When I was six years old, I had insomnia, and it was cute. I was little, and I had adorable fears the way children do: lizard monsters, cave monsters, bed monsters, closet monsters, invisible monsters. Just your basic monster stuff.
When I was nine, I had insomnia, and it was disturbing. AIDS was a big thing at this time, and the Portland Public School System had decided that every kid needed to know about it in explicit detail. We watched a movie in social studies about this guy who has unprotected sex with like four people in his whole life and, in so doing, accidentally infects four HUNDRED people or something with AIDS, and all of them die. I just knew I was going to get AIDS. There was no question about it. I couldn't sleep, and I tried to wake my mom up to explain to her how I was going to die of AIDS soon, and just because she sometimes shared a fork with me, she would also probably die of AIDS.
When I was sixteen, I had insomnia, and it was kind of nice. I would stay up late into the night watching VH1 (they only played music videos after midnight at the time), and I painted portraits of strangers from magazines on pieces of scrap wood I stole from behind the children's theater I worked at. (Maybe "stole" is the wrong word, since the wood was in the dumpster, but I think it makes me sound more like a badass.)
When I was twenty-one, I had insomnia, and it was useful. I had read somewhere that Albert Einstein only slept four hours every night, and I decided that that was just the case for me, too. I pulled an all-nighter every Wednesday to get the school paper to the press on time, and I found that terribly exciting. I got to stay in the Student Center way after it was all shut down, and sometimes I'd poke my head around the shadowy corners and try to guess what the Director of Student Affairs did on her lunch breaks. One time I photocopied my butt.
It's not that I was never tired. I was always tired. At first, I wasn't that into coffee, so I drank Red Bull and different iterations of Red Bull that came in bigger cans. (My favorite, I think, was this energy drink called Monster, which was neon green and tasted approximately like I assumed plutonium tasted like. The fact that I regularly put this in my body is nothing short of horrifying.) I was not only tired, but I was totally irrational, basically all of the time. Since I never got any sleep, I had no emotional regulation. My highs and lows embarrassed roller coasters. I exactly resembled a person with bipolar disorder for most of my life, which is what I believed I had, because sometimes doctors told me I did.
And maybe I did -- or do, I don't know. Mental health has always been unbelievably fascinating but roughly unnavigable for me. (Maybe that's why I've picked a career path so closely aligned to it.) But then I started teaching, and a lot about my life had to change.
In journalism, you can muscle out a story over the course of two caffeine-addled days, and then pass out for a few hours, or watch a season of Buffy afterwards to decompress. In teaching, you have to wake up every morning and go to work, no matter how little you slept, no matter how much you don't want to. You have to put your damn pants on and compose yourself enough to stand in front of a room full of humans who are counting on you to be in at least some version of control of what is happening in the room. This was a nightmare previously unknown to me. Eventually, after the umpteenth day I ended by crying in the handicapped stall of the girl's bathroom, I had to succumb to the general human habit of getting eight hours of sleep a night.
Getting eight hours of sleep a night rocked my world. I suddenly found vast reserves of energy I had had no idea were there. I could go on jogs in the afternoon! I stopped eating irrationally! I began crying just once a day, rather than dozens of times in little chaotic bursts! The non-insomniac version of myself was awesome.
And this is why I say I am not sure that I ever had bipolar disorder, because once I started sleeping like a normal person, those mood swings tempered themselves, and I began to feel pretty even-keel most of the time. I was beginning to look frighteningly like a normal, well-adjusted adult.
But then there are times -- like last night, and lots of nights recently -- where the insomnia creeps back, like someone you used to date who has very big hands, and knows just the right back-handed compliment to give you to get into bed while simultaneously making you feel like shit. It's been arriving pretty much every night for two weeks: a deep worry that I can feel my bones; an anxiety that won't be ignored.
I am tired right now. I am writing this, and I am tired. I can feel that my emotional compass is off. I trust that given the perfect storm of alcohol and old photographs, I would scream with laughter before collapsing in sobs into an empty bathtub.
There are all these books about what to do: don't look at any screens an hour before you want to go to bed; read boring books like Wuthering Heights or Middlesex; exercise during the day; eat carbs around six; get rid of ambient light; etc. I've done all the things, and still I find myself staring at a clock at 2 in the morning, thinking about all the time that's being wasted.
Cats sleep for 80 percent of the day. This is a fact. Sometimes I leave the house for work, and a cat falls asleep on my pillow right as I am leaving; then, when I come home, the cat is still asleep on my pillow, in the exact same position. How can they manage it? Aren't they worried that they'll never get their manuscript published at that rate?
I know all the words to tell myself to let it all go, but they're just words. I don't really believe them. For now, I will have to entertain this affair with insomnia, hooking up with it and yawning next to it with the kind of delicious shame enjoyed hours after the morning's come.