Perhaps I'm at that age, but I've noticed more of them cropping up on social media: photos of toddlers sleeping in weird places, with their Garanimals-clad bodies in anatomically confusing arrangements. On my facebook feed, there's a little boy folded in half like a dollar bill, a costume-bin princess casually napping on a bookshelf and all sorts of children planking in piles of toys and books. It’s a cute meme. But more than anything, it reminds me that I once knew sleep as a purely physical act. When little kids need to recharge, they flop down wherever they are and drift off, drool-side up. I did it too, and even through college, I passed between the waking and sleeping worlds with only occasional interference from my mind.
Then, I graduated and settled into a groove somewhere between endless summer and unemployment. I looked for jobs, went to the gym, got reacquainted with my good friend network television and fiddled with LSAT prep. But, in the process of keeping myself busy, I discovered the difference between having purpose and doing stuff for the sake of demarcating daytime hours. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t waiting out the start of a new semester — I wasn’t waiting out the start of anything in particular. The inertia got to me. And, over that summer, I went from an optimistic post-grad to anxiety in neon leisure shorts.
The panic and why-me woes left me alone during the day. But then, I’d trade in my neon shorts for floral boxers, climb into bed and feel invigorated by worry. Falling asleep became something else I couldn't do. So I'd lie there, and indulge my paranoia in an adult-ified version of my childhood bedroom, where a queen bed with swiss-dot linens and wrought iron posts had replaced a twin bed outfitted in powder-blue everything.
Upon hearing any nighttime sound — in an old house, rich in nighttime sounds — I’d assume the worst. In my mind, my parents' house was a magnet for old-timey crimes. Burglars and kidnappers and arsonists were coming for me. It didn’t help that the front door was usually open, or that I asked my dad to install an alarm system and instead received a Home Depot emergency ladder kit for all my window-escape needs.
I didn't see my jittery, drained state for what it was until early autumn, when I realized that the link between feeling tired and falling asleep had fallen apart. Rest had become a psychological challenge rather than a source of comfort, a day-ending ritual or a natural response to exhaustion. The trials of adulthood — luckily for me — weren't life-threatening. But, in my lonely, uncertain state, I'd gotten cozy with insomnia and anxiety, the couple nobody wants to hang out with.
From what I recall, I felt anxious before I stopped sleeping. But, looking back, I'd guess the two issues reinforced each other. My swift, unwelcome lifestyle change — which a therapist compared to a human loss — disrupted my daily schedule and sense of self. The situation was ripe for both rest and mood problems to emerge. And the research suggests both anxiety and insomnia can be the chicken and the egg, simultaneously. Or, a third factor can underlie their onset. Parsing the relationship between mental health and sleep health is akin to untangling charm necklaces in the dark, with shearing gloves on. But, scientists are working on it.
In navigating these fun new waters, I gained some perspective on sleep and the human way. I learned that my physical and mental states are linked: I felt less anxious when I exercised and feeling less anxious helped me sleep better. Eight years later, no piece of knowledge has proved as consistently true, and valuable, as this one.
I learned that the same habit can hurt and help sleep in different ways. Watching medical sleuthing on "House, MD" helped me fall asleep by providing distraction and comfort. It also kept me up by sparking thoughts and suppressing the release of melatonin (well, I learned the latter truth more recently). Psychology and physiology often butt heads when it comes to sleep, and health in general. It's not always clear which one wins; sometimes I needed the company of Dr. Gregory House to tune out the upset. Sometimes I needed a break from the blue light more.
And I learned that the world looks different through sleep-deprived eyes. I couldn't see the recession-era job search for the temporary rut it was until I got a week-or-so of normal rest. My experience seemed unique, but of course it wasn't. Young women are loyal members of the anxiety-and-insomnia club.
This information, thankfully, is more available and discussed today. But in 2008, I didn't own any stimulating smart devices. And I'd primarily known sleep as a reliable daily visitor, a physical act that my body did without consulting my brain. Today, I intellectually understand that sleep isn't any one thing — it's a force of biology and behavior that's simple to identify but a chore to define. But I didn't intellectualize sleep until I couldn't do it. Re-learning how to fall asleep, amidst the mental racket, was my first adult victory. Then, I got a job.
This story was originally published in 2016