Can Insomnia Have Value?
I’ve never been a gifted sleeper. Even as a toddler, my dad would sit with me at bedtime, massaging my forehead and humming Brahm’s Lullaby. Then, when he thought it was safe, he’d tiptoe away, invariably hearing “daddy?” once he got to the door.
It’s pretty heady when you think of it: a young imagination, waking up to the world and witnessing all this mystery laid out before her. Watching and listening to parents, her little pals, sniffing all the corners of a pink-carpeted bedroom, staring at herself in mirrors wondering What Is This Creature? Eventually interacting with classmates and teachers, all the popular culture outlets, learning the vulnerability of her body. Then getting into bed at night with this mental cacophony . . . and expected to sleep? Soundly? For eight uninterrupted hours?
That’s a lot of pressure! No wonder there’s so much sleep anxiety out there. (We’re not even touching on those of us with active dream lives.)
Over the years I’ve had great sleeping periods, medium ones, and horrible restless, anxiety-ridden night frights. I always found a way to explain my sleeplessness — because that’s what we do in a culture obsessed with answer the question: How am I doing? One thing remained constant: sleeping throughout the night just wasn’t my thing.
Then, I read a phenomenal article about the myth of the eight-hour sleep. A new theory postulated that humans were more inclined toward a nighttime pattern of two sleeps, in four-hour chunks. Finally, I saw a model that mirrored my own way of sleeping.
I began to question everything I thought about sleep. Especially after a winter of waking up at 3 a.m. in a state of anxiety, trying every natural and over-the-counter sleeping aid and still, not sleeping.
It was time to accept the way I slept, for better or worse. And accept that whatever it was right now would change — like weather.
Sometimes insomnia is a gift
Knock, knock. Tap, tap. In my late thirties, after being up at night staring at the ceiling and reading books of poetry, this idea occurred to me:
What if insomnia is here to break me down so my resistance-wall loosens and something new can enter? What if this was a spiritual recalibration process?
Yes, it sucked to drag through the day, my eyelids getting heavy by 10 a.m. But I also felt like the fatigue was softening something in my body. In my broken down tiredness in which I didn’t have the energy to protect and defend myself, a new frequency was sensed, and I felt open to the world around me. The people in line at Starbucks; the great evergreen trees waving at me on a winter morning; a line of cars backed up at a streetlight — such beauty. I loved everything and felt part of it. I cried at the cat that followed me down the street, at the owner who thanked me for carrying her tabby back home. Insomnia was here to get something new into me, through the cracks of fatigue. I was, ironically, waking up in the tides of insomnia.
What if sleeplessness is your Spirit excited for something new?
I’m not talking about Christmas eve excitement. I’m talking about the seen-and-not-seen transition periods, when the spirit that lives in your corporeal suitcase is ready to get down to business: creating something new, connecting with people, getting out in the world, trying something different.
Tap tap. Nudge nudge. Let’s go!
I’m coming off five frisky night's sleeps: up for two hours reading; rising at 4 a.m.; not falling asleep until midnight. I’ve learned not to get as frustrated as I used to. My Kindle is tucked under my pillow, so now “insomnia” has been repackaged as “reading.” This helps.
When I don’t get pissy and judgy about my crappy sleeps I’m open to something new. Here’s what came to me this week: A feeling that my spirit was excited about something — ready to get to it! Which, after a year of being differently motivated during the pandemic was a welcomed relief. And then there was this —
You don’t have to have a crap day just because you’re bleedin’ tired
I used to really get into my tired days. I’d sit at my desk and repeat a mantra into my hollowed-out core of a self: “I’m sooooo tired.” Then I’d hallucinate bed. I sat at my computer staring over my screen, out the window or eavesdropping on whatever was going on around me. My husband hears a lot about how tired I am. Boring, right?
Now I know that while being tired doesn’t feel great — and apologies to the under-rested parents out there — but since it’s just me and my fatigue, what if I don’t get into it? PS. I’m a person who loves my sleep, regardless of quality.
On Wednesday I woke up at 5 a.m. after a 90-minute reading session that began at 2 a.m. I coached my Master’s swim group, then returned home where I had my coffee, stared out the window, sat in front of my computer answering emails, and really sank into the exhaustion throbbing in my head and chest.
Slowly, slowly, I opened up a document and wrote a bit. In an hour I was deep into the writing process. An hour later I was at the pool, in the glorious sunshine, having a great swim with a friend.
I forgot about my crappy sleep. This was fortunate, it doesn’t always happen. But it reminds me: a lot more is possible in a day than I used to think. Even the simple fact of having a great day when you don’t feel great.
A great day in the middle of a week of insomnia.
Why not open ourselves to fresh thoughts about what it means to be human — including our sleeping lives?