You start by carefully arranging everything on the bed: the long skinny pillow on one side, the regular pillow at the top, the pretty handmade blanket folded just so. You place your glasses and phone and kleenex on the night table and turn off the light. You lie down, wriggle yourself into position, and close your eyes.
Stop thinking, you tell your brain. Go to sleep.
But your brain won’t stop. Instead, it offers you bits and pieces of information, things that are useless on their own but suggestive of something deeper, more frightening. Or else it takes one small event from the day and expands it, blows it up like a grainy old photograph, then picks it apart. Or else it gives you just the beginnings of sentences, stuff like:
My kid is. My partner doesn’t. My boss won’t. My friend says. She knows. He wants. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
You try to stay very still and think about nothing, but since when does thinking about nothing ever work? And while we’re at it, how does sleep work? How does everyone make the daily transition from conscious and thinking and feeling to, well, unconsciousness?
You squirm around, trying to find that elusive perfect spot on the pillow, the one that’s smooth and cool to the touch. Your legs get tangled up in the blanket, and the sheets feel wrong and scratchy. Frustrated, you strip the sheets and blanket off the bed and throw them into a pile on the floor. But now you’re cold, so you put on a sweatshirt and a pair of socks.
You lie there. You check the clock. You close your eyes. You open them. You check the clock. You count down how many hours are left until you have to get up.
And your brain says, Let’s have a drink.
And your brain says, Let’s read Sylvia Plath’s journals.
And your brain says, Let’s make a list of all of your shortcomings.
But you’re smarter than that, aren’t you? So instead, you do this relaxation exercise that you learned years ago in some theatre class that you took, where you bring some kind of mindful awareness (what does that even mean?) to each of your body parts in turn, starting from your toes all the way to the crown of the head. And as you’re doing this, you remember how, another time, in another theatre class, you learned to do a sort of bastardized version of the Alexander Technique. After class, you went back to your dorm and offered to teach it to the boy you had a crush on, just so you would have an excuse to touch him.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the memory of how you told him that you were in love with him. It was in a friend’s dorm room, where five or six of you were lying piled on a bed, watching South Park. At some point, people decide to go find snacks and drinks and you end up alone with your crush and you suddenly, bravely, think, now or never. And so you tell him, awkwardly, in fits and starts, how you feel about him and then you start to cry because you’re so nervous and you love him so much and anyway how could anyone ever love you back?
Then he takes your hand and, very kindly, tells you what everyone but you already knows – namely that he’s been fucking your best friend for the past three weeks.
That anecdote offers an easy transition into the list of people who you’ve loved but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, love you back. Also included on this list are those who loved you at first but eventually stopped loving you. And then, of course, there are the people who really did love you, but loved you badly, or too much, or not in the way that you needed.
But why didn’t these people love you? They must have had reasons, good reasons, even. What on earth did you do to drive them away? And ohhhh shit here it comes, the list of all your shortcomings. And it’s too late to stop yourself, because you’re already halfway done.
You’re a fucking sneaky bastard, brain. Did you know that?
In the morning, you drag yourself out of bed. The insides of your eyelids feel like cat’s tongues, with all those scratchy little barbs. There’s grit in your mouth, like someone’s tried to bury you in sand. You feel queasy.
You don’t want to eat anything, but you force yourself to, hoping that it’ll give you a boost of energy.
You spend the day downing coffee and you swear to god that if one more person tells you that you should cut caffeine from your diet you’re going to punch them in the face. Caffeine is the only thing that’s currently making your life bearable, and the idea of not drinking it makes you feel like you might want to die.
Everyone has some sort of solution to your sleep problem, but none of them, in your experience, work. Or rather, they work for a few nights, maybe even a few weeks, but then they stop. For all you know they never worked in the first place, and it’s all one big placebo effect. The fact is that you should just stop complaining about how tired you are. You don’t sleep. You’re never going to sleep. End of story.
By the end of the day, you’re so tired you could cry. Sometimes you really do cry, and when your partner asks what’s and you tell him that you’re not sad, you’re just so tired, you feel like a stupid little kid. You spend the evening in a daze on the couch, your brain too fuzzy for activities like reading or conversation. You wish you were dead.
Then ten o’clock comes and it’s like someone’s flipped a switch in your brain. You’re wide awake, wired, even, ready to take on the world. But it’s bedtime, and you have to work in the morning. So you turn off the lights, lie down, and let the whole cycle start all over again.