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I started having insomnia a few months after my mom was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

I had moved away to college in late September and she was diagnosed, I believe, in November. By springtime, I was having trouble sleeping. A high school classmate of mine had died in a motorcycle accident that winter. A fellow student in my Romantic Literature class was hit by a car and killed while jogging. The news from home wasn’t good. I felt surrounded by death.

I shared a bedroom at the time, and even though I lived in an apartment, one of my other housemates always slept on the fold-out couch in the living room with her boyfriend. When I was awake in the middle of the night, there was nowhere to go where I could cry or turn on the lights and read. So instead I’d go outside and sit in the dark on the front stoop or on top of the picnic table, a box of tissues by my feet.

There is a special kind of hush that happens at three or four in the morning. The stillness of the night while I sat on that stoop spoke of shutters being closed over the normal world while everyone slept. Everyone but me. I couldn’t sleep, so instead I sat. I thought about my mom and I wondered why people have to die and I wondered if I hoped hard enough maybe she would be okay after all and I wished I could sleep so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

In the daylight hours, it’s not quite so difficult to keep the dark and grief-stained thoughts at bay. But in the shadows and the quiet, there’s no longer anything blocking them from view.

I was eighteen.

Photo by Elina Linina.

Ever since that time, there have been nights when I can’t sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m too excited about the day I’ve had or the trip I’m taking in the morning or I’m worried about tomorrow or I haven’t allowed enough downtime before going to bed. Sleeping at conventions can be tricky for these sorts of reasons. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m sick or in physical pain.

And sometimes I can’t sleep because my heart hurts. These are always the worst nights. They remind me of those nights on the stoop, sobbing quietly for an incomprehensible loss I could do nothing to stop. I used to hope that if I cried enough, I’d create enough space for the sleep to come.

There are times when insomnia visits for a reason. Sleep stays away so that I pay attention. Often it’s something I don’t want to pay attention to, but my body has its own ideas of what’s good for me. Sometimes it’s even right.

What is insomnia like for you?

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