At 2:30 a.m. the other night, I pulled back the curtains beside my bed to see sheets of rain ponding on the road. I watched for a long time. I listened, and I counted the seconds as the traffic light down the road changed from red to green to yellow to red.
I do that often, in all kinds of weather. I watched an ice storm roll in last winter. Sometimes I watch our local deer herd pick or race their way across National Road and filter down into the neighborhood via my yard. If it happens between 1 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., I’ve seen it, heard it, felt it or smelt it. (That includes dog flatulence. It happens more than you think when the dog is asleep, which begs questions about our own fortunate obliviousness in the night.)
I do these things because I’m an insomniac.
There are two kinds of insomniacs: those who cannot fall asleep and those who cannot stay asleep. I fall into the latter category. My ability to fall asleep is almost superhuman; most nights it takes less than a minute. I’m a light switch: either on or off. Child No. 2 and my father are like that, as well. We all fall asleep instantly and wake up in the same manner. My husband and Child No. 1, however, are like irons (the kind I never use because my family doesn’t give a hoot about going to school or work looking like they just fell out of the overhead bin on an Airbus A318). They take a while to wind up and wind down. My husband’s falling-asleep routine takes over an hour. He showers and gets into bed. He reads his Kindle. He pets the dogs. He pets the cats. He thinks about lines of computer code and channel catfish. And by half-past midnight, he’s finally asleep.
I consider myself the more fortunate of the two of us. That is, until 2 a.m. rolls around. That’s the hour when my night goes to hell.
This bizarre pattern began several years ago, and I blame my bladder. One day, it decided it could no longer do its job for a full night. I strongly suspect that it’s protesting the fact that I incubated two life forms in its personal space. Bladders are sensitive creatures. They get huffy, and once they’re mad, it seems they stay mad for the rest of our lives: Oh, you’re planning a road trip? How cute. Better allow an extra hour for all the stops you’ll be making. Caught in a standstill on the interstate? Hope you have tinted windows and a wide-mouthed water bottle. Gotta sneeze? Good luck with that because I’m gonna let loose like a pack of preschoolers at a Christmas cookie party.
When my bladder wakes me up, I’m up. That’s it. I can’t fall back to sleep. I go to the bathroom and then I go back to bed and listen to the dog fart and snore. I watch whatever varmints are prowling around outside and sometimes eat a box of cookies handful of carrots. Eventually, I succumb to the blinding light of my phone and the miserable torrent of social media. It’s proven that the bright screens of our handheld technology keep our brains awake. In fact, scientists who study insomnia recommend vacating the bedroom entirely when sleeplessness hits. Get up, they say. Leave the scene. The worst thing to do is to lie there and roll around for hours and stare at the clock.
Are they serious? Nobody follows this advice. Find me a person who actually gets out of bed and goes downstairs to polish the silver or scrub the algae off the side of the fish tank. No one goes any farther than the fridge. Then we take whatever we’ve snatched back to bed and fill our sheets with crumbs and proceed to roll around in the crumbs and look at besweatered basset hounds on YouTube.
Sometimes I make the conscious decision to ignore my phone’s blue light and instead lie in the dark and practice deep, meditative breathing. This inevitably leads to straying thoughts. Those thoughts focus on one of three things: 1) the time in 1995 when I had spinach in my teeth for five hours, and nobody told me; 2) the recent withdrawal of Japan from the International Whaling Commission and whether I should get a rubber boat and join Greenpeace; and 3) the murderer that’s probably in my closet.
These are not productive ruminations.
My doctor doesn’t know if my insomnia is due to anxiety or my autoimmune issues or just general bad luck, but he prescribed me Ambien.
Don’t flood me with Ambien warnings. Yes, I’ve tried melatonin and it affects me adversely. Yes, I’ve tried chamomile tea — did you read the part about the peeing? How do you people drink a cup of liquid before bed? My kidneys and bladder get together after dinner every night and triple-dog dare me to put the kettle on the stove. Just one cup. It’s only Sleepytime. Everybody’s doing it. It’s sooo natural.
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So when I can’t sleep and I really need to sleep, I bite an Ambien in half. Usually, it takes 20 to 30 minutes to kick in, but it works. I don’t take it often, but once in a while, I’m really glad to have that prescription bottle handy.
There is, of course, a downside to Ambien. Perhaps you’ve read about people who do things when they take Ambien. Roseanne Barr was recently fired from her newly revived network show for an offensive tweet she claimed to have penned while on Ambien. In 2006, Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy crashed his car near Capitol Hill. He had taken Ambien.
If you wonder why someone would take Ambien and then crawl into a vehicle, you’re not alone. Apparently, many motorists have no memory of getting behind the wheel to begin with. They say Ambien made them do it. These people are called “Ambien Zombies” and use the “Ambien Defense” in court, often successfully. In 2009, a flight attendant from Texas took Ambien and woke up in jail, having run over three people. She was sentenced to only six months’ confinement. Other people have figured out that if they can stay awake, the drug gives them a freaky high, complete with flashing lights and moving walls.
OK, maybe you should be flooding me with Ambien warnings. Fortunately, these side effects and these incidents are extremely rare. But there is one thing I have been known to do when I take Ambien: I shop online.
In those brief moments before the drug has completely taken hold of me, when I’m irresistibly drowsy but for some reason fighting to stay awake, I get on Amazon. And damn that website for storing my credit card information and providing users with a super-convenient Buy-It-With-One-Click button. My bladder may ruin REM cycles and interstate travel, but Amazon costs me hard-earned money.
There is, however, an upside. You know that feeling when you come home and there’s a package waiting on your porch? It’s like Christmas. It’s out there, it’s waiting to be brought in and opened, and it’s even more exciting when you have no idea what’s in it. What the hell is that box doing there, you ask yourself. I don’t remember ordering anything. And then you wonder who might have sent you a little surprise. Your mom? Your best friend? Your spouse?
Nope. In fact, it’s you who have sent yourself a present. How thoughtful of you to think of you! You’re such a good person, always considering yourself.
I have no answer to my insomnia problem. Indeed, I don’t even know the cause. I do know that I read some fantastic articles in the night. I get ideas for essays, I find knitting projects to attempt and shelter dogs to adopt. I bookmark all of them. And then I forget about them entirely when I wake up in the morning. (Currently, my ante meridiem bookmark list includes headings such as “Could I Have Rabies?,” “Passing Gas: A Modern Scientific History” and “Very Demotivational Posters that Demotivate Us.”)
Perhaps I need a sleep study. Perhaps I need a long-term solution that doesn’t depend on pharmaceuticals and cookies carrots. But my insomnia problem evaporates from the forefront of my mind during the day. I forget all about it until 2 a.m. rolls around again, and I remember that, dang it, I should have called somebody or done some research or, at the very least, purchased a chamber pot. Insomnia is a chronic problem for an estimated 10 percent of adults, and far more have bouts of sleeplessness. $63 billion is lost in work performance every year because of insomnia. America is losing its health, its productivity and its sanity to an inability to rest. I’m not sure when I’m going to get any.
On the other hand, those three 12-inch nonstick skillets I ordered in the wee hours of Cyber Monday 2018 cook a hell of an omelet.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.