On writers… and our middle-of-the-night insomnia
Please subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates.
Writers all have those nights, don’t we? I know I do.
It starts out innocently enough. I get up to go to the bathroom. I quickly check my phone. Then something happens in my brain… and I can’t seem to turn it off.
I’m writing this at 4 in the morning because I haven’t been able to fall asleep again since somewhere around 2:30am. I’m starting to realize that these nights happen to me once every couple of months. They come, and they go, and then they disappear again. But they always come back.
It wasn’t always like this, however.
In my past life of living in New York City and being a full-time employed editor, I don’t remember nights like this.
I do, however, remember the stress. Stress from work and constantly feeling overwhelmed and behind, along with editor perks like press events with free-flowing alcohol several nights a week, led me to develop a problem with alcohol. I’m in recovery now, thank goodness, and haven’t had a drink in well over a year. I am grateful for that.
But now I have these nights.
I’m not sure what it is, really. Maybe it’s because I am now in a different life, in a different mindset, and my creative brain is set free to roam however it needs or wants to.
I know that when I was living in New York, the nights were often late. I would stay up till midnight or later easily, and wake up the next day to go to work. Then, when my alcohol troubles began, I often used drink to soothe myself into sleep after an exhausting day. It became a pattern that I couldn’t keep up, that eventually led to losing jobs and entering rehab and coming out on the other side of things.
Now that I live in a place that is low-stress, and with a supportive partner to boot, things are easier. My life is happy and filled with the kind of joy that I never thought was possible. Yet now sometimes I still can’t sleep, and I do not have the option of a drink to lull me back to bed.
So what’s a writer to do?
For one, today, I decided to write about it. Cause, ya know, I’m a writer and all.
Usually, I lie in bed, tossing and turning, and hope to go back to sleep. Typically it works within a few hours, and I wake up in the morning exhausted and grumpy and having to tell my partner why I might be a bitch that day. He’s always patient and kind, and asks what kept me up. I’m sure he’s tired of hearing all about my sleepless nights, but yet here I am. At it again, as it were.
Tonight it wasn’t anything spectacular, really. I was too warm to sleep and woke up to go to the bathroom. I grabbed my phone to shine the flashlight and checked it from the toilet (glamorous, I know, but I wanted to set the scene). Then, when I got back to bed, I started to think about some of the podcasts I had listened to earlier in the day.
You see, my partner and I have recently both rediscovered podcasts… and basically fell in love, hard. He’s got a longer commute now and I suggested he start listening to podcasts as a way to distract himself from the misery of traffic. Meanwhile, as I heard him talk about some of the cool new ones he discovered (and did my own search to help him along the way), I decided to try them out too.
The truth is, I have long been a bit anti-audio.
One of my best friends has been raving about audio books for years, but I always made fun of him. We created a funny hashtag just for him, because he #doesntread despite being an accomplished journalist, writer and producer in his own right. But he still consumes media and, to be honest, he’s probably “read” 10x the books I have in the past five years.
I’ve resisted the audio book thing, though, and in turn resisted podcasts.
Maybe it’s because I see myself as a writer so somehow listening to something just felt kind of wrong. It felt like I was taking away from the author, from the written word, from my own love of reading. And yet, I don’t actually read nearly as much as I want to in my head. It’s not that I don’t want to, but that I often keep myself busy with other things… like writing or being social or cooking. Things I enjoy and clearly prioritize over reading.
Then earlier this year, a friend of mine and I started a book club focused on books that have turned into movies. We did Hidden Figures for March and, let me tell you, I barely got halfway through reading the paperback copy I got with all of the ladies of the movie on the cover. Then, in April, I decided to try Audible with my 2-book free sample.. and I absolutely LOVED it.
I devoured Jurassic Park that month and then The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in May, and I didn’t look back. To be honest, I shocked myself with my own love and appreciation of the written word spoken out loud.
I think part of what drew me to audio books and, now, to podcasts, is how easy it is to listen throughout the day. Although I can’t really do it while I am writing or editing or doing any kind of work, I can definitely do it while I am showering in the morning, taking the dog out, cooking myself lunch or dinner, and doing a number of other random activities.
In fact, one of the best weekends I spent recently was when I was “reading” a huge chunk of Jurassic Park while cleaning the house and organizing all the shit I needed to organize. It was weirdly thrilling for me, someone who prides herself on being a multi-tasker, to be able to do it in the most extreme way: Read a book AND do errands at the same time. I could check off things from my To Do List and still enjoy myself!
It was thrilling, and I shocked myself by how much I loved it.
So now it’s podcasts that I listen to, since for some reason this month I decided to actually read our book (WILD by Cheryl Strayed, one of my favorite authors and, as luck would have it, one of my favorite podcasts: Dear Sugar). So what kept me up at night once I started to think of podcasts around 3am this morning? Creating my own, of course.
That seems to be the big pattern on nights like this when I can’t fall asleep: I am unable to turn my brain off with the thoughts of, typically, some new creative venture.
Sometimes I am just thinking about story ideas, particular chapters in my memoir, or other writing quandaries. Other times I literally have some new I-think-genius idea and am just mentally trying to figure out how to make it work, whether I have time for it, if I really want to do it…
I know what my partner would say right now. Besides “GET BACK TO BED!”, he would advise me to calm the F down.
I’m an extrovert and a feelings-based person at that, so when I get excited, I get really freaking excited. I can spend days talking about some new idea or some new venture or some other new thing that has me all in a tizzy and thinking about it at all hours of the day, like right now.
I can’t put myself to sleep or, even worse, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it and end up losing sleep.
And let me tell you: I love my sleep. One of the things I appreciate the most about Adam is that he likes to get to bed early. It’s helped to reset my own bad sleeping habits and, even though I am not a morning person and will consider myself a night owl forever, I am very much enjoying the 8-9 hours of sleep I am getting on a consistent basis.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I feel so at peace and happy these days (though being sober and having love and support in my life is certainly a much being reason), or so Arianna Huffington would have us believe. Trust me, I am all for getting more sleep… except tonight, it seems. And on other nights when this happens.
The funny thing is, of course, that I am sure this happens a lot to many other people, to many other writers and creative types perhaps.
It’s not necessarily exclusive to those of us who venture intro creative fields, but I would bet that we are natural insomniacs at times due to these “holy crap, what an idea!” moments like I am having now.
So how do we cure those moments and how do we help ourselves?
To be honest, I am still trying to figure that part out. I honestly have no idea what to do in these moments when I am up in the middle of the night and can’t seem to shut my damn brain off. What I’ve done when they come for the past year is simply try to get through them.
I shut my eyes, I tell myself to go back to sleep, I ask my brain to please stop, and then I wait until I get too tired and drift back into sleep. But it often takes hours. Sometimes I pick up my phone and jot down the idea. Other times I simply lie there, telling myself it’s dumb and to just please oh please get the F back to sleep.
I do, eventually.
But tonight I decided to try something new. So here I am, writing out my thought and it’s been about 20 minutes of rambling. Maybe it’s time to stop?
Not sure what all of this will mean to me in the morning, but here it is. And now… to sleep. Or at least to try.