Shakespeare characters suck at sleeping, just like me. Hamlet wanders around the castle and sees ghosts. Henry V soliloquizes about how lucky peasants are to labor all day because they can sleep soundly at night. MacBeth, when talking about his murder-induced guilt, focuses on the fact that he’ll never again know peaceful sleep.
They all know the loneliness of being awake while the world sleeps around you. The worry of knowing you’ll be too tired to function in the morning and knowing you must. The pain and fatigue and vague nausea all the next day. Trying not to wake up those nearby while wishing they would wake up and keep you company; telling them to go back to sleep and resenting that they can.
For thirteen years now, I’ve had a pretty intractable case of insomnia. During my years of drug abuse, I used ever-increasing amounts of sedatives and hypnotics to cudgel my brain into sleep, only to have them stop working as I developed tolerance. The longest I’ve ever gone without any sleep at all is six days, a bipolar episode that ended in the hospital. Normally, I would drop off sometime between 3 a.m. and dawn, often to the soothing first chirping of the birds, only to be awakened by my alarm one to three hours later. It made my other issues worse; not surprising, considering the effects of sleep deprivation on everything from mood to pain threshold to executive function.
It was awful, all right…but what a bonanza of self-pity for an addict! I always had a plausible excuse for retreating to my room and skipping something I didn’t want to do. “Sorry, the sleep deprivation’s crossed a line and my survival requires a nap.” It was useful to the side of me that wanted no part of responsibilities that would get in the way of taking painkillers.
Fast forward to recovery, and needing to abstain from all the meds I used to abuse: I had to work at changing my attitude about sleep; I had to become willing to stay clean even if it meant I’d never sleep through the night again. I had to accept that I’m not in charge of how much sleep I get, and that I’ll get just enough when I need it badly enough. It meant practicing acceptance when lack of sleep interferes with my energy or mood. It meant letting go of any question of fairness about it all.
Of course, I fail at these enlightened principles. Often. I want to snarl at people who give advice on how to sleep…yeah, thanks, I haven’t tried your sleep hygiene tip any time during the last decade and a half of suffering. I have to guard my mind against the human, understandable, but very dangerous thought: “I really need one night of sleep. Just one night. I’d feel so much better. I haven’t taken sleeping pills in years now, so one would probably work really well. No one would have to know…”
But I don’t need “one night of sleep.” Not at the price I’d end up paying.