I’ve always been a “poor sleeper,” according to my mom. Apparently, I come from a lengthy line of them—one grandfather was an epic snorer; my parents are frequent middle-of-the-night wakers. Growing up, I remember many mornings when I’d find my mom on our den couch after a night of tossing and turning. Insomnia is in my blood.
Poor sleep was such a strong norm in my house I never really thought about it. I’d often toss and turn in bed, never ever getting a full night’s rest. With no “good” sleepers to compare myself with, my sleep habits seemed normal. But on my honeymoon, my insomnia came into stark relief. I had known that my husband was a great sleeper, but it hadn’t registered that he slept soundly all night long—without waking once. He could sleep on planes, on trains, in cars, and pretty much anywhere else he found himself with zero issues.
I was the total opposite—I required a bed, a white noise machine, and a very dark room to have even the slightest prayer of sleep. Even then, sleeping was a challenge. Observing my husband night after night triggered a panic that my frequent night awakenings might not be so normal. What was wrong with me?
My insomnia began to take over. By the end of our honeymoon, I was not sleeping at all and feeling like a caged animal. My inability to join him in bed—and sleep—was wrenching. While my new husband slept soundly, I sat on the floor of our hotel, spiraling deeper and deeper into my sleep anxieties.
When we got home, I read everything I could about insomnia, determined to improve. I saw a sleep specialist, who suggested several techniques: getting out of bed if I couldn’t fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes to do a quiet activity before trying again, turning over my alarm clock to avoid causing anxiety as I lay awake, generally trying not to obsess.
She also recommended that I do a sleep study in a lab. My gut told me that a sleep study was something I needed, but the mere thought of trying to sleep with others monitoring me triggered massive performance anxiety. I declined.
Despite the lack of sleep—I typically got less than three hours on average, and that was with multiple wakings—I somehow kept it together. I made dinner every night, functioned well in a demanding job, never once nodded off during a meeting. I burned through concealer sticks to cover the dark circles under my eyes. It was like my internal sleep switch was permanently stuck in overdrive, but somehow I kept powering through.
But there were signs the insomnia was catching up to me. I started to have heart palpitations and even smell weird despite regular showers, a gross side effect even my husband noticed. My body was clearly crying out for help, and nothing—not the herbal teas, or the melatonin, or the breathing exercises, or the warm baths—was working. The emotional toll of chronic sleep deprivation is maddening. No matter how well I seemed to be doing on the outside, inside I was falling apart. Sleep is one of those things you can’t force. No matter how hard I worked, I still lay awake at night. I felt helpless.
After a couple of years, and some counseling and soul searching, I realized I had to stop comparing myself with my husband in the bedroom. We weren’t going to sleep like the picture-perfect couple every night, our heads resting peacefully next to each other, our hands intertwined. The truth was, having a bedmate made my insomnia worse. Every time I stirred, I worried I was bothering him, and every time I found myself staring up at the ceiling, I beat myself up for not being able to sleep as well as he could. We decided to take breaks from sleeping in the same room—it was no reflection on our relationship emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. I just needed some rest.
Soon after, we started a family, and the exhaustion of having newborn twins kept my sleep erratic, but at least there was a reason I was awake at 2 a.m. As I got older, my anxiety around sleep started to fade—I was less worried about comparing myself with my husband or any of the other good sleepers out there, instead focusing on my own situation and what I needed. My sleep was still fractured, but I was surviving. That had to be good enough, right?