Turn the thermostat to a cooler temperature.
I’m watching magician David Blaine’s latest televised stunt: Frozen in Time. Blaine has encased himself in a gigantic block of ice. He must stay awake for the duration of his performance, otherwise his body will shut down from the cold. At 63 hours and 42 minutes, he signals he’s reached his limit. His thin moustache drips with condensation and his eyes are vacancy signs. As he is wheeled past hordes of hysterical fans, his gravelly narration cuts in: “There was a point where I crossed over. I was convinced I was dead and you could no longer see me.”
At thirteen, sleep deprivation is a slow death I have yet to understand. Most nights, I pass out before my head dents the pillow. I take indulgent siestas, jeans slung over a chair, sleeping so deeply, I wake up with whiplash. Staying awake until midnight is a feat of strength, let alone two and a half days.
Avoid stimulating activities before bed.
I have moved into a dilapidated college dorm known as “The Towers.” The vibe is Lord of the Flies meets Animal House. Our resident advisor buries her hamster in the volleyball court. Someone digs up the carcass and throws it in a washing machine, where it rides the spin cycle for days. Feces are found coiled in the corner of a communal shower. The hallways are a nonstop cacophony of squelching sneakers, drunk bellows and angsty door slamming. My brain is always on high alert, as if I’ve just guzzled one of the energy drinks littering the lounge. The eye mask and earplugs I wear every night are a joke. I’d be better off sleeping on a traffic island.
Reduce your stress levels.
I’m introduced to her at a book club. During meetings, she speaks as if she’s reading from a script she hasn’t memorized. She asks me to be her roommate and I agree. I fantasize about the introverted paradise we will create, a haven consisting of dim reading lamps, early bedtimes and minimal guests.
But my fantasy never reaches fruition. There are too many abusive men in her orbit. The first is a parolee she meets in a chatroom. Her parents learn of their volatile relationship and threaten to stop paying her bills. She wails, sulks and eventually relents, blocking his collect calls. A few months go by and there’s a new, equally possessive guy. She says he watches me walk to work and asks her to go through my underwear drawer.
Before bed, I close every curtain and repeatedly check the locks. Though all I want is for us to be left alone, she cannot stand the thought of it. I don’t realize the full extent of her fear until I come home one night and find blood on our carpet. She wasn’t really trying to hurt herself, she pragmatically assures me. She only did it to make him worry.
Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex.
My boyfriend’s makeshift bedroom is a dining room, flanked by two sliding doors. His bed is an equally transient, lofted air mattress. The first night I stay over, I’m surprised how easily I drift off, our spooning reinforced by lackluster air pressure. The immediate comfort I feel lying next to him hints at love.
We put the mattress through its paces, amorously rolling around on top of it till it starts to tear. In a spontaneous act of devotion, I patch the holes and accidentally smear glue all over my kneecaps. The glue hardens to form flaky scabs that are immune to soap.
I wear the glue scabs to a job interview and the woman stares at them between questions. I don’t get a call back, leaving me to wonder whether it was my qualifications or her thinking I was a leper.
The mattress miraculously stays inflated for over a year, held together by our youthful optimism. Though we’re sleeping in a stuffy dining room that smells like Borscht, the future is wide open. When my boyfriend saves enough money to move to a nicer place, the mattress is trashed. He removes its warning label and mails it to me, along with a romantic note that reads: “They forgot to list sex on here.”
Try natural sleep aids.
Weed is supposed to make you tired. I reach out to a friend who has “connections” and he buys me a bag. At dusk, we meet in the park and smoke a bowl behind a row of porta potties. Instead of feeling relaxed, I become paranoid. I hear footsteps (the footsteps of a COP!?), flee the scene and collide with a jogger. Both of us claw at our chest and yelp: “You scared me!”
CBD becomes legal and people start putting it in everything from lattes to dog treats. My acupuncturist recommends an oil version for my insomnia; a brand with the same name as a favorite childhood book: Charlotte’s Web. I chase the oil with a beer and wake up stoned. I’m still stoned when I go to meet my brother at the Village Halloween Parade. He waits for me on a street corner, dressed as a sad clown. The CBD morphs the crowd into a slo-mo soup, made of festering wounds, sunken cheekbones and gnarled
fingernails. A stranger in a hockey mask, holding a machete, pops out from a dark alley. I open my mouth to scream, but all that comes out is a yawn.
Soundproof your bedroom.
While researching white noise machines, I discover two other noise colors that promote sleep: pink and brown. “Why do we only talk about white noise?” I gripe. “This is 2020.” Pink noise is the hiss of a garden hose’s mist setting. Brown noise is what I hear when I hold a shell up to my ear.
Ambient noise is also recommended for sleep; tracks that would feel at home in a Berlin nightclub. If I want heating and cooling deep cuts, I have options such as “Industrial Fan,” “Office Air Conditioner” and “Hissing Radiator.” If I prefer a dystopian suburb vibe, there’s “Freezer Drip,” “Distant Lawn Mower” and “Womb.” I go even deeper down the sleep sounds rabbit hole and stumble upon Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response tracks that sound like a fetish menu. My guess is people are doing more than napping to “Male Inaudible Whispering” and “Lip Gloss Application Part 1.”
Because I believe in equal representation, I buy a noise machine that features all three noise colors. Because I believe in consent, I always ask new bedmates before I turn it on.
Count your blessings.
Saint Blais can be invoked for throat issues like snoring or sleep apnea. Saint Vitus protects you from oversleeping. Saint Raphael is adept at keeping nightmares at bay. But there is no patron saint for insomnia. Saints typically have an intimate understanding of whatever they’re associated with. So, what if my own sleeplessness is holy refinement? What if I’m meant to eventually become the patron saint of insomnia?
The canonization steps set forth by the Catholic church include evidence of a life marked by heroic virtue and at least two miracles. Miracles are tough to procure, but heroic virtue is something I can get started on right away. On the nights I can’t sleep, I pray my way through a mental rolodex of people with problems, petitioning God for steady work, a baby, good test results, financial security, mental health, dreams fulfilled and healing. When my social circle is exhausted, I direct my prayers toward the larger world, asking for an end to racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, global warming, hunger and homelessness. The darkest hours of nighttake on a glow they didn’t have before. I convince myself that my insomnia is being used for good. Meaningless exhaustion is too hard to bear.
Get regular exercise.
I sprain my ankle. At the emergency room, I’m outfitted with a brace that could double as a ski boot. Not having two functioning feet in New York City is problematic enough, but it’s extra distressing when exercise keeps your insomnia in check. In the weeks that follow, I set a new insomnia record, sleeping a grand total of six hours in three days. I catch my pale, translucent reflection in a store window and wonder: “Am I dead?”
I haunt the places I used to frequent, one of which is the gym. There, I meet a trainer who convinces me she can design a leg-less workout. “We’ll have to get creative,” she reasons. What follows is a cinematic exercise montage. Me on my knees, slamming sandbags like a passive-aggressive construction worker. Me waving two sets of heavy ropes like a sea captain who has had a stroke. Me crawling up a bunch of stairs like an infant Rocky Balboa. The absurd regiment works my body in ways it has never been worked before. With every rep, my insomnia is pushed further away until finally, it gives up the ghost.
A Cabrera's poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain,Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Best Travelers' Tales 2021 Anthology, Mer, Deronda, and other journals. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company. She writes, teaches, dances and ride bikes in San Francisco, but not always in that order.
Addie Stuber is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has been featured in The Cut, Slackjaw, The Salve, P.S. I Love You and other publications. She wrote the original screenplay for Two Pints Lighter, a movie that won Garden State Film Festival's 'Best Homegrown Feature' award. Visit her website or follow her on Medium to see her latest work.