Brendan Leonard brain activity line chart
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Maybe I’m Not “Having Trouble Sleeping” 

Is it insomnia, or is it a tireless love for being awake?

Brendan Leonard brain activity line chart

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The first time I remember having trouble sleeping was on Christmas Eve when I was seven or eight years old. I was so excited about opening presents the next morning that I worked myself into a frenzy and didn’t sleep a wink the entire night. Thirty-some years later, I can’t remember any of the presents I opened in the morning, but I can still see the glowing red digits of my alarm clock as they crawled toward 7:00 A.M.

(All illustrations: Brendan Leonard)

When people ask, “Have you always had trouble sleeping?”, that’s the first instance that comes to mind. But for a while after that, I don’t remember having a huge problem with it. Maybe I had a few sleepless nights in my 20s. But then it really ramped up in my 30s. 

I would fall asleep just fine, but wake up at 2 or 3 A.M. and start thinking about things. Mostly stuff I had to get done for work—deadlines coming up, ideas I had started working on but hadn’t finished, maybe plane tickets I needed to buy, or people I needed to email back. 

Eventually, I would start thinking about really insignificant shit, things that would have seemed ridiculously unimportant at 9 A.M, but at 3 A.M., were borderline crises. 

I tried all the stuff people say to try when you have insomnia: no caffeine after 3 P.M., no caffeine after noon, no screens in the bedroom, no screens after 9 P.M., meditating at the end of the day. I gave up caffeine completely for four months, sort of hoping it wouldn’t be the magic bullet, and it wasn’t: I managed to have several nights of insomnia without a trace of caffeine in my system. So, thankfully, that was ruled out. 

I would have anxiety about how I’d been sleeping badly lately, and then I would wake up in the night and have anxiety about being able to get back to sleep. One thing I know: It’s hard to relax when relaxing is not relaxing. 

I read this long article in The Guardian in which the author, Kate Edgely, looks to writer and ex-insomniac Sasha Stephens for help, first through Stephens’ book, “The Effortless Sleep Method,” then through her online course, and finally through an in-person visit, during which Stephens drinks coffee, in the afternoon, and tells Edgely: 

There were a couple other quotes in the story, but her main point seemed to be: Want to sleep better? Stop giving a fuck about sleeping. 

I tried that, and I can’t say it was 100 percent effective, or that it happened overnight. Stopping caring about something is not as easy as it might sound—it’s not a volume knob on a stereo you can just turn down and then off in a couple seconds. 

At some point, though, I just unconsciously decided that I wasn’t going to beat myself up for waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. I would try to get back to sleep for an hour, and if that didn’t work, I’d read a book with my Kindle on dark mode. Sometimes that put me to sleep, and sometimes it wound me up, depending on the book. But if I was awake for more than an hour, I’d just get up, leave the bedroom, and go do things, conceding to the fact that maybe today wouldn’t be a high-brainpower day.

Did that work? I mean, I still give a fuck, but maybe a smaller one. 

Am I sleeping better? I think I am, lots of the time. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, especially now that we have a baby. He goes back to sleep, and Hilary goes back to sleep, and sometimes I do too, but sometimes I don’t. I lie there, I start thinking about stuff, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like an emergency. I just don’t, or can’t, relax myself back into drowsiness again.

If I’ve been awake too long, I figure I’m wasting time by lying in bed and not sleeping, and lying in bed when I could be doing anything else. So I give up, and then I get out of bed, sneak out of the bedroom, and start doing things, because I’d just be lying in there doing them in my head anyway. 

One of the ways we refer to insomnia is “having trouble sleeping.” That’s definitely accurate, because you want to sleep, but you’re having difficulty doing it. Like if you want to start your car, but it won’t start, you’re having trouble starting your car. 

I was washing some dishes the other night, alone in our kitchen, and I started thinking about how excited I already was to drink coffee the next morning. But not just to drink coffee—to do other things too: write a little bit for a book project, meet with a friend later in the day, get some work done on our backyard office construction project, cook dinner. 

And I realized: I don’t have trouble sleeping. I have trouble wanting to sleep. Years ago, Hilary got me a children’s book about Keith Haring titled “I Wish I Didn’t Have to Sleep,” and I have never felt so seen by a book title in my life. (the book is not actually about Keith Haring not wanting to sleep) 

The problem—so my latest theory goes—is not that I am bad at sleeping because of some defect or condition. It’s that I want to do stuff, and sleeping is the opposite of doing stuff. I’m bad at sleeping because I don’t value being good at it.

I am still trying to get better at sleeping, because according to medical professionals, it’s good for you. I’m just trying to not put pressure on myself to do a great job at it every single night. Which is sort of relaxing, in its own way.

Lead Illustration: Brendan Leonard