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How One Woman Copes With Insomnia

In the wee hours, the sleepless share remedies on social media

By Janice Eidus

Sometimes on those nights when I lie awake at 2 a.m., tossing and turning in my bed, I wander into the kitchen and make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I smear on so much peanut butter that it oozes from the bread onto the plate, and then I dip my finger into the excess and take great pleasure in licking it off. There’s some medicinal quality in peanut butter, I’ve come to believe, that helps me sleep. By the last bite, I’m ready for bed.

But, oh my, the calories! This is not something I can do every night if I want to continue to fit into my clothes. Besides, if I did it every night, I’m pretty certain it would stop working.

Conventional Wisdom About Insominia

Roughly 60 million Americans are affected by insomnia each year and yet scientists know relatively little about it, including why it disproportionately affects women. According to the Mayo Clinic, among the most common causes of insomnia are stress and anxiety (guilty), depression (not at the moment, but I have a history), and the need to get up frequently to pee (um … I can’t deny it).

The worst for me may still be to come, since insomnia is a huge problem in the elderly — so there’s that to look forward to. I keep reading articles telling me that our last years can be among our happiest. But how can that be if we’re depleted and exhausted from lack of sleep?

Why do we need sleep and what happens when we don’t get enough of it? Among other things, sleep specialists say we become irritable, depressed, and anxious; can’t complete tasks and, have headaches and accidents.

Gayle Greene, the author of the book, Insomniac, speaks for me when she says, “I don’t manage the beast. I live with it. I live around it. I bed down with it every night, gingerly, cautiously, careful not to provoke it.”

These days, the current wisdom about curing insomnia is to avoid looking at “screens” before bed, which supposedly overstimulate you. But I find it reassuring in the middle of the night to commiserate via Facebook with fellow insomniacs.

We post tips to help one another:

  • “Take Melatonin and drink a whole glass of warm milk.”
  • “Do child’s pose and corpse pose.”
  • “Look at photos of kittens and puppies.”

Not that any of these ever work for me.


Lifelong Sleep Troubles

I’ve been an insomniac since I was a little kid. Back then, I would be awakened in the middle of the night by nightmares about gorillas, monsters and “bad men” climbing through my bedroom window with the intent to harm me. And then, I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

As a teenager, I stopped even being able to fall asleep easily, so I just lay awake, alternately rigid and restless beneath my covers, finding some solace in listening to gentle English folk ballads like John Riley, about a woman awaiting the return of her lover gone at sea. The soothing lyrics and the image of the ocean’s lapping waves … eventually, these things helped me to sleep for a few hours (although never enough).

Where does my lifelong insomnia come from? I believe it's from growing up under the rule of a violent, tyrannical father and a depressed, suicidal mother. From feeling that my family — with its sorrows and rages — was “different” from others, and that I would never belong or fit in anywhere.

As I grew up and read newspapers and watched TV news, my insomnia was made worse, and still is, by stories of terrorism abroad and at home, and cruelty manifested in more ways than I can bear.

So I resort to peanut butter and jelly at 2 a.m. and swear to myself that I’ll eat only lettuce and celery for the rest of the day. While I devour my sandwich and put on soothing music — sometimes those same English ballads that calmed me during my teenage years — I remind myself about the 60 million others out there like me, and I imagine that one day someone will find a cure for us.

And then, for better or worse, I log onto Facebook.   


Janice Eidus Novelist, short story writer, and essayist Janice Eidus has twice won the O.Henry Prize for her short stories, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Redbook Prize and the Acker Award For Fiction, and is a regular contributor to Purple Clover. Read More
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