I recently moved into a new apartment with a roommate I don’t know very well, which is always an interesting experience. After all, there are certain things that are fine—if not expected—to tell your new roommate. “I shower in the morning, not night.” “I’d prefer if we didn’t have parties.” “I’m not great at dishes, but I’m fine with cleaning the bathroom.” You know. That kind of thing. Not, “Sometimes you might hear me up at four in the morning for weeks at a time.”
There’s a certain shame factor that goes into having insomnia, which is unfortunate because it is so far from a choice. This is what I tried to explain to my new roommate when I finally did tell her, “I have insomnia. No, it doesn’t mean I don’t ever sleep. No, it’s nothing like Fight Club. Yes, that movie was really good.”
The first time I pulled an all-nighter, I was twelve and passed the time by watching a 7th Heaven marathon. I remember thinking, “This is weird. I should be sleeping.” But my body wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t like a sleepover, where you force yourself to stay up with so much Coke and candy that your teeth hurt. No, this wasn’t a choice. I didn’t necessarily want to be listening to Reverend Camden wax sound advice, but, well, there I was.
With the 20/20 vision I’m only capable of having in hindsight, it makes sense that this time in my life was when my insomnia kicked into gear. My parents had just announced their divorce, sitting my brother and me down to say, “We’ve been having issues for years. This isn’t really a surprise,” to which I could only think, “It is to me.” I had just changed schools and found myself intimidated by the already-formed cliques, all of which seemed too tight for me to meander myself into. All that, on top of waking up one day to find that I suddenly felt like a stranger in my own body, and I was a shoe-in for insomnia.
Four days later, with just a few hours of sleep in my body, my mom took me to see a psychologist. Doctors will tell you that insomnia isn’t something you should feel guilty about because you can’t help it—it’s no different than a sore throat or an ear infection. But that’s only partially true. Yes, you cannot help it, but a doctor can look at your sore throat or your swollen ear, write you up a prescription, and get you on the right track. Insomnia doesn’t work like that. I was diagnosed with “general insomnia” and was told it was from “stress, probably” and that it would “run its course.” My doctor’s Columbia degree stood behind him as he relayed what he considered to be sound advice.
In high school, my insomnia would come in waves, typically occurring in periods of stress and anxiety. The week college applications were due, I got by on an unhealthy amount of sleep and an equally unhealthy amount of coffee. It actually never bothered me much in high school; it was just something I lived with, a part of me. I tried natural remedies, like melatonin and the old classic of warm milk, but they never worked. I did, however, take up running late at night/early in the morning, which sometimes would help with my insomnia, and almost always helped with my anxiety.