Ode to Insomnia: The 6 Stages of Sleeplessness
There are many lists about how to cure insomnia. This is not one of those lists.
I've always been deeply envious of anyone capable of falling asleep the moment their head hits the pillow.
For me, sleep has always been a struggle. I like to blame it on my excessively creative brain—the very brain that allows me to write these articles all day!—but I know that I've also failed to meticulously follow all the sleep advice offered to me by doctors and the Internet alike, so I can't exactly complain.
I won't bore you with yet another list of how to cure insomnia. If you're like me, you've probably read every list in existence about how to fix your broken sleep habits. You know that you're supposed to stop using electronics an hour before bed, that you're supposed to go to bed and wake up at exactly the same time every day, that you should try drinking sleepytime tea and taking melatonin and meditating, and that you should make your room into a peaceful space and paint your walls blue, etcetera.
However, for anyone who has real insomnia, these pieces of advice are a bit like suggesting yoga to someone with depression: It's cute, but out of touch.
Real insomnia means that you're intimate with the late-night hours. It means that there are two parts of every day: the part when you're a human out in the world, and the part when everyone else is asleep and you're confronted with the twisting tidal wave of your own buzzing thoughts.
As I said, I know that these ever-buzzing thoughts are connected to being creative, sensitive, stubborn, and the like; and after so many years of this, I've learned that there's no point in getting mad at myself when I can't sleep. Instead, I'm working on embracing my inability to plummet into temporary unconsciousness at a moment's notice. That's not really working either, so I'm also trying to change my sleep habits and taking medication, but you really can't take medication every night forever; but old habits die hard and, if you're like me, even Ambien can't help sometimes. So with all that said, here are my six stages of a sleepless night.
1. Hope that you'll actually be able to fall asleep
Each night, I straighten up my room, fold my clothes, and burn incense until my apartment smells like the inside of a Tibetan bookstore. Then I spend a couple of hours avoiding going to bed by getting lost in a creative project or a Netflix show, hoping that my insomnia will have spontaneously disappeared and I'll slip into a cool eight hours of sleep.
In this alternate reality (the one that offers me eight hours of sleep), I wake up refreshed, requiring only one alarm. I read a few pages of my book while the coffee brews, learn a few phrases of another language, and stroll to the subway with plenty of time to get to work. The birds and butterflies cluster around me, and my skirt swirls in the breeze of a perpetually balmy autumn, which always smells vaguely of cinnamon. In this alternate reality, actually, I'm not even going to work, because there is no work; there are only endless picnics attended by well-rested robots.
When that alternate reality fails to materialize, I always try to do a body-scan—the process where you relax your head, then your shoulders, then eventually your whole body. Somehow, I always get distracted in the middle of this, and have to start over several times, which is truly a testament to how much time I spend getting angry on social media during the day.
3. Try binaural beats
Around this time, I'm usually hyper-aware of the ringing coming from my refrigerator or the sounds of my neighbors chatting in my backyard even though it's 1AM (I don't judge, but still), so I try some binaural beats or shuffle through Spotify's many, many sleep playlists. The track "Healing Binaural Beats" by the artist Binaural Beats Sleep and White Noise for Baby Sleep (from the album Gentle White Noise Sounds) actually appears on the "On Repeat" playlist that Spotify curated for me, so that says it all.
3. Realize that you can't sleep and let the thoughts take over
Eventually I realize that the sounds of bees, chimes, and rattling heaters really don't sound that much different from the noise of the New York City streets, or I convince myself that the music and headphones are what's keeping me up. At this point, it's probably after 2 AM. Having been to therapy, I decide to stop trying to run from my thoughts, and ask myself why I can't sleep. My mind politely replies by replaying all the embarrassing moments I've ever experienced since 7th grade, or by berating me about the text I forgot to reply to three months ago, or guilt-tripping me about not revolting to protest climate change, or something like that.
4. Get up and try to read/eat/etcetera
At this point, everyone else is asleep except my downstairs neighbors, and I'm suddenly hungry again. I get up, turn on the lights, and confront the desolate quiet of the wee hours of the morning, as well as the empty shelves of the fridge until I settle on some oat milk and pad back to my room.
Never at this point do I smoke any type of substance, however, especially not the devil's lettuce, which I have never tried and want no part of. Wink.
5. Listen to music
Sometimes I actually do fall asleep at this point, but more often than not, I decide to exchange the binaural beats for the new Lana Del Rey album, or some Post Malone, or something else that's equal parts guilty pleasure and distracting, saccharine catharsis. Maybe at this point I'm also too weak to resist checking all my social media accounts, and I find myself either scrolling through the latest celebrity disaster on Twitter, formulating my next hot take, or reading the Twitter account "Ancient Wisdom" and vowing to dedicate my life to my own personal growth and the spiritual improvement of the world... tomorrow.
In every insomniac's evening, there comes a point when all the frustration and exhaustion reaches a fever pitch, and then it just blacks out suddenly, short-circuiting and crash-landing like a World War II fighter jet. You throw your hands up, relinquish yourself to being awake all night, accept the inevitable exhaustion, and realize you'll survive, just like you always have. The world and you have survived worse than a sleepless night and the ravages of the modern era, and even though there is no precise or discernible meaning to human life, we are able to craft bearable existences through our bonds with others and the world around us. We cannot change our lives suddenly; change is a series of small shifts that happen over time, and self-fixation is a modern plague. No one person holds the weight of the world on their back, every human being is flawed, and everything is ephemeral. You are not sure why it takes you so long each night to realize this, but there's the rub. You let go, throw your hands up, let Jesus take the wheel, and get ready to watch the sun rise.
Ironically, this stage almost always leads to sleep.