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.
My freshman year of college was not the year I thought it would be. I had spent so much time imagining a college utopia that I was crushed when it did not measure up—when the winter (even the unseasonably mild one of that year) made my bones ache; when I never found a group of friends to call my family, like everyone else seemed to; when my writing felt uninspired and seemed to fall flat. I can now see that I was barreling towards an all-consuming bout of depression, but I was too busy saying, “I’m fine. Really.” to anyone who told me to get the necessary help. I decided to stay in Boston at Emerson College for summer session to get some of my general education requirements out of the way. I stayed in an apartment overlooking the Boston Common with three girls I didn’t know, locking myself in my room most nights and writing.
This was the first time my insomnia was paired with depression, and it was the first time I felt my insomnia wasn’t just something I lived with, but was something I lived in. I would sit in my bedroom and try to find some sort of story or narrative to envelop me safely in the world, but there was nothing. There was the sun rising over the Boston Common, and a bed that had remained empty for days, and dark purple circles under my eyes. I began to wonder if I was breaking. When I could sleep, I was incapable of dreaming. I began to wonder if I was already broken.
I found a form of solace in writing and would fill out an entire journal a week. I would end each day by writing in my journal, “Tomorrow I will wake up, and things will be okay.” I became obsessed with the idea that, if I could just go to sleep and wake up, I’d become brand new. A little tired maybe, but brand new, nevertheless. But then I would be up all night, and in the morning, I would be just as I was.
In July, summer session was over, and I went home to South Florida for the rest of the summer. I spent the first two weeks petrified that this was how I would feel for the rest of my life—somnolent and half alive. I would drive around at night, mostly just up and down A1A, the road that lines the ocean. After exactly two weeks of being home, I realized that the only person who could start the healing process was myself. I decided to see a therapist regularly, something that made me feel an unnecessary amount of shame, but my embarrassment was eclipsed by the fear that I would die within this illness. After a month and a half of therapy, I began sleeping and dreaming again.
Sometimes things happen in life and, even though they felt monumental at the time, you look back and see it was just a hill, not a mountain. This is how I feel about what I thought was my first heartbreak, my first “C,” my first rejection from an internship. This is not how I feel about that time in my life when I was driving around, functioning only on a few hours of sleep, my brain buzzing, and my heart physically hurting. I think there was some permanent emotional damage done there, but I also think that’s okay. Pain causes scars, but it’s also what changes you. It reminds you of your body’s capability to heal.
Happiness takes practice, and it’s also a decision. At least for me. You have to train your brain to think more positively, and you have to love yourself enough to do that. I love being alone, but I’ve learned that it’s a balance. If I stay in every night for two weeks, forcing myself to stay up, allowing my brain to go dodgy and desolate places, I’m going to reap the effects of that. Although I no longer see a therapist regularly, I cannot imagine what I would have done without therapy. Insomnia is not something you can help, and it’s not something you have to apologize for, but it is on you to make the decision to control it. It is on you to make the decision to start dreaming again.