There is a fog in the room. That isn’t right. How did the fog get inside? I rub my eyes and the fog disperses. Sort of. At the edges of my sight, I can see the white, billowing clouds. Specters float there, waiting, for a chance to consume me. I know it. They are after my mind. My mind? Something brushes against it, a memory of a thought, but it is gone. Lost. Consumed by the white fog. I strain the muscles of my mind, trying to reach for the errant thought that is slowly fading. I grab at it and find nothing. I know there is something in my hands. An idea. But I cannot touch it. I cannot see it. But I know that it is there. I shrug my shoulders, unable to work out what I should do next. I let the thought unform. It floats away, leaving me with a generalized, unspecific sense of loss. I grieve for this thought that had never been born, that had never had a chance. How long have I been up? I look at the clock and try to do the math. I can’t. How long have I been up? Too long.
What is insomnia? Insomnia is a disorder. I’ve always been fascinated by the use of that term for mental illness. Disorder. It implies there is some order, some regularity and normalcy to our lives. That it is disrupted by the impact of whatever brand of mental illness one has been saddled with. I know this term, disorder, as surely as the palm of my hand. My order has been disrupted. Drastically, at times.
OCD is a disorder that can be a lot like insomnia. Not that these illnesses of the mind effect similar portions of the brain or produce comparable symptoms. Nothing of that sort. Insomnia and OCD are similar, only in the sense that the terms are tossed around quite flippantly to describe behaviors associated with the illness on a much more minor scale.
“Oh my God, I’m so OCD!” The teenager says, preferring to line their papers up perfectly before stapling them. “If it isn’t lined up right it bothers me so much.”
“Ugh my insomnia is acting up again,” says the college student, newly responsible for managing their time, “I only got like five hours last night when I normally get eight. I wish I could sleep!’
And I would never want to be dismissive. Let me be clear about that. Everybody is hit by mental illness differently. Just because someone’s diagnosis leads to symptoms that are more or less severe than someone else’s doesn’t discount a person’s struggle. I only mean to highlight that the terms Insomnia and OCD often get bandied about when in reality, a person’s quirks or preferences have not quite reached the level of necessitating drastic medical intervention.
I don’t know much about having OCD. I can sympathize with the obsessive part. I have obsessive thoughts, which is common with anxiety disorders, of which OCD is one. That obsession. The ceaseless voice spitting venom into one’s mind, engaging the brain in a demented sort of struggle. Worry and fear. Worry about fear. It can be quite a lot.
Insomnia, I understand. I know, intimately, the pain that it can cause. The havoc it can wreak. I have struggled with it, on and off, since I was a young preteen. It always has come in bouts of drastic proportions. There’s the long-term disturbance of sleep patterns, where one loses a few hours a day for months or even years at a time. That was difficult, but manageable. For me, the killer has always been the more short-term, utter obliteration of all thoughts of sleep. Stuck awake for ungodly hours until my body and mind crashed from strain and fell to the ground, lifeless, like a deer shot in the heart by a hunter.
I was thirteen years old the first time this monster called insomnia hit me. I suffered what could be called a trauma, which I won’t expand upon. It is quite heavy. Though I suppose insomnia can be heavy as well. Suffice it to say that it is the heaviness of a tank compared to that of a battleship. All one needs to know is that something happened, resulting in changes to my mental state.
As a result, I had suddenly found myself plagued with nightmares. Some reliving the event, and some the simple, formless terror, specifics forgotten upon awakening. I can remember frequently sitting up in bed, plastered in sweat, heart beating out of my chest while trying to catch my breath.
I created for myself a circle of self-fulfilling prophecy. I would lay my head upon my pillow, dreading the oncoming nightmares. That dread would inhibit my ability to sleep and, when the sandman finally did visit, the expectation of the worst would lead to its occurrence. I could see all this and do nothing about it. Like a snake eating its tail, I was too far gone into consuming myself to turn back.
I quickly became afraid of sleep. I fought to stay awake, sneaking coffee, trying to keep myself occupied and distracted with books, movies, and games. If my eyes started to droop, I would put in headphones and turn the music up. If my body began to still, I would get up and shake myself about, discarding exhaustion.
One night, I was totally determined to beat the sunrise by finishing all three Halo games on Legendary. Another, I finished the book Hyperion in one sitting. Then there were the many nights spent scrolling the internet mindlessly. These escapes, these other worlds I desperately wanted to exist in, they held back the nightmares and sleep.
Apparently, I wished on a monkey’s paw for a release from the terrors of slumber. My wish granted left me awake for days at a time. Over a two-week period, I would remain awake for bouts of around thirty hours. When I did sleep, it was a few restless moments. My body began to ache. I distinctly remember a soft, pulsing pain in my thighs, unsure of its origins. Just general tension, I suppose.
My mind began to slow, which at first was a blessing. The racing, forceful barrage of negativity was finally gentled. I spent hours staring off into space, blissfully alone. Simply too tired for the hatefulness to reach me. I remember being relieved, not knowing that safety from the monster in my closet did not protect me from the one under my bed.
It soon became a hinderance. I could not focus. Conversations washed over me with no retention. I reread the pages of books four, five times before giving up, unable to maintain any comprehension. My teachers at school would get mad with my unresponsiveness, my reaction time to the sound of my own name delayed. Always an engaged and dutiful student, I began moving to seats at the back of the class, ignoring discussions to stare blankly at a wall, wondering when I would finally get to sleep. Friends had to remind me at the end of the day of conversations we’d had that morning. They did not understand why I did not want to stay after school to hang out, as we usually did. Disorder.
This lasted for a week before my mother took me to a sleep specialist. I was given exercises to practice just before bed, mental and physical. Try to engage yourself physically so your body’s exhaustion forces sleep. The problem was my body was already exhausted. Still, I did my best to engage in fifty, sometimes one hundred jumping jacks as I went to bed. It left me tired and sweaty instead of just tired.
I was told to exercise my mind. Practice mindfulness. Feel my toes and only my toes. Then move that awareness, slowly, up my body. To harness one’s focus and use it to create peace. It was supposed to ease the mind and put it in a position on the edge of sleep. Even when I could manage the clarity required to practice mindfulness, sleep did not come.
I tried to reset my sleep schedule, avoided looking at electronic screens, took high doses of melatonin, drank warm milk, used a weighted blanket, got a new pillow, took my prescriptions, moved to the floor, and despite lack of belief I prayed. None of it worked.
Towards the end of the second week, I was brought in for a sleep study. I was strapped up to sensors and machines that monitored my experience. Think little circular pads attached at various places across my torso, each one with a red or black wire clamped onto the tip. Similar pads all over my head, ready to link up with the little helmet I had to wear. I probably looked like some sort of android under repair. I felt like it, a damaged imitation of true life.
It was supposed to be an eight-hour study. They just needed a baseline while awake to compare to a baseline while asleep. Well, I couldn’t sleep, so it took about fourteen hours. My sleep lasted forty-five minutes, never hit a REM cycle, and provided very little usable data to the specialist. Other visits produced similar results, with the only conclusion being that I was chemically imbalanced in some mystic and unknowable way, needing pharmaceutical aid.
As those first weeks came to a close, I finally crashed. I sat on the stairs one day after school to catch my breath while walking up to my room. I remember closing my eyes, just trying to reduce the strain that had dried them out. I woke up ten hours later in bed, my dad having carried me there and tucked me in upon finding me.
The beautiful thing was that when I awoke, my mind felt like my mind again. I was still shaking off some of the cloudiness, like a person stretching their muscles after a twelve-hour flight spent in an uncomfortable economy seat. But the muscles worked, and the stretching brought them back to normal after a time.
That did not mean my insomnia was gone, however. I still slept, from then on, much less than the suggested amount. For years, almost a decade, I averaged somewhere between two to five hours a night, often much of it restless and spent tossing and turning, thinking.
It had a marked impact on my mental ability and stability. My schoolwork, often easy for me, became much more difficult. How could one do calculus or consider moral and ethical frameworks when the mind moved so slow, creeping haltingly to its point? My focus, once singular, began to drift.
Managing my PTSD, depression, and anxiety did not help. A never-ending circle, anxious thoughts exhausting me, leading to a deep and despairing depression, hindering my ability to sleep, unable to counter the anxious thoughts. To do this while my mind was already dealing with relentless exhaustion led to significant deterioration of my mental state.
And still, from time to time, perhaps once or twice a year, I would be crushed by the weight of insomnia. During these weeks, sometimes up for thirty to forty hours at a time with only brief slumbering respites, I was in hell. I dreaded these stretches, and even in between bouts I felt I had a specter, looming over me, waiting to strike. It would slice at me, cutting out a Thanksgiving week at home and tossing it to the forgotten mists permeating my brain. It would steal a test, making me fail as I couldn’t retain what was said in class. It could strike at any moment, without rhyme or reason. The specter loomed, oh did it loom.
I would walk, sometimes, when I could not sleep. My family worried, me strolling the streets in a dissociative state. Numerous times I came home to admonishments with reminders to not leave the neighborhood. Unable to keep that promise, which I likely did not even remember making or know I was breaking, I was forbidden from leaving the house.
But no. Up at three in the morning, my last nap thirty-five hours ago, nothing was forbidden to me. Nothing. My parents, damn them, were blissfully unaware as they sat in the warm and gentle embrace of healthy sleep. I had been denied sleep, I would not be denied my walks.
So, I walked. I never had a destination, just aimless wandering. Strolling through neighborhoods and parks with no clue how I had gotten there or how I would get home. I did always get home, though. Interesting how that stuck with me.
I remember one night, a light flurry of snow falling in the pre-dawn hours of December, where I saw a light in the sky. I knew, on some level, that it came from a searchlight. But why? I could not figure it out. I was enraptured. Fascinated. It must have been important; it just must have. It was the bat signal to my batman, meant just for me. A call I could not help but answer.
I dutifully followed. I ended up, some significant time later, outside a church far from home. I watched the sun rise as the large light, placed to create the star of Bethlehem over the décor of a Christmas manger scene, faded.
I recall nothing else until a few hours later, almost noon now, swinging away on an elementary school playground. I had been there for hours just swinging, though I knew not how many. I can vaguely recall someone asking after me, some lady on a jog, but I did not respond. I could not respond. “I”, was not there.
It is this total loss of self that is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of extreme insomnia. Imagine, for a moment if you can, that you do not exist. You live somewhere in your body that is not your mind. You hide your sense of self from the specters, tucked into the crook of your elbow or the joints of your toes. You know, without a doubt, that the darkness will consume you if you let it. And, left in a state of complete and utter exhaustion, you can’t figure out how to win. You just know, from experience, that you have to wait it out. Eventually you will crash. Eventually sleep will come. Or it won’t and you’ll die. Either way, an end.
The worst of it happened in November of 2013 while a sophomore at Bridgewater College. This bout lasted almost three weeks. At its height, I easily broke fifty hours awake and more than once. Fifty hours.
What do you even do for fifty hours? Accounting for removing the haze of insomnia and the loss of self. Handwaving the management of the physical pain your body is in, discarding the constant engagement of your fight or flight response. Even accounting for all of that, what do you do for fifty hours?
You can only watch so many movies where you forget the start by time it ends. You can only play so many games with online players raging at your terrible reaction times and mistaken plays. You can only take so many walks around the diminutive campus or up Main Street to get to the heart of town.
You can’t call your mom, as it will make her worry. She cannot help, and it is her very nature to hurt when she cannot help. Your pain is your own, your cross to bear. You’ve lost hope in medical intervention, the doctors and pills and tests amounting to nothing. The white specters at the fringes of your vision have left you in a state of constant paranoia. Your best friend has tried, fruitlessly, to help and you don’t wish to burden them further. Its finals season and he should study, not commiserate with you. Can’t write in your journal, as your hand-eye coordination has deteriorated to the point that your scribblings, even if they are comprehensible (which is not a guarantee), are illegible. Homework is beyond your ability. Food has lost taste. Colors fade to grey. Clothes feel cumbersome and begin to itch. No part of your body is at ease, stuck managing cold and hot spells, aches, and pains.
So, what do you do? What do you do for fifty hours? Well, you do nothing at all. You stare at a wall and try to create constellations from the little grackles of plaster sticking out. You count and you count, often forgetting your place and starting again. You walk, receding deep inside yourself, regaining awareness in front of a pond, and not knowing how you got there.
Then there is the sleep deprivation psychosis. You stay awake so long that you start to suffer delusions and hallucinations. Your mind cannot differentiate real from the imagined, forcing itself to be sure of ridiculous propositions.
I became convinced at one point, that someone was poisoning me. I could not begin to deduce who, but it had to be true. Normal people don’t stay awake for fifty hours. Normal people get their sleep. There had to be some foreign agent causing this torture. There just had to be. What it could be did not matter. Who could be administering it, or their motivations were secondary. I knew, in my bones, I had an enemy to blame for this attack.
There were also the specters. The little white beings that fluttered in and out of my vision. They wanted my mind. I could see that. They wanted to consume it, to destroy it. They weren’t even agents of chaos or hate. They were wild animals. Eagles hunt fish, snakes hunt voles, and the specters hunt me. I could not blame them or espise them; I just knew I had to escape them.
One time, I had just left my friend’s dorm when a full-bodied specter appeared before me. A large formless cloud, the vague impressions of a mouth reaching, wanting to latch onto me like a leech or a vampire. I punched it as hard as I could, dispersing the white phantom that sought to finish me off. I remember nothing until hours later, back in my friend’s room, I noticed the knuckles of my middle and ring fingers had swollen to the size of golf balls. I was icing them with fresh bought bags of peas I didn’t remember grabbing. Somehow, I broke no bones, only a minor torn muscle. I live with chronic pain as a reminder to this day.
I can’t find it in myself to regret punching that wall. It wasn’t a choice I made, but one that was made for me. You can’t regret an action forced upon you. I lament it happening all the same.
Long. It lasted so long. And then one day, with no festivity or fanfare, it ended. I lay down in bed to watch a movie and slept almost twenty hours. Waking in my room, the fog was gone. I cringed at the extreme pain in my hand, impacted muscles writhing beneath the blue and purple skin, totally unsure how the hell I had managed the pain to this point.
I looked around and checked the time. I could tell time again. I had missed my classes for the day. I found that I was hungry, the roaring hunger of a man who just climbed a mountain, burning every last calorie to accomplish the trek.
I had returned to the land of the living and found myself unsure how to proceed. I had to learn, relearn, how to be a normal person. How to spend my time and my thoughts and my energy. I could engage with people, with work, with entertainment. I was free at last.
I’m happy to report that my bouts of heavy insomnia have lessened over the years. In fact, it hasn’t happened to me in almost four years now. I have hope the worst is behind me, although the threat will always remain. Forever I’ll wonder, when will it choose to strike again?
For now, things have gotten better. I have a much more sustainable sleep schedule and feel bushy tailed and bright eyed as I attend my classes.
And yet the specter looms. I know. I know the loss of self. I can, if I try, recreate a reflection of a shadow of that sensation. I dread it. To not know oneself. To not know truth from fiction. It is a harrowing experience, made all the more powerful by their sporadic and unpredictable strikes. Am I safe because I’ve lasted four years? Or am I due, like a dormant volcano, to explode from internal stresses?
So, I have become superstitious with my bedtime routine. If I miss a step, I worry that the insomnia will return. Phone placed just so. Pillow held in the right grip. Lights turned off in the right order. Books stacked from unread to read.
Even in its absence, insomnia continues to shape my life. It is the expectedly unexpected tornado, come suddenly and without warning to rip buildings from their foundations. I may have moved to a place where these weather patterns are less likely, but they’re not impossible. Will I survive the next bout, should it come?
All I can do is try.
“Always the next step.”