People say “I’ve got insomnia” the same way they say “I’m depressed.” They don’t mean the literal, actual, clinical condition. They mean, “I’m not sleeping as well as I usually do,” or “I’ve been kind of down lately.” But as I’ve recently discovered, true insomnia is like true depression. This year, I got to the point where my days were starting at 2 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m.; my body felt feverish and disconnected; swirling lights took over my periphery… and I knew it was getting serious. I wasn’t just sluggish or tired; I was disinterested and constantly fatigued. Any semblance of circadian rhythm was gone.
Have you ever had one of those incredibly turbulent years, where every month seems to bring about disaster after disaster? I know that basically everyone hated 2016 with a passion, but aside from all the major world issues and deaths, the year felt simultaneously unstable and monotonous—plagued with repetitive vulnerabilities and new problems. On a personal level, my job’s department shut down. Suddenly, I was unemployed and grasping for stability—change and I are not friends—and I developed my first bout of true insomnia.
So I saw a doctor, who noted that the reasons for my insomnia were glaringly obvious. They were pretty textbook: I had no real daily schedule, I was battling anxiety over major life changes, I wasn’t very active, and the days were getting shorter as fall approached.
When I think back about my habits at the time, I see myself moping all day, working, and staying up all night. I even became a little addicted to the idea of staying awake through the night: Maybe I’d get more done? Maybe I’d wake up early tomorrow anyway? When I thought this way, sleep never occurred to me, despite knowing how I was wreaking havoc on my body. So it was me against myself—fighting sleep while simultaneously fighting for a desperately needed change.
There is no perfect cure for insomnia, since everyone experiences it differently. We all have our own triggers, and we all respond to potential solutions differently. Let’s just say that I’m picky, which means I really had to get creative about fixing the issue. Among the ideas my doctor and I discussed were yoga and sleeping pills. Now yoga makes me want to gouge my eyes out (I’m not knocking yoga—this is a me problem), and I personally tend to veer from the pharmaceutical route. So I considered my alternatives: working out, melatonin, and meditation.
Melatonin seems to be a great choice for plenty of people—and some science really seems to back that up. A friend of mine swears by its ability to knock her out immediately. Not so for me. After a month of use, I noticed even a half dose made me groggy the next day and caused the kind of dreams I can’t write about here.
I downloaded the Headspace app, which promises that its 10-minutes-a-day meditations could “help people stress less, exercise more, and even sleep better.” Yes, please. I’d force myself into bed around 9 or 10 p.m. to meditate, which due to my off-kilter schedule, felt more like afternoon tea time than any normal person’s bedtime. I was able to decompress enough to focus on the meditation, to breathe slowly, showing my body that the bed wasn’t an enemy. My body fell into a soft place, and even when my mind raced, I pushed through. I kept coming back to the core thought: my breath. It was simple, conceptually. Just be mindful. Just keep being mindful.
So I meditated one or two more times per day. I focused on releasing all that stress, anxiety, and self-doubt that had built up in the months of self-neglect. I confess I’m no expert, but I sensed a change, a release, like a grid was shifting beneath me. It don’t know if the meditation had changed my brain chemistry, per se, as science suggests it might, but I was definitely giving myself the chance to heal.
I also started working out at night, not too close to “bedtime,” but late enough to tire me out. I hadn’t really stuck to a workout routine in a while, but I gave it my all: I went for an hour a few times per week at night, and really pushed myself. I wanted my body to feel tired, like it had done something. I wanted it to feel alive, to remind myself that I was an engine of blood and muscle—not a listless bag of bones. I actually cried because it felt so good to treat myself with kindness.
These simple acts began to change things. Complacency had kept me in a spiral of sleeplessness, and laziness had made it all the worse. But by trying—and failing—and trying again, I found the right solution for me. I took actual care of my body, said no to the problem, and gave myself the time I needed to move through it.
Last month, my body slowly started to reverse itself, and due to utter exhaustion and my efforts, I’d begun falling asleep at a regular grown-up hour: 11 p.m. Getting my sleep back was, frankly, a magical experience. Looking back, my fling with insomnia feels like a manic nightmare—a physical representation of my fears and stresses.
“It was me against myself—fighting sleep while fighting for a desperately needed change.”
I’m still dealing with many of the same issues I had before, but I have a few new tools to combat them now. I still struggle with waking up early, and I still am tempted to stay up well past a reasonable bedtime, but I was never going to magically become a morning person overnight, although that’s certainly next on my list of things to try.
If I can go from making to-do lists at 3 a.m. to getting to bed before midnight, I can be the person who wakes up at 7 a.m. to—hey, let’s be audacious here—work out or clean house or, should miracles exist, write.
Lisa Marie Basile is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and moderator of its digital community. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bustle, Bust, Hello Giggles, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is also the author of three poetry collections and holds an MFA from The New School. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.