Insomnia

1:45 am

In the darkness I am tugging the tangles out of my hair, my thumb and fingers aimlessly threaded between the jumbled strands that smell of shampoo. That’s when I realize that I’m awake. I try not to look. That’s cheating. I should be able to tell what time it feels like.

Well it’s not 5 am, not even close. There’s no tell-tale “whoosh” of an early commuter racing an empty black road to an empty office. It’s too quiet out there.

And I feel quasi-rested, not doped with exhaustion, which suggests that I’ve logged some decent hours. So I’ll wager that it’s 4 am….no, 4:30.

I roll over to stare down the blocky digits glowing against an unearthly green screen.

1:45. Only 1:45? Damn.

At this hour the house holds its breath. The radiators are satiated — they don’t spit and hiss for a couple of hours. The only sound is white. The source: a cheap, ceramic plug-in heater set to “fan.” That heater salvages my sanity. It drowns out the soft breathing of normal people at rest.

But I’m past resentment, the pitiful wondering of why am I awake when everyone else can sleep? I know why. I’ve inherited a dominant “worry” gene and a faulty shut-off mechanism. My brain powers down and I fall asleep easily — sometimes instantly — but 90 minutes or 2 hours later, something forces me awake. It’s not an obvious revelation — there’s no subconscious alarm that bleats: “hey wake up, it’s time to worry about Dad!” The brain is more subtle. It’s a gentle hand on my shoulder shaking me awake. And then it’s gone but the damage is done. I’m up.

I’ve learned to ignore the litany of advice: stick to a good schedule; get lots of exercise; turn off the tv and computer an hour before bedtime; make sure your room is cool; take a warm bath; take a hot shower; drink a glass of warm milk; avoid food; avoid alcohol; have a glass of wine; read a boring book; practice deep breathing; meditate; count sheep; imagine a restful place.

It’s like getting parenting advice from a person who doesn’t have kids. What do they know?

I’ll tell you what works. Prescription drugs. Ambien is my pill of choice. Yes it’s just a band-aid and yes, it’s psychologically addictive. But you try functioning in daylight hours on a couple hours of sleep… 3, 4, 5 days in a row (my standing insomniac record is 5 weeks). Trust me, you’ll lose your mind. And you’ll drink lighter fluid if you think it’ll help.

There’s no fighting Ambien — it always trumps my brain. For kicks sometimes I’ll down a pill and try to stay awake. But fighting it is fruitless. It’s a current that drags you under water: you can try to swim to the surface but it’s too strong. It’ll hold you under. And with that, the relief of sleep. In the morning you bob back to the surface and gaze out over a pale sky and calm water. Ready for another day.

Of course magic pills come with cautionary tales. Like ambien’s rule number one: do not swallow me after midnight or you’ll over sleep and suffer through a foggy morning. So as it stands, I’m three hours late.

But that means three hours to go — and I’m not discounting a last ditch return to sleep — a taste of slumber before a squat body clad in flannel pjs deftly clambers over me, impressing a bony knee into my thigh. Then it’s barn, dog, kids, breakfast, work, (insert caffeine here), traffic, dinner, laundry, barn, dog and then, I’ll pop open the vial and wait for the current to take me.