January 5, 2015

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

When I was about eight years old, I stopped sleeping. It wasn't a choice I made, it was something that happened to me I couldn't entirely explain. I just couldn't sleep. Some nights I'd lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, playing games with my imagination. Some nights I'd crawl out of bed and into the TV room next door, turn on Nick at Night and quietly watch F Troop, Get Smart, and I Love Lucy until the ominous moment that Mr. Wizard came one. That meant it was officially day- the children's programming was beginning again. Most days I turned off Mr. Wizard and climbed into bed, to close my eyes until my father woke me for school.

Many times, during that two hour window, I fell asleep at last, and my father struggled with rousing me from my bed- oblivious to how little sleep I'd managed to catch while the sun rose.

Some nights, I would go and knock on my parents' door. Occasionally my mother would take me to the living room, tuck me into the couch, or a few armchairs tugged together into a sort of crib, and leave me with a book and a shot glass full of schnapps, saying, "Sip it slowly. It'll help you sleep."

On one of these nights, she walked into the library, the room with our television, and grabbed a book off the shelf. A grownup book. It was "R is for Rocket," the story collection by Ray Bradbury. I read the whole book before finally drifting off, my ounce of schnapps inside my stomach and my lips both sweet and bitter. From then on I frequented my parents' library. I read dozens, hundreds of books. Everything by Ray Bradbury, although I really didn't understand some of it. I read the Agatha Christie novels my grandma loved, I read the complete works of Roald Dahl... I read "The Eyes of the Dragon" by Stephen King, and after telling my parents how much I loved it, they invited me to stay up with them one night and watch Poltergeist.

Once I was old enough to have learned the geography of our college town, I would sneak out of the house at night and walk, for hours.

I walked downtown, looking at all the darkened shops. I'd walk to the elementary school where my little sister went, and swing on the swings, singing quietly to myself until the sky started to turn purple.

I walked to campus, climbed into parking structures, and sang in the stairwells- every song I knew. Belting out show tunes and practicing my audition pieces for State Honor's Choir.

Me at 15, in front of one of my insomnia murals
I walked to friends' houses, stealing roses from neighbor's gardens, leaving them on their doorstep for them to find when they went to school.

I rarely had company or trouble on my walks. I took to wearing a long black cloak, which I hoped hid my gender as well as my face, and I walked fast if anyone was present. One night there was a man standing in front of one of my favorite downtown shops. Just standing, in the dark. Grinning. He creeped me out with that grin. He looked as old as my grandfather, and much balder. And as I realized he was watching me speed past, I realized he was naked from the waist down. It was the closest to danger I ever came on my strolls.

My parents tried to help me with my sleep. My father taught me meditation techniques, even loaned me meditation tapes. He taught me to breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. My mother took me to therapists to help with the insomnia, gave me melatonin, never questioned the destruction I wreaked on my walls when rather than walking around town, I sat inside, taping pictures to the walls in massive, intricate collages.

In retrospect, I think I made my sleeplessness pretty easy for them. And they were mostly understanding about it, even if they never understood its scope. I didn't sleep at night, most nights, for any useful amount of time, until I was twenty years old.

When I finally did start sleeping, I had nightmares. Every night. It wasn't until more than two years later, when M came into my life, that I finally learned what it was like to just sleep. Something I hadn't experienced in more than thirteen years.

I think about this, now, because SI has started having trouble sleeping. Real trouble sleeping.

Sometime between 11 and 12, most nights, she comes into my room, struggling to find an excuse. Her go-to excuse is, "I'm scared of the dark."

The fact is, I know this is not true. I know she is neither scared of the dark, nor relegated to it. She has a night light gummy bear who lives in her bed. If she were scared, she would turn it on. She would turn on the light. She would be scared. But she's not. She comes in and says, "Well..." and then begins her attempt to make an excuse for being awake.

I try to be patient, but I am not ready for this. She is five years old, and she does finally go to sleep. Every night. But I can see it coming.

I can see that sometime in the nest few years, it's going to happen. SI will lose her battle with sleep, and she'll be a confused kid, trapped in a silent house, alone with her thoughts. As a little kid, it's agony. Knowing you must be silent. Knowing you're no nearer to sleep than you are to morning.

She loves to read, so she has that going for her. But I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. The world has changed since I was a kid. No way in Hell am I letting any child of mine wander the streets of Chicago by night, so different from Ann Arbor in the 90s. But I cannot stay up with her each night, drinking warm cups of milk and reading books.

Some nights, yes, I can do that.

Because some nights, yes, I still don't sleep.

But I don't want this for her. I don't want decades of insomnia for her. I don't want the attendant depression and anxiety that come from constant fatigue. I don't want the regret, I don't want her to feel like there is something wrong with her. I don't want her to feel like she'll never be rested again. I don't want any of that for my daughter.

But on nights like that I want to tell her, "Someday, when you're a grownup, you'll be able to sleep." And what comfort is that to a child of five? What comfort comes from knowing you'll be old enough to have children of your own before you can finally enjoy the benefits of actually sleeping?

Last night I was awake long after SI. Laying in bed, anxieties plaguing me, alternately reading and playing Tetris.

Me and SI taking selfies (and M photobombing them)
Maybe next time she comes in at 11pm, I'll send M to the couch. I'll let SI lie down in the bed with me and talk through everything that's busying her tired brain. Maybe I'll take her to the living room, tuck her into the couch, and give her a shot glass of schnapps, "To sip slowly," and hand her a book a few grade levels beyond her abilities to struggle with and conquer before dawn.

Maybe next time, I'll curl up with her on the couch, and put F Troop on TV and watch until the sun comes up.

Maybe during the next Parent Teacher Conference, I'll tell her teachers to be patient with her when she's tired, because there is nothing I know to do to help her sleep.

Maybe this is one of those things in life I knew would come, these personal battles I just can't fight for her.

Maybe all I can do is be understanding of her when she weeps over nothing throughout the day, just too tired to behave, when she screams at her baby sister from the exasperation of the exhausted. Maybe all I can do is let her not sleep and love her so much that she always feels she can snuggle on my lap when she needs a rest.

It might not get her through high school, but it might get her through learning to live like this.

Maybe all I can do is be her mother.


  1. WOW. I did not know such a thing could happen to kids at that level. I have no idea what I would do in that situation, other than books. At least she knows she's LOVED and really? What more can you ask from parents?

  2. You are an amazing writer and an awesome mom!

  3. I don't have experience with insomnia at this level - I've struggled with it throughout my life but only for random nights at a time. Anyway, I am curious if napping is any possibility? If so, maybe changing how her day is mapped out would help. If she could go to school during normal hours, but then get a few hours during the day, and then do something productive with her night-time wakings? Sometimes it's compounded by the stress of wanting to go to sleep, so maybe if the pressure was off because she knows she can sleep during the day it could help?

    Or - perhaps even homeschooling is an option, so she can learn and sleep at hours different from the rest of us? Like if she could sleep from dawn to noon? Not sure how that would even fit with your family life, but like you said it hasn't really kicked in for her, so maybe you have some time to come up with alternating sleep situation for her that would work for all of you?

  4. Insomnia was something I struggled with until I started using cbd vape.

  5. How awful! I struggled with insomnia and nightmares until I married my husband and then the nightmares stopped but the insomnia continued. But nothing to the level you're describing.

    I don't know what they have in Chicago but here in Denver there is a pediatric sleep clinic through National Jewish that specializes in this sort of thing. If she ends up taking after you, I hope they have someplace similar you can take her for help.

    My kids both have insomnia now and we ended up doing a double-adult dose of melatonin for them and it's been so worth it in terms of quality of life for them.

    I hope you find answers!

  6. Look at all that curly hair!! Insomnia is something I live with too. Good luck! Elite Liquid Tobacco vape seems to help calm me down, but not fully sleep. I may try to get some CBD or meletonin to add to it, but hope you find something out.

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