The secrets of insomnia

The year I turned 32, I couldn’t remember what it felt like for sleep to overtake me. For months, I had not slept well—never with that heaviness, like fog descending onto sheets. I had waged so many weeks of war with insomnia that by then I had small black moons under my eyes.

I had tried melatonin, valerian, chamomile, hot milk, not eating after 6 pm, a caffeine-free diet, and I had consulted an acupuncturist and a naturopath. Still, I did not sleep. Finally I went to see my physician about it. I didn’t know back then I was seeking a truth deeper than sleep or medicine.

On the cold examination table, I felt like a ghost in my white paper gown.

I reminded myself that my whole life I had been a good sleeper—I could remember my last summer in graduate school, when I would fall asleep nestled into the side of my then-boyfriend, and in deep slumber, we turned in unison, back and forth in the dark, like a tide slipping onto beach, then out again to great ocean. A few years after that, I had even grown accustomed to the rumble of train that throttled my apartment each night in Oxford, Ohio.  

But during that spring of my 32nd year, and in the third year of my young marriage, I got about four hours of rest, then I would wake up and stare into the unending shadows of the bedroom, each piece of furniture taking on a sinister form—the dresser a hungry black bear; the chair a small but angry wolf.  

All that time, my then-husband slept well. We had once been good sleepers together, falling into each other in the center of the bed before setting off to dreamworld. But that winter, spring, then early summer, in our condo, he alone breathed deeply into the night. I watched the long slope of him as he lay on his side, the rising and falling again and again, as if he were inhaling all the good air we had in that room, our room, the one with a window framing a patch of pine trees, a northern window that never drew direct sun. By the time he awakened those mornings, the light still grey and somber, I had lain there for hours, counting in my head the million worries about how I was not sleeping. 

Sleep became magic, a trick I’d unlearned. 

A wish.

*    *    *    *    *

My physician sat across from me, then started taking notes when I told her how my naturopathic doctor had run some blood tests and put me on supplements to help my body naturally find its way back to solid sleep. As I listed off what I had been taking, she jotted it all down quickly, then suddenly stopped. Sighed. Put her pen down and looked at me. 

My words trailed off. 

“To be honest,” she said, “I don’t think you need any of those supplements. I’m sure they are not harming you, but I don’t think they’re doing you any good.”   

She added that she thought I was depressed, which I vehemently denied. 

“If I could sleep, I’d be fine,” I told her. Didn’t she get that? As if to defy me, a tear peered out and slid down my cheek. It seemed, those days, I was always sobbing in doctors’ offices. Not a good thing to do if you want them to think you’re not depressed. I feared no one could cure me. That I would never sleep well again. 

She eyed me suspiciously. “The most common reason we see people waking up as you do is depression.” She folded her arms as if to say case closed. “Do you find yourself crying a lot?”

“No.” (And for the record, I really didn’t—except in doctors’ offices.)

“Are you finding it hard to focus at work?”


 “Have you had any change in appetite?”


“Is anything wrong at home?”


We sat looking at each other, and I thought about how neither one of us believed the other.

“Okay,” she finally said, then scrawled out a sleeping pill prescription.  

She handed it to me, and I stared at the small piece of paper with her words scratched across it, the letters of my name so tangled I could not make them out.  

This is what I’ve become, I thought. Something no one can read.

*    *    *    *    *

Every few weeks, I got a decent seven hours of sleep, but restful nights mostly dodged me. By 6 am, after I had been awake for two to three hours, the cardinals burst out of their nests, loud with their chirps, reminding me—with their hoots and screeches—I wasn’t any better. Even the sleeping pill (which I tried only a handful of times out of fear my body would grow addicted to it) worked maybe twice, and never the whole night. 

I started writing in the pre-dawn haze, and only after I wrote, “What is that keeps waking me? What is it I am doing wrong, ignoring, not attending to?” did it occur to me maybe insomnia had a purpose, that my body might be trying to tell me a secret. 

Even when exhaustion drenched me, my body hissed, I’m going to keep you up until you’ve faced it.

*    *    *    *    *

It must have been June or July that the truth came to me. I was lying on yet another practitioner’s table. The light outside was pure that afternoon, the sky clear and uncomplicated—I do remember that. Lying there, I felt a tiredness that comes not just from lack of sleep but from a a greater exhaustion. And then, in a moment, I felt the truth of what my body had been trying to communicate for so long: Your marriage is falling apart. And not long after, this: You don’t have enough hands to hold it together. 

I drove home afterward through a curving neighborhood street, and now when I try and picture it, all I see are two-story houses, like the house I had grown up in, and I imagine children tumbling in large yards protected by canopies of old trees, and husbands and wives—inside these houses—talking and laughing and cooking side by side. And you’d think in that moment I would have been terrified, that I would have gripped the steering wheel or sobbed, or both, but I did not.

I left the neighborhood and wound my way back to Airport Road, and I remember just as I was passing the hospital on my right, as I hit one stoplight, and then the next, that I realized my body, or my spirit, or whatever it was that knew all the things I did not know, was telling me something else. I didn’t know what would happen in my marriage, and in that moment, I knew nothing of the tough marriage counseling sessions that lay ahead, or how my then-husband and I would struggle against each other for what we wanted but could not give. But I did know more than just that my marriage was falling apart. I knew what I hadn’t known in many monthsmaybe even several years—and it felt more important than all the things I did not know: I was going to be okay. 

I listened most of all to that.