When you're a kid, and you're afraid of the monster under the bed or the thing in the closet, you tell your parents. They soothe you, try to convince you that it's all in your imagination, and then hope that you believe them. But how do you tell your parents you're afraid of not being able to sleep?
Such is the tragedy of childhood insomnia. I'm sure I did at some point, but it felt like I didn't get a full night's sleep until I reached puberty. Yes, I was afraid of the wind howling and that Disney Halloween record that I forced my mother to remove from my room at night, or even the possibility that some sort of creature would peek in at me from my second story bedroom window, but the fear of not sleeping was real and it was a real problem for me.
The Sounds Of Silence
For years, my bedtime was 9:00 p.m. Although I was in my upstairs bedroom, I could hear the faint sounds of my mom and stepfather watching the news and preparing for bed. Knowing they were awake made me feel safe enough to sleep, but it took forever for me to fall asleep. If I had not fallen asleep by the time they went to bed, then I knew I was in for a long night.
The silence was the worst. You'd think that a lack of noise would be conducive to a restful night of slumber, but it wasn't. It was too quiet: each small noise would be magnified, all of them distractions that would prevent me from relaxing enough to nod off. I would will myself to try and sleep when the central air conditioning fan came on and could mask any potential sounds, then when I didn't, I'd feel the inevitable panic until it came back on again. This cycle would continue for hours until I would eventually doze off, my eyes would open, it would be morning, and I'd feel exhausted.
Clocks were the bane of my existence. At his house in a different city, my dad had a ticking clock on his mantel and the sound of it drove me crazy. I would imagine patterns of sound, noises that weren't there. Those were way worse than the silence. At one point he bought me a Kit Kat clock with glow in the dark eyes that would look from side to side. That terrified me so badly I made him take it away.
No Sleep For Young Women
In case you had not yet figured it out, I was a pretty neurotic child. I was worried about so many things already, I couldn't bring myself to tell my parents that I also feared being awake all night. No one else seemed to have problems sleeping; in fact, if I ever had to wake up a parent during the night, it seemed like it took them forever to register that I was standing there. How did they do that? How did they make it seem so easy? What was wrong with me?
Things got worse when both grandfathers and my stepfather died within months of each other. Those nighttime fears followed me into the daylight hours; I had panic attacks that were debilitating. Moving to a one-story house soon afterwards helped; not feeling isolated from everyone else helped me relax at bedtime, as did the small TV in my room. I would turn it on and the warm glow and soft sounds seemed like a protector, something that would keep watch over me so I could fall asleep without worry.
As every insomniac knows, just because you can't see the insomnia, doesn't mean it's not still there, biding its time. Living by myself in my twenties, dealing with a job I hated in my thirties - these were both times when it came back to haunt me and with a tenacious vengeance that made my life a waking nightmare.
Perhaps the best cinematic portrayal of what my history of insomnia has been like is Jennifer Kent's 2014 film, The Babadook. A young child traumatized by a parent's death and a single mother struggling with her own demons while having to fight the ones of her child. It all felt so tragically familiar. The movie didn't specifically scare me, but it gut punched me right in the feels. Perhaps the manifestation of the Babadook wasn't a mother's guilt or a child's fantasy, but the specter of insomnia itself, lurking in the shadows, and waiting for its chance to strike.