Accepting My Insomnia Changed My Nights Forever

The winning submission of July’s Writers Club prompt!

08.05.17

I pull into a Denny’s parking lot. The sky is a deep purple with subtle hints of gray starting to come through. I’m guessing it’s around three in the morning. I make it a habit not to look at the time until sunrise. I sit in a booth by the window, order a hot tea and request the crayons that come with the kid’s menu.

People ask me how I function and, for a long time, I didn’t. The functioning and the answer came later, when I learned to embrace the silent hours as the world around me slept.

The weirdest way I relax: chronic insomnia.

Being around people but not with people are for the nights when the day was hard. Twenty-four-hour diners littered with truckers, teens that might be runaways, waiters with voices dipped in honey. It’s a little club of us. We don’t bother each other but perhaps appreciate the company all the same.

Other nights, I want solitude, like the comfort of my car as I drive aimlessly through new towns and long stretches of straight roads, past dark silhouettes of empty plains and mountain peaks. The only sound for hours is the shuddering of steel and the murmur of the engine.

It’s mundane tasks that sometimes do the trick: ironing and steaming with precision, erasing any trace of wrinkles, pressing perfect pleats. I avoid screens. I research endlessly — topics that intrigue me but don’t upset me. Politics, for example, require a bit of sunlight. Textbooks, particularly zoology textbooks, are always a good call. I memorize the behavioral patterns of my boyfriend’s favorite animals to recite to him in the morning over coffee. Meerkats, prairie dogs, moles. He seems to have a thing for animals that burrow. I practice my handwriting, cursive and print in neat blocks on crisp white paper.

I “rest,” or lay with my eyes shut, holding perfectly still like I’m the poor actor that gets to play the corpse during an excruciatingly long monologue in Law & Order.

These hours of time in-between, I’ve learned to cherish them. I knit or draw or fold shirts into cubes of cotton. I drive or walk or read. I count the freckles on my left arm. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The Virgin Mary is always painted in blue. Meerkats build separate sleeping and toilet chambers in their burrows. You can order a single pancake at Denny’s for $1.00.

Through the window, the gray has turned to mauve, and in an hour or so, it will lend itself to different shades of pink, followed in quick succession by an eruption of orange and gold. This, for me, is another way to meditate, perhaps my favorite way of all: memorizing the gentle hues of the night sky as it slowly fades to light. I’ll watch it on the freeway home.

You can follow Maddison in Instagram here. Collage by Rachelle Klapheke; photographed by Edith Young.

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  • Micah Lpez

    I felt like I was in a movie reading this, a scene out of Sofia Coppola film.

    • Maddison Rothery

      Thank you so much.

  • me

    I cant remember the last time I slept like a normal person.
    I cant remember the last time I woke up feeling refreshed/well-rested.
    I cant remember the last time I didnt wake up looking like I’d been hit by a truck.

    I cant remember the last time insomnia wasnt insidiously ruining my life….

    • Maddison Rothery

      I’m so sorry this is what you’ve experienced, if you ever want someone to talk to I’m here. Best of luck (I’m sorry if that sounds intrinsically chastising, I certainly don’t mean it that way), Maddison.

    • Adrianna

      I felt like that when I was about 20. It will get better, I promise

  • Lilly

    There is something very soothing about this piece of article. Its the details and the brutally honesty that makes this article so beautiful.
    Ahh it makes me almost wanna ask to join this alone time and order a hot tea and eat the damn pancake while watching the sunrise
    Bravo, Its always important to have an alone time and speak to your thoughts

    • Maddison Rothery

      Thank you, you are always welcome to join. Alone time, I believe, is incredibly important. Bonus if a pancake is included.

  • An inspiration for future sleepless nights. Maddison, please, never stop writing.

    • Maddison Rothery

      I will try not to! Thank you.

  • Oh, this is possibly my favourite Writers Club Winner so far. Wish this was a novel and I could read it for hours on end.

    • Maddison Rothery

      Thank you so much.

  • Beautifully written. It’s really amazing the things you’ll learn through chronic insomnia. The only question is: If she’s driving around & actually **doing** these activities in the wee hours of the night/morning…. when does she actually sleep and how does she function without it?

    One thing’s for certain, she should never stop writing.

    • Maddison Rothery

      Hello,

      I sleep roughly 4 hours a night which is great for me, after changing my diet and lifestyle I no longer suffer as regularly from irregularity and episodes and can count on those four hours, however interrupted they may be, as a way to get by. I try to go to bed as early as possible as I would rather the early morning be my awake time than the late night. I try to have as much control over my internal clock as I feasibly can, which is very difficult but setting up a pattern helps.

      In 500 words I couldn’t describe my very lengthy process of getting to where I am now but the short story is I tried medication and almost died from it, after that I learned ways to cope with the disease rather than let it drive me crazy or drive me to an early grave. This is only my personal experience, and I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience however listed above are the abbreviated ways I cope, ways that I try and celebrate the extra hours I have rather than hate them and allow them to ruin my life.

      Hope that answers your questions, if you have more please feel free to contact me.

      Best,

      Maddison Rothery

      • Adrianna

        Fellow chronic insomniac here. You mentioned a change in diet – I noticed a difference when I cut out carbs. Unfortunately, I love bread.

  • Wow, wow, wow. Beautiful writing. You have inspired me to embrace my insomnia instead of cursing it to the fiery pits of hell.

  • Teri Giese

    What a lovely way to describe,what is one of the most peaceful time of the night.I have insomnia also.Began due to illness,which led to the awful Ambien!When I stopped taking that,as well as a number of other poisons;”docs”,had me on;the sleep pattern has been reversed.Is very complicated.Suffice it to say,I was bedridden for 10 years.Sleep study results,labeled me as having,Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.Anyway,as a 56 year old semi retired SAHM,I just roll with it.I am healthier than ever,no meds/poisons!Studied supplements and natural wellness remedies when I was ill.Still trying different herbal remedies,but to be honest;all roads lead me to getting my medical weed card again!This has helped many people with insomnia.For now,I too,LOVE the quiet of the night.The world is asleep,and all I see is all just mine,for that moment.The gradual sounds of nature awakening?PRICELESS!🌕🌚

  • Ciccollina

    Really, really excellent and utterly charming. Thank you Maddison.

  • Adrianna

    There’s still a stigma or misunderstanding of insomnia. People just don’t seem to believe you. I honestly don’t get tired or sleepy. I couldn’t fall asleep when I was 5. My grandfather and mother averaged about 3 hours of sleep into old age. It takes a significant amount of activity for me to feel tired – like a 40 mile bike tour throughout New York City, or a total of 47,000 steps on my Fitbit.

    Peers I knew in college who experimented with cocaine and worse reprimanded me for using over-the-counter sleeping pills to fall asleep. It got to a point where I warned anyone I shared a bed or room with, and it generally freaked them out. I took some sort of combination of sleeping pills and/or melatonin every day for 12 years.

    I stopped cold turkey about two months ago. There was no dramatic scene or realization. No one intervened, nor did I feel depended on pills. I kind of just got sick of feeling groggy the next morning because I still frequently didn’t fall asleep after consuming OTC sleeping pills. I now average about 4 hours of sleep again, but my mind feels less foggy.

  • Jeanie

    Lovely writing. Maddison is very talented.

  • Miss Crystal

    …”ironing and steaming with precision, erasing any trace of wrinkles, pressing perfect pleats.”
    Yes!! Ironing and steaming clothes is strangely very therapeutic for me as well! Also, baking elaborate cakes, cookies, and pastries late at night.

    Years of insomnia isn’t fun, but it’s true that the night (2am right now…) is very peaceful. There’s no traffic, I don’t need sunglasses, and I feel like I can be more productive without all the distractions..

  • Bea

    I assumed the writer had to be some type of visual artist because of the way she details every scene, and she indeed is. This is beautiful.

  • Gorgeous piece! I need to share this with my insomniac best friend..

  • Olivia AP

    Maddison, this is so beautifully written. I started suffering insomnia about two years ago and lately it has been getting worse, I think because I’m a little stuck in a job I dislike. Your writing kind of change how I remembered last night when I woke up several times, you make something one rembers with angst and turn it pretty

  • So beautifully written!

  • AlisonGrooveQ

    I’ve always had a problem with sleep. I had a pretty traumatic childhood and my mum would give me phenergan (anti histamine) tablets to shut me up when I complained about sleeping issues as a kid. This has left me with sleeping issues that mostly flare up when I’m anxious. When I actually stopped being anxious about it, I’ve actually improved. 5 -6 hours uninterrupted sleep is a dream.