This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?
I have always had trouble sleeping. Many of my strongest memories as a child are of me, lying in bed, in the dark, unable to sleep. I wasn’t allowed to get out of bed, or make noise, or anything, so I would just lie there, making up worlds in my head, fantasies and anxieties. I would often get up out of bed once everyone was asleep to make sure they were all still alive, that the house wasn’t about to burn down.
It continued into my teens even though I was swimming every morning at 5:30am and again for 2-3 hours every night. I would get home, exhausted from a full day of swimming and school and extra-curricular activities (I avoided being at my house at all costs, until I absolutely had to), and I would fall into bed, completely unable to sleep. And then the alarm would go off the next day, after I only caught a few hours, and I would begin again. On weekends, I would sleep until noon on Sundays (the only day I didn’t have practice), and I would be called lazy by my step-father and mother.
In college, I really leaned into not sleeping. I wrote a bit about it for HuffPo, years ago. But I couldn’t sleep. I would play Solitaire on my computer, making a deal with myself that I would go to sleep as soon as I won. I was famous for writing what I called the 24hr essay: I would start at around 1pm the day before it was due, when I finally woke up, and then write all day and into the late night, early hours of the morning, turning in a final paper just in time for the 1pm class start. My friends always asked me how I did it. The truth I buried in the HuffPo piece, the truth I didn’t understand, was that my mind was in fact always racing. When I was lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, I was writing the essay, over and over, in my head. When it finally came time to write it, the paper itself was done; it just needed to get out on paper.
Grad school was perfect for this kind of routine. The one course that I did teach was at noon, and all of the classes I was taking were in the afternoons. I could stay up until all hours reading and writing and thinking, so I did. My students were regularly amazing that I would answer their emails at 1am when they sent them; we kept the same hours. I would do my best writing at night, in the quiet, in the relative dark. Not that I couldn’t write during the day (and I did when I had to) but I preferred, my brain preferred the night.
My mind has always raced, has always drifted, has always had a multiplicity of voices, directions, tangents. The anxiety was always there, too, but it wasn’t until I was a parent that the anxiety couple with my inability to sleep and a newborn did me in. How did I mange to not-sleep, take care of my newborn daughter, revise my dissertation, apply for 187 academic tenure-track jobs, and teach a full course load? I have no ideal; I did it all and I did it well enough. But I was falling apart; I was finally diagnosed with PPD after a year.
I was obsessed with “teaching” my daughter good sleep habits, especially as it became clear that she suffered from some of the same sleep issues I did, even as a small child. She had a lot of trouble calming down, was always ALWAYS alert and curious and wanting attention, wanting stimulation. At once point, we set up The Many Adventures of Winnie-The-Pooh on one of the laptops, put it on in her room in the dark, and closed the door. She would drift off to sleep to the soothing sounds of Pooh and Pigglet and the other creatures in Hundred Acre Wood. I would then sit on the couch sobbing because I was such a terrible parent and I was about to scar my daughter for life, as I had been scarred, with poor sleep habits.
And don’t even ask me about my son and sleeping.
I now know that this all stems from my ADHD. It doesn’t help me sleep, however, with the medication wearing off by the end of the day, by design. I’ll admit to self-medicating with alcohol in order to help me sleep. I don’t know how else to do it. Sleeping pills don’t have the desired effect on me; like many people with ADHD, medications have different and unintended interactions. It’s the same reasons stimulants calm me down. Or at least something like that.
Last night I woke up at 2am and couldn’t fall back asleep. I tried all the tricks I use with my kids: breath in-for-three-out-for-three, come back to your breath, sink deeper into the bed, breath out all the thoughts on each exhale. None of it worked, and I was lying in bed, despairing (as I have so many times before) that I’ve forgotten how to sleep. But I was able to quickly and efficiently wave that particular worry away. And really, there weren’t any worries or anxieties at all keeping me awake. I was excitement, ideas about the books I am writing and the books I am reading to help me write the books. Inconvenient, for sure, but familiar and regular and in some ways exciting. My brain, properly medicated, might not be any better at sleeping, but it is better at not being anxious and depressed.
I don’t have the luxury that I did when I was in university; I can’t just get up and write until 4am and my brain and body so exhausted that I just collapse into sleep. I have kids, a job, the routine that comes from being a grown-up, and a body that isn’t as young as it used to be, able to survive and thrive on only a handful of hours sleep. But I’m looking at the bright side of this recent bought of insomnia as an indication that I am on the right path for myself, for my work and my writing. My brain hasn’t been this excited since grad school. It thinks we’re back there again.
I just have to figure out how to get the sleep I need to do the writing I want.