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Seeing My Insomnia for What It Really Is

I’ve just used the toilet at the house where I grew up. I flush before walking over to the sink, like usual. The toilet starts making an odd gurgling sound. I turn to see what’s causing the noise. The water level is rising and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. I run over, drop to my hands and knees, and reach behind the toilet, feeling around for the water shut off. The water spills over the top of the bowl and onto the floor. Panicking, I fumble around for the knob but can’t seem to find it. The water continues to pour out of the toilet, the pool on the floor getting bigger and deeper. I keep looking and feeling around, but I still can’t find it. I stand and sob with my head in my hands. The water laps at my ankles as it fills the bathroom.

It’s back: the insomnia I’ve worked most of my life to get under control is back in full force these days. I’ve battled with insomnia since I was 10 years old. At the time I just thought I had something wrong with me: something that prevented my brain from switching over from drowsy but awake to fully asleep. I spoke to doctor after doctor. I tried everything from natural solutions like drinking warm milk and eating turkey, to taking melatonin, and finally — medication. They prescribed me every sleep aid under the sun, and even tried some medications that had drowsiness as a side effect. Most sleep medications can’t be taken every night or they become habit-forming, and the ones I could take nightly stopped working after a brief period of time. Not a single doctor discussed with me how anxiety could be the root cause of my sleep problems. Now that I’m older, it’s easy for me to see the insomnia for what it really is: a symptom of my larger problems with anxiety.

We’re living in scary, uncertain times, stuck at home while a pandemic sweeps across the globe killing hundreds of thousands of people. And I’m a new mom living in a foreign country, unable to venture more than 5 km from my apartment. I can feel the anxiety coursing through my veins when I close my eyes at night. My heart races and I sweat. My brain plays out worst case scenarios and replays any slightly tense conversation, showing me what I should have done or said differently. I spend hours trying to clear my head, practicing the breathing and counting exercises that have helped me in the past. I take deep belly breaths, imagining the air coming in through my nose, sweeping up into my brain, collecting all the noise and racing thoughts, and sending them back out through my mouth as I exhale, clearing my mind. I picture an old timey digital alarm clock, the numbers scrolling, one by one, as it counts backward from 100. The hours slip by. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven…

When I finally drift off to sleep, I have intense, upsetting nightmares:

It’s my husband’s turn for the middle-of-the-night feeding. He’s heating up a bottle for her on the stove. He’s tired. He absentmindedly lies our daughter down on the stove. Her head starts melting like a ball of wax. He kills her. I come downstairs to find him sobbing, holding her shriveled body in his arms.

I force myself awake so it will stop. My heart is pounding. I get up to use the bathroom and clear my head. As I sit on the toilet, I can clearly see my fears thinly-veiled behind the horror story playing out in my head: feeling like I don’t have control of my life, the fear of loved ones dying or leaving, claustrophobia, the fear of dying myself, etc. I wash my hands and tilt my head under the faucet to get a drink of water and go back to bed.

As I lie back down, the whole falling asleep process starts over again. The nightmare picks up where it left off. I fight off the continuation of the story-line, but it’s replaced with replaying the insults my sister lobbed at me the last time we spoke: I’m selfish, thoughtless and don’t deserve to be in my niece and nephew’s lives. Tonight I’m saying everything I wish I had said, holding nothing back. I breathe and count, breathe and count, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven… I feel myself drift off and wake back up. Was I asleep for a couple of hours? I roll over to look at the clock. No, only 20 minutes have passed.

The baby starts to cry from her crib in our bedroom. It’s 3:30 a.m. and time for her to eat. I get up, change her diaper and bring her downstairs to make her a bottle. She wails while I wait for the formula to heat up. I lean against the wall and close my burning eyes, listening to the water gurgle in the bottle warmer. I could fall asleep standing up. When the warmer clicks off, I test the temperature and bring the bottle and the baby over to the couch. As she eats I close my eyes, but tell myself I can’t fall asleep yet: hold out just a few more minutes, I tell myself. I must be tired enough to fall asleep at this point.

The baby finishes eating, I burp her and bring her limp, sleepy body back upstairs. I lay her back down in her crib, and slide back into my own bed. I close my eyes listening to her grunts and groans to make sure she’s falling back to sleep. After a few minutes she goes quiet. OK, I think to myself. Now I can finally get some sleep. I snuggle into my bed, pulling the blankets up under my chin. I’m cozy, tired and ready for sleep to take me away, but a slightly different loop of the same argument with my sister starts playing again, while the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” plays on loop in the background. I toss and turn, breathe and count, Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven… I eventually drift off only to be woken up 40 minutes later when the baby begins to stir again. It’s 5:30 a.m.

My husband takes the morning shift to give me a chance to rest. I lie in bed, eyes closed, mind clear, but unable to drift off. He returns twice over the next hour to change the baby’s diaper. I finally give up on sleep, get up and make some coffee. I’m going to need all the caffeine I can get to make it through the day.

How can I combat my insomnia and larger anxiety problem at a time like this? When I’m quarantined at home with my husband and newborn baby, and have not seen another friendly, familiar face in months? When my family is still upset that I moved to a different country almost a year ago for better career prospects, and won’t let me hear the end of it? All I can do is breathe and count, breathe and count, and hope that maybe tonight I’ll be so exhausted I’ll finally be able to drift off to sleep through the darkest part of the night, until the sun shines the next morning.

Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven…

Follow this journey on Molly Does Adulting.

Getty image via franz12