coffee and tea and milk and wheat for a while. I treated my sleep apnea with a machine that made me half-wake yelling in the night and made things worse. I joined the gym.
She told me to get up, to do something soothing and not goal-based when I couldn’t sleep, and to limit my time in bed to very specific hours. She told me not to nap, and to get up at 5am and work out. The theory is that if you restrict the available hours you can sleep, you will sleep better, more deeply, and more consistently when you do go to bed.
Three months in, this seemed mostly effective, although my sleeplessness has always been seasonal, waxing and waning with the light, so some of the success was probably that confirmation bias that happens with a hiccup cure: anything you do to distract yourself gives it time to clear up on its own.
I’m writing to quiet my mind tonight, because my mind is noisy these days, but I can’t help thinking of my graceful, long-handed CBT sleep counselor. I can’t recall her name right now (would morning Molly remember her name?) but I do know she’d be annoyed if I’d told her I was writing an essay on a lit screen, because blue light wakes us up and a brain like mine wants to finish a task, and that keeps me from getting sleepy.
So here I am, 3 am again. It’s the fourth time this week.
It’s better this year, I know it’s better, I know the woman I am when I walk around in the day is having a better life than this, but here in the dark, when even the dog is sleeping, when the cats blink slowly to ask for pets or breakfast, here in the rough unfinished hours of another goddamn day when train whistles ring lonesome across a city more sinister than silent, here in the dark it’s hard to remember.
I should get a lot done, with so much extra awake time, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do. If I balance the checkbook I’ll have to check it again when the sun is shining. If I write songs I can only sometimes decipher them later. Practicing guitar wakes other people up, and although my sleepless self wants to go to my sleeping family and shake them and wake them and make them tell me the secrets of Morpheus, I know the day-woman loves them.
I know they need their sleep.
I need sleep, but my life is a story about only sometimes getting what I need, a story of careless and intermittent deprivation. And much of that story is written at night.