I have never liked the shape of the word insomnia. It looks wiry and rounded at the edges—nothing like the middle of the night.
I tend to sleep in sappho pieces: two hours just after midnight, another two between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., maybe a 30-minute interlude wedged somewhere in the middle. I sleep in fragments, in chapters. There is no softness or continuity.
By day, however, I exist among the living, part of the shared experience of operating in the world: dressing and brushing teeth and consuming things and telling other people about them. At night, I am this other thing, disenfranchised from the swell of standard human behavior. I earn a version of agency I never asked for: an expanse of hours that contain nothing––no routines or obligations.
Naturally, there are days when the accumulation of waking hours make the very act of moving my body from place to place feel near impossible. But typically, I’m okay; I continue to function, more or less, according to the rules of social normalcy.
I’ve tried most of the textbook antidotes—varied benzodiazepines, sleep meditation, hypnotism, one strange electro-current-powered device my father brought back from a conference in Moscow—but each makes me feel off-kilter. So instead, I choose to stay awake. This is stasis for me: I am a broken biological clock, a circadian rhythm sans metronome.
For all its inconveniences, I don’t find this arrangement to be intrinsically bad. In fact, it’s become something of an asset—I have the luxury of believing my unwavering exhaustion guarantees me something exclusive: a unique, thoroughly intimate relationship with the hours between 2 and 4 a.m. I’ve developed a certain rapport with the nighttime. We’ve become cordial, friendly, even. We pass the time together. And in spite of the decades I’ve spent rallying against the piece of my brain that so detests slumber, I’ve begun to treasure all those waking hours with far more affection than the sleep they’ve deprived me of.
Naturally, this has not always been true. I was eight years old when I first heard the word “insomnia.” I watched it slink out from between a doctor’s teeth, and I understood that it pointed to some small manufacturing error within me. The word, itself, was sharp.
At that time, I’d already built middle-of-the-night routines to occupy myself when sleep wouldn’t come. I’d fill the bathtub with blankets in place of tepid water and read. When I grew restless, I would re-order the books on my shelves: first by color, then by last name, then by subject matter. I learned to say the alphabet backwards when arranging titles from A to Z grew too easy. I tried not to cry—and only allowed myself to do so on the nights that felt particularly, unrelentingly long.
Then I got older, and all the existential muck that accompanies adolescence collected in my head like sediment: There were boys to instant message, girls to look like, The Common App. All of it reframed the night: That time moved from dull to anxious to a particular breed of sadness that seemed to cough itself into existence only between the hours of 4 and 5 a.m. At that time, I wanted to sleep desperately—I would lay catatonically still, unmoving, praying to all of the alphabetized novels in my bedroom for night to pass.
By the time I reached college, my middle-of-the-nights all had that same residue, but I was more often preoccupied. I worked through the literary canon in a way that was not so much academic as it was hungry—voracious even. I stopped lying still, waiting in vain for a thing that would never come. I determined, instead, to fill that time up. In the afternoons, I meandered through assignments, relishing the bizarre fluorescent hum particular to collegiate libraries—the ambient camaraderie—while at night, I powered through the meatier coursework on my own, grateful for the presence of a task while the rest of campus slept.
Sometime around then, I began to write differently: Essays and strange little prose poems and epistolary odes. I kept a folder on my computer’s desktop titled “The Insomnia Archives,” and I filled it with writing that came from some editorial muscle in my head that seemed to activate exclusively in the dark. Often, these were nearly incomprehensible. Sometimes, they worked. This was part of The Nighttime Effect: To my knowledge, I couldn’t write like this during daylight.
So began a shift in the way “insomnia” sounded to me. I felt myself marvel at the night in a way that had seemed previously impossible. I thought the word, itself, could be a little girl’s name were it not so prescriptive. And I believed the time it allowed me was perhaps my most legitimate form of personal wealth. It was a bonus.
Now, I savor the extra time to read, and fold the laundry, and empty the dishwasher—but in large part, the night is reserved for more impractical things. For emails and letters crafted purely for the joy of the recipient, or the preparation of elaborate snacks, all of which I will consume alone. It’s for news that comes on actual paper, French lessons through an iPhone application, for learning about the insular organs of a coy fish. Sometimes it’s for long, quiet runs through South Brooklyn, and for scrambled eggs with potatoes priced at $3.99 from the 24-hour diner on Vanderbilt. In turn, what I’ve learned is both unspectacular and obvious: Not sleeping is simply more interesting than attempting to sleep.
At times, I am still resentful of the night. Still entirely vulnerable to the largeness of it. But far more often, I am somewhat in awe of it. I’m fascinated by the way it unfurls, the way it quiets whole cities, and by contrast, the way it amplifies all the noise in my head. It would seem that reverence and fear are not so different—that night, for me, oscillates nimbly between the two.
That’s the thing about The Insomnia Archives: They changed the way I enunciated “insomnia.” Over time, the word softened for me. In fact, it took a new shape, entirely.
Feature illustration by Mia Christopher.