I come from a long, healthy line of mild insomniacs. My father, alert and awake by– what my mother begrudgingly informs me– 3AM. 4 on good nights. Not a single hour was left unturned. Our house, calm and dark and sure of itself on its hilltop perch each night, had the rattle and squirm of a termite infested doll, its eyes asleep while its inhabitants move to push through the seams. Whether it was my brother on his late night Nintendo 64 addiction, or my father’s just-past-midnight toss-turns-to-WWII-mini-docs on the History Channel, my mother and sisters’ bathroom runs, or my own spark of 2AM inspiration that found me lamp on and awake with the pen and paper I kept religiously by my bed for exactly these divine moments. I’m not sure a member of my family knew what REM cycles were. And what we didn’t know may have hurt us, but we didn’t miss it.
The charade of early-to-bed-early-to-rise created a strange sanctity of sleep, more appropriately found in phrases like let-a-sleeping-dog-lie (which, most often, actually referred to our dogs), and don’t-poke-a-sleeping-bear (which always referred to our father snoozing in his La-Z-Boy, the only place other than church he seemed to get good rest). These paired with mixed messages of you-can-sleep-when-you’re-dead (my adolescence) and you’re-going-to-sleep-your-life-away (my teenage years) birthed the confusing and guilty relationship I currently hold with the nightly slipping of consciousness.
Insomnia accompanied me most of my life, until the introduction of whiskey and Nyquil and late-night-early-mornings. Never mind the years it had aided in journal scrawlings and half-writ songs and solutions to world hunger and decisions to leave home. I could squelch that 3AM involuntary wake-up with the clink of a glass or an unproductive evening of late night shows I’m too embarrassed to watch during the day. Post college, I was nearly ahead of the sleeplessness by several days. By the time I got married a couple years later, I was sleeping through the night like a Olympic gold medalist of Snooze.
And then, like a good fairy, the night of my wedding, it returned.
When I opened my eyes to the beautiful Western North Carolina B&B at 2AM, my ankle throbbing from an attempt at ironic dancing at my reception, my brand new husband snoring next to me, and hours before a plane to our honeymoon, insomnia reached her thick wisp of a hand around my head. We have some work to do, she seemed to say. I had made a terrible mistake.
When the panic subsided, I respectfully submitted to her. Whether I stayed or went would need to be decided between us, in those quiet moments between midnight and dawn. She awoke me nearly every night, save those times on the road away from home, for the three years of my tumultuous marriage. Early on, I was alone. Even my dog learned to ignore the incessant 2AM pacing and 3AM research on Eva Braun. I spent the time writing, willing myself to love the life I was in. Later, the sleeplessness felt more like a defense mechanism, waking at midnight to escort my drunk husband back to bed. In the last days, she stirred me like a cry from the crow’s nest, opening my eyes in my separate bed to find him hovering over me, angry, and waiting, the tiny room thick with whiskey vapors at 1AM.
When I moved in with my sister shortly after, I slept more than I was awake. We had made it, and Insomnia moved to someone else’s wide eyes for a change.
I have resumed a very adult idea of sleep since. I have come to terms that it is necessary, even though a comedy podcast once told me that scientists have no idea why we do it. That not having enough is inconvenient. That when she returns on nights like these, I should bitterly turn the pillow to the cooler side and punch it down for dramatic effect, to tell the universe that I am a functional human being that adheres to the natural light-and-dark-means-awake-and-asleep convention. I tell myself I’ll be miserable in the morning without it. I down another cap of Nyquil.
Whatever she is trying to tell me can wait til morning, I think. But the quiet that lets the ears perk inward, that lets the heart tell the brain tell the body tell the heart in the should-be-asleep hours is vampiric in every way, waiting for my invitation and running for cover at the first hint of dawn. I want to believe there is no healing left to be done in the midnight hour. And as I kick the old bag out with still another cap of Nyquil or a healthy dose of nicotine, I realize I am ungrateful… but I’ll worry about that after I sleep…