On (not) sleeping

Common reed/Phragmites australis. March 2013, Florida.

Common reed/Phragmites australis. March 2013, Florida.

The early days of the week have, in recent months, found me writing weekending posts. It’s hard to overstate how grateful and glad I am that I chose to show up every week to write them. This is a tough season for me. Checking in like that has been a kind of meditation, a breathing in and out, a noticing. It has buoyed my fairly ragged spirit but it has also rooted me here. For all the stress, this is a precious time. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

I don’t intend to stop writing my weekending posts, but it’s 3:00 am Tuesday morning, and I wonder if this week we could start a conversation about sleep instead?

Last week we left the house half packed and snuck away for a few days to my husband’s hometown on the Gulf Coast. It was bliss: coffee at sunrise on the quiet shores of the bay, a long solo walk on an empty beach, pizza, gumbo, spring peepers, bare feet, long talks at the breakfast table, and a second Christmas!

On Friday morning I woke to my son’s whimpers a little before 3:00 am. He’s three years old, and sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night. Add in a nasty cold, and the way travel disrupts our body’s rhythms, and his own stress about the move, and really it’s amazing he’s sleeping as well as he is. I slipped from under the quilt and pressed my ear against his door, but already his breath was deep and steady (if snortling) again.

I got back in bed but I was not even a little drowsy. I lay there for an hour, maybe two, staring at the moonlit ceiling, turning to the wall and pulling the covers close under my chin, trying the other side. I got up again, moved to the living room couch, and read for a half hour in the mustardy lamplight. I got back in bed. Nothing. My thoughts accelerated from busy to panicked. I’m never going to sleep well again, I thought. This is who I am now.

A little before 6:00 my husband turned to me and managed, still half asleep, to whisper, “Maybe you could take a walk.”

And like that, my panic fell away like undone shackles. I squeezed his hand and got out of bed again, padding down the length of the house in socked feet, stopping in the warm kitchen to make myself a cup of milky Constant Comment. While it steeped I pulled on a sweater and a hat and wrapped myself up in my scarf. I slipped out the sliding glass door and down the back deck steps and walked across the yard (strewn with thousands upon thousands of acorns from the low and sweeping live oaks) and there I was at the water.

Almost immediately I felt so much better. The bay lapped quietly and retreated in lazy rivulets, and a few seagulls yammered, and the light was as sunrises over wide sweeps of water are: profound, you know, and liquid, the kind of stunning that makes you stop looking for words to describe it. My mind steadied. I swear I could feel my pulse slow. I had one clear thought: I’m so damn lucky to live in this world. And then for a while I wasn’t thinking at all. It was just me, and that glassy bay, and some small black ducks diving for breakfast, and the reeds, and my son’s sandcastles. A few bellyflopping grey mullets.

I started thinking again. I thought of those breakfast table conversations with my husband’s grandmother. I thought of my own grandmothers, of all the conversations at their tables. I thought about how much we don’t learn from our elders, and I wondered if that has always been true or if it is something new. I wanted suddenly to read May Sarton and Madeleine L’Engle, maybe Eudora Welty, any writing I can get my hands on written by women when they were a generation or more older than I am right now. Who else?

I made my way back inside. It was pushing 7 and I expected to find the rest of the house creaking awake, but everyone slumbered on a little longer. I set a couple eggs to boil. Before long my husband appeared and poured himself a glass of orange juice. Our son wandered in a few minutes later, rubbing his eyes. My husband’s grandmother put on the coffee. The house filled with all those blessed mundane sounds of morning: the eggs beginning to dance in the pot, the gurgle of the coffee maker, the hum of the fridge, the brakes of a garbage truck outside.


It’s been like this all winter. I find myself unequipped. I have always slept well. I’m a night owl for sure, but until recently, I always fell asleep, and back asleep, with ease. We coslept until quite recently, and even all that night nursing and all those octopus limbs in my face or my belly or my back didn’t faze me. I felt so much better rested than most of the moms I know. But now I lie awake for an hour, maybe two, most nights, before drifting off. If I wake in the middle of the night – to my son’s cries, to a barking dog, to a car horn – I am awake for hours.

I am almost certain this insomnia is caused by stress about our move, and I have coped in part by believing it would fade once we’re settled at the new farm. But I’m less certain about that these days. Without getting into the mud and the muck of it all, there are still loose ends here, lots of them, and they’ll remain even as we back the moving van out of the driveway and head north on Friday morning. Also, it’s been so many months. I’m concerned that my circadian clock is majorly out of whack, and that it’s going to take some real work to get it back into a more restful gear.

And I guess this is where I’m asking for help. Do any of you struggle with insomnia, whether situational or chronic? Have you come out on the other side, or at least made peace with it?

My mom, who also struggles with sleep, recently talked to me about “decatastrophizing” sleep. I like that. Because it’s true: for as exhausting as it is, not sleeping well is not the end of the world. You get up (and in fact when I do get out of bed I am strangely untired), and you make some coffee, and you make some breakfast, and you hug your family, and you get on with things. And maybe your temper flares, and maybe you can’t see the forest for the trees, and maybe you even get sick. But at some point you also have to call it a day, every day, and try again.

I’m not so much looking for tips on how to sleep better, although I would deeply love to hear whatever parts of your sleep stories you’re willing to share. But what I’m after especially is a more holistic understanding of what’s happening with my body, and any wisdom you might have on how to feel more peaceful about it all. Many thanks in advance.

“Be of good hope. Try to think in terms of ‘the long run’ and store up your honey like the bees.”
– May Sarton, July 18, 1954 letter to Madeleine L’Engle, May Sarton: Selected Letters 1916-1954

12 thoughts on “On (not) sleeping

  1. Debbie Qalballah

    I go through phases of insomnia also. Which makes no sense to me. I am a night owl for sure. Mornings are not my thing, but still, come night time I can usually handle 8+ hours sleep no problem.

    Some things that help – well, no worrying about it and trusting my body will do what’s right for itself, warm goats milk and honey, reading before bed etc etc

    The only time I needed serious medical intervention was when my Dad died and I just could not shut down. I exhausted myself with work during the day and yet I still couldn’t sleep. No sleep. Not one wink for weeks. Grief will do that to you. Have you addressed the grief you are going through right now? Losing a home, a dream, etc the body and soul has to go through stages of grief and if we repress them all our body tends to pay us back with insomnia (nice brain, thanks).

    But I was also reading somewhere, from a Sufi perspective, is that as we get older (than we are now) sleep gets less and less because it’s the body’s way of giving us time for spiritual practices in preparation for what comes after. Which makes sense. We get what we need when we need it.

    A rambling non helping comment. Skullcap and valerian might be the answer 😉

  2. helen

    I’m also a night owl, as well as someone who suffers with insomnia from time to time. There was at least one time in my life when it was quite acute, and this post reminded me of that. I was house-sitting for a professor in college and I would go out to his backyard before it was light and tend to the roses he kept. It is a tender memory to me, because in retrospect, I am struck by the lengths I went to busy myself, even in my sleeplessness.

    As a therapist, I think a lot of about sleeplessness, in myself and in those with whom I work. There are many ways to understand it, but I do think it is often the result of feelings that need to be experienced as opposed to intellectualized or brushed aside. That is often easier said than done, because typically any feeling that’s waking us up at night is rooted in something we are going to great lengths to avoid, contain, rationalize, dismiss during the day. At night, our unconscious brings it forward, and, I believe, that only happens when a) you’re ready to experience the feeling or b) you’re pushing off so much feeling that your mind and body are letting you know it’s too much.

    I was having a recent bout of insomnia and I tried something meditative, which worked for me. I followed the thoughts, let in all the worries and surface material. I tried, though, to ask myself, what’s the common feeling behind all of this. What am I really wrestling with? I try to do this before distracting myself from sleeplessness, which is a good coping strategy, as a way to honor what my mind, heart, and body are trying to tell me about things they are processing that I can’t quite see during the day.

    For most people, feelings that will wake you in the night (and that we don’t let in during the day) are a variation on feeling helpless. It’s one of the worst feelings people can experience and yet so common to the human experience. I find the Buddhist concept of impermanence incredibly helpful at such times, remembering that nothing is forever, so I don’t have to fear the feeling, because it will pass. And strangely, while feeling the feeling can be painful, it is also something of anecdote to the feeling itself, as there is strength from knowing you can survive your feelings. Their weight may be heavy at times, but they won’t crush you. And conversely, if you’re willing to carry the weight, it also teaches you how to let in the light and allow your feet to leave the ground sometimes, in the best possible sense.

  3. Tracey (tnmtnfarmgirl)

    After having some time of situational insomnia and doing a bit of research as well as talking to another herbalist, my adrenal glands were stressed to the max and needed some support and I wasn’t eating well (insert not eating at all really– enough to get by and living on coffee) .
    Dr. Christopher’s herbal blend for Adrenal Support , good fats and return to simpler ways of eating/caring for myself, evening primrose oil, magnesium and zinc (all combined) as well as the shift away from the stress that was happening because it’s time in my life ended.
    It certainly sounds as though this shift in your life and finding new normal might be at the heart of your insomnia.
    Best wishes in your move and as you make these life adjustments to find the new you. It all sounds like a fantastic life! 🙂

  4. Brandi

    In a similar boat as you with regards to sleep, I don’t have much to offer, but I’ve been running these lines from a favorite poem I mine over and over in my mind lately and thought you might like them, too.

    However carved up
    or pared down we get,
    we keep on making
    the best of it as though
    it doesn’t matter that
    our acre’s down to
    a square foot. As
    though our garden
    could be one bean
    and we’d rejoice if
    it flourishes, as
    though one bean
    could nourish us.
    -Kay Ryan from “The Best of It”

  5. nicole

    Lisa — oh, how I can relate. I hate to say it, but I am a pretty decent sleeper unless I am feeling stressed or a lot is going on and then all bets are off. Lately I have also been waking up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep – it IS so frustrating, and when I stew on it it just makes it worse. Taking a walk like you did is so good, or even just getting up to read in another room, or doing some writing, or quiet contemplation can help and at least you’re not lying in bed thinking ‘why can’t I sleep why can’t I sleep’ on and endless repeat (‘you’ = me here). Also, maybe cutting down on the caffeine could be a good idea just for awhile (a travesty, I know!!!); I find when I’m prone to slight anxiety-related insomnia caffeine/coffee just exacerbates it all and I have actually been not drinking as much coffee lately which has helped. I also feel you on the loose ends – they are the bane of my existence at the moment but am trying to take it one day at a time. Steady exercise, in whatever form even for 20 mins/day, helps smooth things out too. Hopefully once you’re moved that will be a huge weight off and you will sleep a little easier. Sending you much love and good moving vibes!!!

  6. Julia Timmons

    I am stretched for time this evening, but I can’t let this go without saying, yet again, I am so glad I know you and you are my friend! Your writing is very special and I look forward to continuing to read your reflections and sharing as your life changes in the coming weeks and months. I have some things to share with you on sleep loss and recovery but I will do that later when I can get my thoughts formed better.

  7. kimberlee

    We co-sleeped our firstborn till he was 2. I agree, I was a well-slept momma! After we moved him to his own bed I didn’t sleep so well. And I still don’t. Don’t get me started on sleeping anywhere but my bed. I can’t sleep in hotels or camping, anywhere else! Now that I’ve become a lighter sleeper I have to wear ear plugs to bed because I know something will interrupt my sleep either in the middle of the night or way too early. Thank you for being honest when you brought up our tempers flaring thanks to the sleep deprivation!
    I do have a friend who must take, this is outrageous, 3 benadryls every night to sleep and she functions just fine every single day. I would not wake up for 3 days if I took that many!! If I am going to be sleeping somewhere else besides my bed I must take 1/2 of a benadryl tablet.
    And my friends and I who are woken up in the middle of the night, or too early, know it is a prompting to start praying for everyone in our lives. 🙂

  8. Megan Taylor

    Hi Lisa,

    I’ve been following you on Istagram for a while and just discovered your gorgeous blog! Your photos are amazing. I write for Wilder Quarterly and I would love to feature one or two of them on our blog. Please be in touch if you’re interested. You can email me: meg@wilderquarterly.com

    Talk soon I hope!

  9. Pingback: Three things: comfort and joy | Coffee in the Woodshed

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