There is never a good time to think about insomnia.
Despite this, or because of it, insomnia whispers in your ear, day and
night; day when you are savoring your allotted two cups of coffee and
night when you sit on the brown leather sofa that you never would have
chosen but it is one of the few items of furniture which came from your
husband’s life before you and he loves it. You are totally,
completely, electrified, noticing each tuft of white hair from your
liberally shedding dog and exactly how much dust is on the TV screen.
You are a staircase and a short hallway away from bed but miles away
This place is unfamiliar. You’ve only lived in Toronto for
a year or so and your house has an uncanny quality. This is Freud’s
uncanny, familiar yet unfamiliar, which relies on memory and doubt:
“The ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to
something long known to us, once very familiar. How this is possible, in
what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening, I
shall show in what follows.” What follows is Freud’s tangled attempt
to define the uncanny (unheimlich) without just asserting that
it’s the opposite of Heimlich, which means “familiar”
and “belonging to the home.” Home is where we feel uncanniness, an
allegedly safe place that also houses an unsettled feeling of not
knowing what home is at all. Freud’s insists that, “something has to
be added to what’s novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny.” That
something is you. You are unsettled in a new city, trying to learn the
streetcars, find the best brownies, and make a few friends.
You grew up in bland, suburban houses with spotless white kitchens where
little cooking transpired. Then you had some horrible California
apartments. The worst, on a pretty block in north Berkeley way too close
to Peet’s Coffee, the Cheese Board, and Black Oak Books, had an
infestation of giant tree rats (which still give you nightmares) and a
stoner landlady who would often forget she left the stove on after
lighting a joint. You marveled that she had not blown up the rickety
rodent-filled house and called the gas company at the number you’d
memorized within a month of living there.
In your New York City apartments, where you’d lived for
20-odd years before coming to Canada, you had never had the luxury of
having your bedroom so distant from the living room and kitchen. You had
to be careful when you had your sleepless nights, first for your
roommate and then for your boyfriends one of whom is now your husband.
In this house, in Leslieville in the east end of Toronto, you sense an
amalgam of other places you’ve lived but it’s also new. You love the
privacy of a house, having your own room to work in, the finished
basement perfect for book overflow (which you call the stacks) and your
husband’s guitar collection. You love the way your Basset hound’s
nails click on the wood floors and delight in watching her navigate the
stairs with her dwarf legs. When it’s not winter, you love
the front porch and the sunny backyard with its raised garden beds where
you slaughtered your new friend’s delicate tomato plants last summer.
Maybe this summer you’ll try zucchini.
Quietly weeping in a heap on the brown leather couch, you feel awful.
You playback the nights spent on this same sofa in Brooklyn, watching
reality TV very quietly or attempting to read. Mainly you drink (too
much) coffee which turns your stomach sour and indulge in the
irresistible pull of the internet shopping cart. You look for
out-of-print books, or high-thread-count bed sheets at a decent price
that won’t immediately show the dog’s white hair, or vintage dresses,
or fancy notebooks and fetish-y Japanese pens. You fill imaginary
shopping carts, abandoning them when the numbers get too high or feel
too real. You watch too many YouTube videos on bullet journaling and
endless pen, planner, and notebook rundowns with pdf charts as a
souvenir. You store comparisons in a folder, knowing you would watch the
same video again and again if you didn’t have this evidence that you’d
seen it before.
Choosing a planner was a vexing decision you pondered and researched and
obsessed about and pondered some more. You relished the road to this
analog world coexisting with the digital one. You love your planner and
its comrades—the endless pens, many notebooks, tiny paperclips,
highlighters, tabs, stickers, etc. The planner is your holy grail, a
Rosetta stone, a new New Testament that will make your life cohere into
colorful pages on thick, chewy paper. Life resists cohesion, and your
devotion to methodical planning is both an illusion and a delusion. You
cannot fight chaos, a thug who hangs out with insomnia at after-hours
bars talking in zigzags and tangents. Chaos enjoys forcing you to
organize yourself in the lonely hours of early morning. Evidence of your
nocturnal shopping comes months later via oddly shaped envelopes from
Asia—one had two fine-tipped gel pens; another a small plastic box of
20 paperclips shaped like ice cream cones; others have stickers or washi
tape. You’re confident the planner is a good plan.
Sadly, it is not an effective sedative.
When you can’t sleep night after night after night you get anxious. You
should be powering through another draft of your essay or drawing the
tiny boxes you love to fill in the tracker of your planner. The planner,
too, and the notebooks which you use alongside it are part of your niche
self-improvement program. You are a classic hedgehog, burrowing into
things, as opposed to a fox, whose attention is sprawling. (You wonder
how people who don’t know Isaiah Berlin divide the world—Beatles v
Stones? Apple v Android? Chocolate v vanilla?) You’d rather go deep than
You feel powerful: you can live without sleep. You’ve done
it before. You pour a little more coffee from the metal carafe which
keeps it warm. You top it off with a healthy splash of table cream—a
delightful dairy product you’ve become accustomed to in Canada, falling
on the fat spectrum between half-and-half and heavy cream—from an
ivory Russel Wright creamer bought expressly for this purpose. It is a
lovely off-white squat ceramic pitcher which is impossible to clean.
Every few days you run a paper towel inside it to scoop up all of the
milk solids resting on its internal ledges.
You feel like you could do anything if you could just get some sleep.
You feel like you will never sleep again.
Insomnia is a very capable disorder, efficient and a little mean, like
the nurses in the ER. It spies on you during the day, the devil on your
shoulder scolding if you contemplate more caffeine. Then
it’s a disgruntled angel nagging you about exercise so you
take your exhausted carcass for a long walk which makes you draggy in
the afternoon but leaves you wide awake at night.
You start gathering materials for this, your insomnia piece—there is
always a piece—picking up a book here, an article from a women’s
magazine, a study in a medical journal. You have a habit of transforming
your interests into work, sucking the fun out of them. You can’t even
articulate why something suddenly, urgently matters—gel pens, MOD
vases, Paris hotels, houses on Shelter Island, the best ice cream in
Toronto—you just feel right crawling the web and making lists.
Prioritization is not your gift; curation, maybe, or just assemblage.
You are good at finding options, but not good at exercising your option
to forsake the world and its complications—aka to sleep.
Insomnia is just one of your diagnoses: you’ve read a lot
more about your true scourge, migraine, and you know that migraine and
insomnia make ideal playmates and often invite anxiety or depression
over for double-dutch. You see your insomnia, your anxiety, and your
migraine strolling arm-in-arm, or as witches around a stock cauldron in
a cut-rate Shakespeare play. Insomnia is an imp, small and wily; anxiety
is a sylph powered by worry so when you are stressed she expands like a
zeppelin; and your chronic migraines are Amazonian warriors with their
bows at their sides, ever ready to shoot at the target. That arrow
initiates the stabbing pain in your head, pain that won’t
let you sleep.
Your rule is you get out of bed regardless of what time it is if you are
fully awake, with no grogginess blurring the edges of your thinking.
Instead, you feel a creeping sense of dread which will get worse if you
don’t get up. Occasionally you can fall asleep again on the couch, TV
on softly, cocooned in the gray wool blanket which the dog has co-opted.
Often, though, you capitulate and make coffee for yourself, refilling
the creamer and choosing two mugs to bring to the table where your
computer, folders, books, and notebooks are floating around like your
aura. You still get creepy feelings here alone in the dark, the uncanny
pushing the permeable edges between day and night, awake and asleep,
eros and Thanatos, intimations of death and a yearning for life—not
your life, but life.
When you were younger and dumber you were an interesting case:
articulate, slightly desperate, yet treatment-resistant, as if your body
tended towards pain and disorder. The doctors got excited, like new
friends who want to hear all of your stories; then they got demoralized,
as you failed one treatment after another; finally, they were
dismissive, desperate for you to leave so they did not have to be
reminded of their failure. A few told you they couldn’t see
you anymore with a shrug and a vague promise of a colleague who might be
able to help. In your mind, you are a challenge. To the doctors, you are
a nemesis: the case they couldn’t solve.
You fantasize you’ll run into your Oliver Sacks, the hero
of stories of medical woes and can’ts: can’t
sleep, can’t eat, can’t wear clothes,
can’t deal with light. You dream of Sacks, a fellow
migraineur, who you only know from books: the doctor who finds you
fascinating and feels compelled to cure you, who makes art out of your
subpar life since you are too tired to do it. You keep trying, pushing,
fantasizing about some sweet flavor of a happy ending, a land of no
headaches, and long stretches of peaceful sleep. It’s not a real place,
yet you try to feel what it might be like. It’s hard,
though, to fantasize about absence: no pain means a chance at adequate
sleep, but it’s an effort to dream of sleep while the pain
persists. And it is nothing if not persistent. You didn’t
become a chronic migraineur by accident.
The closest you ever came to an Oliver Sacks was back in 2003 in New
York City, where you saw an excellent psychopharmacologist who had the
soundest notions about insomnia you ever encountered in a doctor, maybe
in a person. During the three-hour, $700 intake appointment he asked
about your sleep.
“I have insomnia,” you said.
“I’ve always had it.”
“Which kind?” He fired back at you. It wasn’t
personal, he was a rat-tat-tat talker. By this time—hour two—you
were comfortable in the two-character Aaron Sorkin medical show
unfolding as you answered his questions.
“I’m not sure. How many kinds are there?”
“Can you fall asleep?”
“If you do fall asleep, do you stay asleep all night?”
“No.” You laughed at this. Who stays asleep all night?
Teenaged boys and puppies?
“Do you ever wake up too early?” he fired his next salvo.
“Yes.” You paused, and added, “All the time.”
He stopped typing and looked at you with concern and an undercurrent of
Eureka! “Congratulations,” he said. “You
have all three kinds of insomnia.”
“So I’m a triple threat? A hat trick, or a
turkey, a trifecta. A three-peat. An unholy trinity.”
He smiled, which surprised you. He didn’t seem like the
sports metaphor type. “Look, this likely runs contrary to
what other doctors have told you. But I see someone who
can’t sleep as analogous to a diabetic. The diabetic needs
insulin because her body does not produce it. Your body obviously is not
producing the chemicals you need to have decent sleep. So we give you
the equivalent of insulin at night, and then you sleep.”
This floored you. Suddenly insomnia was not a mind problem but a body
one. This fancy doctor believed your insomnia wasn’t about
poor sleep hygiene (something only insomniacs ever think about), or
excessive worrying (hamstering, as it felt like hamsters endlessly
running on their wheels somewhere deep in your brain), or anything else
you had or hadn’t done. It was chemistry, and there were
drugs to combat it. You left with an Ambien prescription, and you’re
still taking it nearly 20 years later. Does it work? Not always, but it
improves your chances of a few consecutive hours of sleep considerably.
And it’s been a long time since you just took Ambien: you have a
complex, three-drug sleep cocktail that sometimes fails but it’s much
better than the alternative. Recently a Canadian doctor suggested you go
off of Ambien because studies have connected it to a decline in mental
functioning when taken over a long period of time. You understood why
she said it, but internally you were seething. You will have to pry it
from my cold, shaky, up-for-days hands. Good luck.
Your enthusiasm for life quickly turns into despair when sleep takes its
leave. But this junction does not phase you. You’ve been
here many times before, so many you know what the paths ahead look like:
the one where you sleep, white and quiet like a field with fresh snow;
the one where you don’t, full of gnarled trees with giant
black squirrels and errant raccoons that unsettle you in the long nights
of a Canadian winter.
Insomnia follows a classic arc. Sleep should be a hero’s
journey, straight-up Joseph Campbell style: you vanquish a couple of
money worries and squash a stray thought about a breast exam so when
sleep comes you leap triumphantly into its arms, quest over. The embrace
is divine. You can’t get enough, greedy for it. When you
open your eyes a mere hour or two later you are far from sated. You
could sleep forever if only you could sleep.
Insomnia is old, and the mechanism for sleep is often faulty and
impossible to fix. Knowing others have a defective sleep switch doesn’t
bring you comfort or illuminate the dark corners where insomnia lurks.
One of your favorite research holes is reading about famous insomniacs
and what they did at night instead of sleeping. Bill Clinton played
cards—if you are the president, there is always a fourth for
Bridge–and read. Vincent Van Gogh painted and wrote heartbreaking
letters to his brother, Theo. Your fantasy insomniac friend is Andy
Warhol, a man who did not care much for sleep and had a bottomless
capacity for gossip. Warhol loved to be on the phone with a friend,
making idle chatter with Candy Darling or another of his superstars in
the depths of night.
Warhol’s first film featured his then-lover John Giorno asleep for five
hours and twenty minutes. Warhol called it Sleep (1964). Though it
feels continuous, the movie was shot over several nights and spliced
together. It’s intimate but not sexy, the register where
Warhol did his best work. There is something fetish-y about an insomniac
filming his lover sleeping night after night, something hypnotic about
watching a sleeping figure. Multiple paintings of Marilyn
Monroe’s (also a famous insomniac), electric chairs (which
put you right to sleep), Elvis Presley (yes, him too), and comforting
Campbell’s soup cans: Warhol’s subjects are sly comments on the
multiplicity of modern life. He had no truck with high versus low
culture; he just liked things. Warhol was a dedicated collector—he’d
be called a hoarder if he were alive today or poor. Warhol’s childhood
was just deprived enough for him to relish beautiful and/or interesting
things: women’s shoes; Polaroids of friends and strangers; contemporary
paintings; Art Deco jewelry; antiques. Warhol was promiscuous in his
work but uptight in his life, very self-conscious about his physical
flaws. On the phone, or on the canvas, or in the middle of the night no
one cared about his St. Vitus Dance and thinning hair. He was Andy
Warhol, happy to talk until you fell asleep cradling the receiver, still
on the other end of the phone when you woke up.
Don’t make your essay about insomnia an examination of you.
You will want to explain how there is a difference between not being
able to sleep occasionally and having chronic insomnia, that it’s like
being sad versus being in a major depression. Everyone knows sadness,
but few of us shimmy down to the darkest place, so dark the borders blur
The uncanny is your subtext as you cram information into your remarkably
nimble mind at 3 AM. Your level of clarity depends on how long and how
bad it’s been, as your insomnia likes to visit for days, even weeks.
It’s no day-tripper. Until night four or five you roll with it, up at 2
or 3:30 or 4:10 AM. Sometimes you go back to bed around 8, praying to
gods you don’t believe in for a decent nap. When it works, and you wake
up again at 10 or 11, you are groggy and pissed. The day is escaping you
again. You used to write 1000 words every morning. Now you know a lot
about dresses and notebooks.
Let the status quo rile you up: in thousands of years of science why has
no one found a cure for this? A cure for a disorder that wrecks lives,
that decimates productivity, that turns the sufferer into a cranky
tyrant or weepy victim. After two or three days of little to no sleep
you can’t find your shoes; then your wallet, then your
keys. Your phone often goes walkabout, only to turn up in the pocket of
the warm coat you bought for the Canadian winter which is still not warm
enough. You regret not buying something much uglier.
You find everything, get your coat on, and realize the errand that felt
so pressing now can’t be done: the pharmacy is not open at
9 PM; the supermarket creeps you out at night; the other possible
destinations in your sleepy neighborhood are the sketchy donut shop and
the variety store where you can buy candy and lottery tickets and,
right, they dry clean too. With an audible sigh you transition back to
pajamas—which sometimes look very much like errand clothes, old jeans
and sweatshirts are perfectly acceptable for late-night grocery shopping
if you had made it beyond your front door. Instead, you move your books
and folders and notebooks to the living room; and if you are really
sulking, you turn on the television, hoping that along with your books
and your computer you can find something to take your mind off of what
happens next, the trial, the point when you go to bed. The gentle push
against the fulcrum of consciousness. Will it be so kind as to leave you
for a few consecutive hours? Or will you end up facing that same choice
at 1 AM, or 3 AM, or 4? When do you give in and put the coffee on? When
is it tomorrow?
This particular bout of insomnia is your own damned fault. When you
moved to Toronto you couldn’t sleep—you often
can’t sleep in unfamiliar places, to the tune of reading at
4 AM in a hotel bathroom while your husband sleeps loudly. Soon after
arriving in Toronto, you bought a king-sized bed. Your husband has
always wanted one but most bedrooms in New York City apartments are too
small. The primary cause for your current square dance with sleep is a
change in your meds, the result of taking your initial insomnia after
moving into your own hands and doubling your dose of an unusual drug.
The decent doctor you finally found put you on a taper back to your
original dose, and tapers mean insomnia and usually migraines too. You
doubled the dose because you were tired of waking up disoriented in this
house, fumbling to put clothes on, to get stuff from the room designated
the library for obvious reasons, and carry everything down to the living
room while hitting every squeaky spot on the hallway and the stairs.
Eventually, you memorize the not intuitive positions of the light
switches. The house has lots of quirks you’ve grown to
love, and having a house makes you feel grown-up. In Canada, you have a
husband, a house, and a hound, a rudimentary recipe for a good life.
But not at 4 AM. At 4 AM you have regrets, anxiety, and old-fashioned
worry for company.
There is never a good time to read about insomnia. This realization is
dire since you try to read your way out of most things. The
books—there weren’t even that many of them, you have a
few and borrowed a couple from the library—looked at you accusingly
every night. Why not pick up one of those? You’d think. You open the
book and are completely bored by the snippets about Shakespeare and too
impatient to find something promising, like the section on film noir or
Edith Wharton. Then you look at a meditation on insomnia—creatively
called Insomnia— which is way too precious for this time of night,
and morning does nothing to dispel this opinion. Her elliptical
proclamations grate: “You don’t need a bed in
order to sleep with someone.” “Like travel, insomnia is an uprooting
experience.” She calls her husband or lover “Zzz” which is,
again, too twee for this time of night. So much for Insomnia.
You move on to Bright Eyed by RM Vaughan, a gift from a good friend
who sympathized with your suffering. Bright purports to describe
“Insomnia and Its Cultures,” which sounds interesting.
Vaughan is Canadian, which interests you, as you are often befuddled by
Canadian mores. Bright Eyed is readable, but you still can’t focus on
much beyond the creepy owls on the cover and the idea of insomnia
culture—sorry, cultures. It’s not just a disorder, it’s a culture.
Maybe long-lost relatives or new friends lurk within it, people you
could text in the middle of the night when you get panicky and
don’t want to wake your pleasantly snoring husband? Maybe
it’s like Polar Bear swimming or urban foraging: people
don’t necessarily share that they are part of insomnia
culture unless you can recognize the signs–Dark circles? Uncontrolled
yawning? Or maybe there’s a secret handshake: one hand
slipping past another in a downward motion to signify the fall into
The books quickly change from lofty studies about sleep and its absence
to the dullest of memoirs. The only subject more boring than sleeping is
not sleeping. The not sleeping trope forms the pattern of several
memoirs. You are not having it. There is nothing inherently interesting
about a person trying and failing to sleep; if there were, then
we’d have symphonies and opera cycles and concept albums
about it, not just quasi-self-help books and the plaints of the
Some go the science route. Others discuss all of the artists afflicted
with insomnia as if being in their company would make those hours in the
night more bearable. Yet all of them end up at that most mundane of
subjects: the self. Samantha Hunt’s memoir, The Shapeless
Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping seemed promising until you reread the
subtitle—one year of insomnia? That’s nothing. She blames
the world for her affliction, too. Poor you, Brexit is keeping you up
at night. The state of things weighs too heavily on your shoulders.
The one aspect of Hunt’s insomnia that did garner your
sympathy was her resistance to sleeping pills. That was legitimately
Why are insomniacs so timid, so suggestible, so superstitious? In part,
it’s because we are lonely and looking for both comfort and company
through the long, blank nights. This essay is a challenge, an attempt to
meet the enemy on your terms–on paper, rather than in your nocturnal
ramblings from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom to couch. Paper is where
you feel safe, like you can dissect the carapace of insomnia and try to
locate its shriveled heart.
Now you avoid reading about other people’s sleep disorders.
They are the opposite of love affairs or madness, drug addiction or
divorce, gaslighting and torture, all of which you can parse endlessly.
Other people’s insomnia is more private than sex or
self-harm. What happens when you confront “the dark night of the
soul,” as Scott Fitzgerald memorably dubbed 3:30 AM, is between you and
your sandman. Talking about sleep is like announcing one’s restricted
diet or exercise routine—all verge on too personal yet people feel
perfectly justified bringing them up at a dinner party. Don’t.
Fellow insomniacs, maybe it’s time to stop living a lie. If
you are getting three or four hours, tops, cut back on daytime
activities. If you can, make time to nap early in the day. Limit
caffeine, of course, and limit alcohol too, which can make you drowsy
but also dehydrates you and can interfere with long stretches of sleep.
If you have more than one drink your sleep is wrecked: you can fall
asleep but can’t stay there. Inevitably you get up to drink
some water, have a throbbing headache, and rue the day you fell in love
with bourbon. You fear any occasion where there is champagne, as you
love the bubbles but the effects are disastrous. After your wedding
lunch, where you had both champagne and two generous martinis, you had a
whopper of a migraine and didn’t sleep for a few days. True
love plus copious gin will keep you up at night. Next to you, your
newlywed husband sleeps soundly. You resist cursing him for his sleeping
abilities or waking him up to hold you for a little while. You probably
won’t fall back asleep, and you might get that panicky
feeling that comes when you wake up too early and have too much alone
time between when you get out of bed and he does. Inevitably you resent
him for his grogginess after six, seven, eight hours, impossible numbers
for you. Sleeping is a contest you will never win.
When is it a good time to think about insomnia?
When you slink out of bed at 3:30 AM—yes, the dark hour of the
soul—after the dog woke you at 3. She’s now posed in a
perfect circle which juts into your back like a bowling ball.
She’s unconsciously leeching your body heat. You are idly
scrolling through your phone, its screen the only light in the room,
putting off the minute when you have to leave the comfort and company of
bed and venture downstairs to coffee and computer.
Veteran insomniacs don’t toss and turn; we admit defeat. We
accept that it’s 3:30 AM—and, frankly, you
aren’t sure Fitzgerald’s proclamation holds
up. You don’t disagree with him, but your soul has gone
dark at all sorts of times. There’s nothing special about
3:30 that differentiates it from 2:45, or 4:10, or 1:25, or whatever odd
hour you wake up and try to coax yourself back to oblivion. When you
give up—which is way more often than you fall back to sleep—you
already feel the exhaustion that will overwhelm you in the early
afternoon if you can’t rest at all. The feeling that you
have already lived a day at 3 PM is as dark as any you had at 3 AM. At
least at 3 PM, you can find some human connection—send an email or a
text and get an instant reply. Someone is paying attention. At night,
communication is less clear. You ache for company in the cold, dark
The blues in the middle of the night are indistinguishable from the
shadows that barely happen in the Toronto winter. To be up all night in
this still unfamiliar place is to be up for hours and hours, dead time
when you are too tired to read or write anything serious and you
don’t want to make noise and wake the husband and the dog.
It’s more than four hours from 3:30 AM until the dull sun
rises, and the only brightness in the mornings now is an occasional
headlight bouncing off the thin layer of snow that lasts from January
Sometimes you put your coat on over your pajamas and sit on your front
porch with the motion light on, hypervigilant, watching for the sneaky
skunks and enormous raccoons that haunt Toronto. You worry about your
dog as there are coyotes here too, creatures you have only encountered
in Joni Mitchell songs or Roadrunner cartoons.
“There’s too much nature here,” you shouted in frustration one day
last summer when you were hanging out in the backyard and swarms of bees
showed up at your barbecue. Your Canadian husband laughed, as did your
Torontonian guests. They have a possum that visits at night. A photo of
it unleashed nightmares—brief horror movies that startled me awake for
nights after seeing it, as if I weren’t already there.
Lisa Levy is a writer, editor, essayist, and critic. Her work has appeared in many publications, including the New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Rumpus, TLS, the CBC, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a columnist and contributing editor to Crime Reads, which she helped found. She is currently working on a collection of linked essays called The Impatient, about the construction of chronic illness, life narrative, failure, the uncertain future, and American literature.