enter the confessional


So here’s something you may not know about me: I suffer periodically from insomnia–and by that I mean that I suffer pretty dramatically, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. This is an affliction linked, in my case, to anxiety, and it’s pretty common among academics.

The miserable thing about being insomniac is that you are in fact bone tired–but you can’t sleep. You wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep, so you turn on the light, and try to read, but you’re so exhausted your eyes cross and you’re not retaining any information. So you turn off the light and curl up: but you can’t stop your mind from racing. So you turn on the light and try to read …

I took up yoga to deal with this. And meditation. I cut out caffeine after 1pm. I make before bed to-do lists to rid my mind of its calendaring demons. I restrict my academic writing and research to daylight hours so I don’t get too excited before bed. I dim the lights, I drink herbal tea, I take prescribed sleeping meds and off-label pharmaceuticals on an as-needed basis. Sometimes I self-medicate with Forty Creek Copper Barrel Reserve, 1 oz. Or a dry martini, right before bed.

But sleep often eludes me, still.

Insomnia is an invisible disability. I find it impossible to do creative or scholarly work when I’m sleep-deprived. I can grade (slowly, inefficiently) and I can go to meetings (groggily) and write emails (proofreading twice). Then I feel terrible about not working, which leads to more insomnia, and even more not working.

Insomnia is incredibly humbling. Neither brute force, nor will power, nor good intentions, nor even some pretty good drugs can make sleep happen–the links between mind and body are powerful and intense and won’t be denied. This is a good lesson to remember.

I suspect many of you suffer from insomnia as well. What do you do to manage? Right now I’m trying to be kind to my insomnia, to ask it what it is trying to tell me, what part of my life is not fitting well right now, and how I might be kinder to myself to resolve it. I’m trying to eat better and not drink too much, to get enough exercise, and ask my family to let me nap when I need it.

But it’s important to note that one of the reasons I have insomnia is because of this job, this life of the mind: sometimes my ideas scare me so much that I can’t let them go, for fear of losing them. Sometimes, the deadlines pile up and I worry I won’t meet them. Sometimes before talks I worry for weeks not about not being ready but about not being good enough. Since I’ve taken up my administrative role in my department I worry about the drip drip drip of forms to sign, things to check up on, meetings to remember to attend, deliverables I’ve forgotten I’ve promised, hard cases, tough decisions, all the emails. The work is not bounded by location or time; it is never done, and it could always be done better, or more or faster. My insomniac periods peaked when I was on the job market, the year I came up for tenure, and the year I began my administrative job. The academy always wants more, and we A+ students will always try to give more, even if we don’t have it, and feel like we’re failing.

And so it goes. Until I figure it out again, for now, how to fall asleep and stay asleep, if I pass you in the halls or on the internet and don’t say hi, it’s because I’m concentrating so hard on staying upright I probably just can’t see you.

Sweet dreams.

2 thoughts on “Insomniac

  1. Oh dear … I hope this post isn't me using the internet as therapy. But here goes.

    For me, sleeplessness is less often about straightforward workload issues (though that can happen) than it is about the personal side of things that come with roles similar to ones you've been playing the past couple of years, Aimee. With a faculty association or as an administrator one often finds oneself either having to make a case on behalf of people besides oneself, or to deal with difficult conversations. So for me, the sleeplessness either comes in advance, from fear of letting others down, of after the fact, from wishing one was faster on one's feet or rhetorically cleverer, or nicer, or whatever it seems it would have taken to have things go better. Either way, I recognize the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. treadmill you describe (well, maybe rotisserie is a better word, rolling around and around in bed).

    But … one piece of advice that I got from a senior administrator in my early days with the faculty association, over lunch when talking about some no doubt really big issue that I don't even remember now, strikes me as very helpful. “You've got to stop taking this stuff so personally. It'll kill you.” It sounds like a recommendation that one try to become a sociopath. But I didn't hear it that way. It helps me a lot if I take the pressure off of individual encounters and think of them as just small steps in a long process, and not so much as measures of my individual worth. They're just part of the roles I'm playing, and another five of them are coming tomorrow. You don't do anything worthwhile if you don't care and take things personally. But it helps to take the long run goals personally, not the individual encounters. With respect to individual encounters, if you come out a bit a head more often than not you're going in the right direction. You can't get there in a day so, really, why imagine that you can botch it completely in a day, either?


  2. Recently, I've taken much heart from the news that sleeping 8 hours straight through the night hours is an historical construct. Yup. If we were still Elizabethan, we might well find ourselves playing cards, reading a bit by candlelight, chatting quietly, with our fellow Elizabethans during the witching hours (for me around 2am). The picture somehow makes my mind happy and settled. And, I have entirely relinquished any guilt for late afternoon naps when needed.


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