Sleep Is the Monster on My Bed

Art by Adina Guo

I was a poor sleeper from the start. Until I was seven years old, I slept in the same room as my parents and younger sister, not for lack of space, but because I wanted to. I recall waking often, excluded from the scene of a room that was snoring in harmonious tension with its own silence, disappointed in myself for failing to comply with such an ordinary task. I have no recollection of ever daring to wake anybody so they might keep me company, but I can vividly see the image of my mother sitting up in bed with me, snacking on a sliced Persian cucumber, after which I must have drifted back into sleep every time. At school, during naptime, I habitually shut my eyes in faux slumber, never actually falling into the warm net of the afternoon nap so kindly offered to me. Instead, I remained stiff, my body humming in discomfort with itself, and eavesdropped on the conversation of the adults in the room, always wishing someone might notice I was still awake but never considering telling them myself. 

A state of perpetual sleepiness would be a challenge for most children. Every moment I spent awake each night turned into weighty remainders which pushed steadily down on my eyelids, my head ready to fall forward at any moment of the day. I was apt at dozing off on car rides (coming home, leaving home, etc.); in the dim afternoon heat of a class after lunch, sitting up and with my eyes open; or with my head down on the table in the stark, fluorescent attention of restaurants, lulled by the humming of voices and the clinking of silverware. I seemed incapable of getting all the way to REM unless I was in the company of other people who were wide awake. 

My youngest years, dominated by the hazy cloud of constant fatigue, faded into tense and vivid adolescence. Beginning at 13, my months were often blocked out by phases of inexorable insomnia followed by weeks of near-narcolepsy.  My diagnosis of insomnia by Dr. Goldsich, my exceedingly optimistic pediatrician, was unexpectedly unceremonious. For some reason, in all my years of sore necks and cheeks pressed against the car window, I was waiting for something more. She, however, seemed unfazed, and was not quick to provide a solution other than discouraging me from caffeine. Unsurprisingly, my adolescence was characterized by a bitter, nascent anxiety which clutched at my stomach and tied it into an expert palomar knot, squeezing a tense headache into the narrow space between my eyebrow ridges and the skin that covers them. I resorted to occupying each unclaimed moment of my days with sleep in some naive and blind trust of its restorative, forgiving, and non-discriminating qualities. I felt perhaps that I had earned its sweetness after each day spent bouncing my knees into oblivion, raising my shoulders into a semi-permanent embrace with the sides of my neck in the unceasing concern for things that had not yet occurred. I failed to consider a source, that perhaps it was the prospect of falling asleep around other people which ate away at me, the recurring nightmare of dozing off so deeply that I missed the end of the day, an unintentional Irish goodbye—except it was everybody else leaving me instead. 

I came to see my bed as an island on which I had to strand myself each night in submission to the self-fulfilling prophecy of tossing and turning perpetuated by each preceding night. It is unremarkable that I felt lonely as a teenager. However, I did not come to recognize this until each night, when I rendered myself paralyzed, resigned to another night of failure. I felt that I had no other choice, and I kept my own limbs splayed and pinned to the bed as a frog primed for dissection, always during the disappointing purgatory of the swallowing hours between late night and early morning, and then awake again half an hour later, and again without fail. It was then that I finally heard the rare silence of my house, interrupted only by my father’s snoring down the hall, and remembered the isolation of being the only one awake all those years I spent sharing that room full of heavy sleepers. 

To learn solitude and its prerequisite loneliness is at the centerfold of growing up—at least it was for me. Coming to terms with the fact that sleep’s kindness has never been guaranteed is on the following page. We often construct this concept of getting worse at sleep with age, but then what of nights spent shrieking from the crib for the soothing warmth of company? And haven’t we always craved the weight of bedtime stories, back rubs, and tight sheets in order to understand that it was okay if we rested, closed our eyes, and didn’t worry for just a few moments? Perhaps the juvenile nightmare is just the young body’s sudden awareness of the cold, stuffy air around me, nearly suffocated with its empty pressure. I realize now how I have mistakenly, in resentful disdain, blamed sleep for being the one gift which I could never seem to receive from myself, supposedly promised to me by the end of each dizzy and relentlessly sunny day, no matter how willing I was to give it. Now I question who it was that told me that if I was just a little more patient, then my rigid horizontal posture would eventually melt into something sweet and childlike, belly up like a cat who trusts the sun through the open window shade far too much. 

We are brought up to shed our fears of the dark, to count our own sheep in solitary silence, and to trust that we are the only ones in the room despite its sprawling blackness and the unknown corners of the closet and beneath the bed. The truth is that the dark represents the crushing weight of isolation that we must, as children and then teenagers and then adults, confront and grapple with each day. Lying there alone in it is a concentration of a most acute loneliness that, despite how much one enjoys such a state, is always a gravitational pull inward of the self all at once, forced to remember its true smallness. How, then, is anyone meant to sleep soundly all alone in the choking quiet of the room which I have, at long last, been asked to begin sleeping in by myself? Amidst all the anxiety, I wonder now—how much do I really deserve to feel the barren, sheepish shame that comes with waking from a moment timidly stolen from the harsh daylight? What do I have to do to get permission for my eyelids to quit their straining and let their immense weight plunge me into something solid and bolstered by the palpable presence of other people, awake and obliged to wake me if they were leaving? For a long time, I woke every morning to a creaky and stiff sternum, sore from the way my body would fold itself down the middle each night, creased in self-comfort. 

As I grow up, I am finally willing to recognize my insomnia for what it is, and I find that I am steadily turning past it. There are certainly still nights when I wake from dreams of a stifling exhaustion that pulls me away from the rest of the world. My most frequently recurring nightmare is one of that syrupy conscious lethargy consuming my body, and the frightening awareness that despite how much I want to explain myself and say that I’m sorry, and that I just need to sleep a little while longer, my mouth is sealed shut and I am left behind by everyone who is awake enough to be a normal person. Usually waking from this dream to the silence of only having been asleep for two hours is clutching and unsettling. However, in my first year of college, I often roll over to see my roommate in settled and graceful repose, learning to recognize that she is simply a sweet kind of company, showing by example that the nighttime is meant for sleeping, and that I, too, should indulge in this ritual. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines the symptoms of Insomnia as “1. Difficulty initiating sleep” and “2. Difficulty maintaining sleep.”  I wonder often if babies can be diagnosed with insomnia, or if we just accept their incapacity to both initiate and to maintain sleep at face value. In that case, it is simply a part of life that we must do our very best to mitigate with the employment of an exceptional tenderness which must eventually be weaned. Thus, we leave our children to clamber over their nyctophobia or to fall asleep sitting up, in class, with their eyes open.