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My Battle With Insomnia

Nothing I've tried sends me into that sweet, sweet slumber

By Candy Schulman

Insomnia. I've tried every trick. Melatonin. I'm still not sleepy. Calms Forte sleep aid tablets. Maybe I just don't believe enough to make them work. Deep breathing, under the covers; my lungs are robust, but eyes wide open. I count each exhale, one to five, then reset. I don't count sheep. I'm a city girl. 

A person lying in bed at night awake, lit up by the light of their cell phone. Next Avenue, Insomnia,
Credit: Getty

Exercise is a true-tested potion. I bicycle. Miles to go before I sleep. Or don't sleep. Years of meditation practice fails me, a girl from Brooklyn trying to be Buddhist. Meditation makes me feel calm — until bedtime. Where is the sandman?

"Hormones. Menstruation. Perimenopause. Menopause. Post menopause. We're doomed. And able to dream only while awake."

I give up afternoon coffee. Luxurious lavender bubble baths don't drift me into dreamland. Health professionals advised me get up after 20 minutes of tossing and turning and return in 20 minutes. I can divide 20 into all the hours until 3 a.m., when I'm desperate for REM.

I turn off all screens an hour before bedtime, read a boring book, listen to waterfalls on a phone app. I can't turn my mind off at pillow time.

Am I too curious? Worried? Bored? I can have insomnia on nights when I'm anticipating a perfect next day: cycling by the river or a hike on a nature trail. Don't I deserve to be kind to myself, as Buddhists endorse? Not at bedtime.

The Palpitations Begin

I'll be nodding off in the middle of my boring book selection, my head nearly hitting the hardcover rather than the pillow. I click off the light, ease into the sheets…and the palpitations begin. 

My doctor of 20 years gave me a silent diagnosis of "hysterical female." I had to urge him to pursue it further. Next, I was plugged into a Holter monitor, a device that uses electrodes to record and track heart rhythms for 24 hours. I had to click a button on this portable ECG whenever I felt palpitations. A friend told me her Holter monitor once fell into the toilet when she was peeing. I kept mine out of the bowl, but it malfunctioned half a day later. I started over.

Results: benign.

I saw a cardiologist, explaining that I could bike 15 miles, but the palpitations started when I tried to sleep. Diving in with his stethoscope, he gently said, "There's nothing wrong in here."

I let out one of those deep yoga breaths that never lulled me to sleep.

"You feel it more in bed because of gravity. You have to find a way to slow down your engine."

 "Where do humans get tune-ups?" I asked. 

 "Life is a rhythm. It sways and swerves," he said, and I wondered if he were a cardiologist or a frustrated poet.

My insomnia sways and swerves. 

My Husband, the Sleeper

My husband can slumber anywhere. His father embarrassed him by dozing off, in front of company, upright on the living room couch, mouth ajar, snoring. My husband humiliated our daughter when she was at a high school soccer practice; he laid down on a bench in full view of all the players and took a nap. He can catnap at 6 p.m. and fall asleep before midnight.

I've tried all the tricks. Life is a rhythm, it tosses and turns.

Yet one in four women suffer from insomnia symptoms, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which says: "Insomnia is more common in women, especially older women, than in men."

My new diagnosis: older woman.

Hormones. Menstruation. Perimenopause. Menopause. Post menopause. We're doomed. And able to dream only while awake.

Remedy After Remedy After Remedy

I join a Facebook group called The Wakeful Dead. Much advice: sleep nude (I do), listen to podcasts of "dull overlong stories," eat this and don't eat that. A forgiveness expert urges us to give up grudges (I have too many). A homeopathic healer in India wants me to eschew morning light. My friend, a psychiatrist, tells me to avoid afternoon light. Before the sun rises, I read an article warning that lack of sleep causes weight gain. And I thought it was all that midnight snacking.

The "Sleep Doctor" website will help me pick the perfect pillow. Strangers want to sell me solutions: Bluetooth sleep headphones, high thread count sheets, weighted blankets, yoga sleep white sound machines — a hug for my mind. 


I've tried all the tricks. Life is a rhythm, it tosses and turns.

The New York Times and the journal Nature Communication publish research claiming that lack of sleep in middle age could lead to dementia when we're older. Another thing to worry about while I'm not counting sheep. 

Sleeping pills don't count in the dementia risk study, because you don't sleep as deeply with them.

Would Liquor Make Me Sleep Quicker?

A friend recommends Drambuie, which my father used to drink, a Scotch whiskey liqueur infused with a "secret blend" of heather honey, herbs, and spices. She claims it also cures common colds.

Another friend, a teetotaler all her life, relies on a few fingers of Scotch at 3 a.m. awakenings. Yet another friend depends on a few hits of weed.

I want to be addicted to falling asleep naturally.

I can't identify why I have insomnia on certain nights and then have a miraculous breakthrough of nine or 10 delicious, restful hours of sleep. I rise with an omnipotent feeling that anything is possible.

My infant daughter was not a good sleeper. For three months, I never got more than two straight hours of sleep. Nursing her, I'd watch Home Shopping Network without ordering anything. An older friend with grown children cautioned me, "By the time they let you sleep through the night, you can't anymore."

One irony of parenting is that you hope and even pray that your child will not wake up at 5 a.m. or 6 or even 7. And then children turn into teenagers who can't wake up before noon, or one, or two. Why do they call it sleeping like a baby when babies don't sleep and teenagers can't wake up? My teenager looked so carefree during her 12-hour sleep cycles. At my lunchtime, I'd check to see that she was still breathing. 

Nap Time?

The classic adage: if you worry less about falling asleep, you might just sleep. Friends insist I should nap, even though naps don't count in terms of dementia risk. Naps make me feel groggier afterwards. I gave them up before kindergarten.

Perhaps it's time to just accept this phase of my life, reassured that I'm not the only one. I can't identify why I have insomnia on certain nights and then have a miraculous breakthrough of nine or 10 delicious, restful hours of sleep. I rise with an omnipotent feeling that anything is possible.

Is this the way others feel every day? They must not notice the striking difference as I do, and I appreciate the gift of sleep even more, like a spiritual awakening. I'll walk into the kitchen to make coffee, breaking into an impromptu dance step on the way. I approach my work with renewed gusto, my exercise routine with boundless energy. I repot root-bound plants and cook an elaborate dinner, serenaded by Little Mix, a bouncy British girl group.

Life is a rhythm, it tosses and turns, sways and swerves, and when I'm lucky, I get a good night's sleep.

Candy Schulman
Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City. Read More
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