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Training the Gray Dog to Finally Fall Asleep

(Photo: .candy/flickr)

(Photo: .candy/flickr)

NyQuil. Ambien. Valium. Diphenhydramine. Melatonin. Gabapentin. These are the treats that I’ve been feeding the beast. The sock drawer full of scooby snacks that I’ve been resorting to for weeks and weeks now. Insomnia. Is. The. Worst.

I’ve never been a good sleeper and recall much of my childhood spent either tossing and turning in anticipation of sleep or quaking under the covers after waking from yet another bad dream. My nightmares were epic pageants of the anxieties of youth. I can still recall a particular dream of being kidnapped that continued for three nights in a row — an actual mini-series of the psyche. I’ve been drowned in poisoned grape juice, hunted through city streets, trapped under a giant glass dome and pursued by oversized hats with eyes (I watched a lot of Lidsville for a time and never quite recovered from Sid and Marty Krofft’s dystopian vision of a world populated by both gigantic hats and Charles Nelson Reilly.)

They call depression the Black Dog, and I’ve been fortunate — that particular cur has brushed past me only briefly these many years. His sister, however, the Gray Dog of insomnia, has been my ever-present companion.

Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of techniques and coping skills. I’ve learned to self-hypnotize, and I’ve developed visualizations both simple and complex. I’ve tried varying forms of so-called “sleep hygiene,” which honestly have been impossible to adhere to with any consistency. No screens in the bedroom? Now how you gonna NOT watch The Daily Show in bed? And the Kindle app is clearly a boon to relationships everywhere — how could I go back to reading with the lights on when now I can simply stare into a box of light while my partner sleeps soundly? And I’m not going back to that goddamned itty-bitty book light. You can’t make me.

I’ve gone through many bouts of extended insomnia, a few of which lasted many months. Some folks get punchy with lack of sleep; some get mean. As for me, the less I sleep the more deeply I draw into myself. Because of that, there are long periods of my life that I can barely recall, as I was barely participating in them. In fact, there are chunks of my childhood and adolescence that are near blank. Although, lucky me, I do recall the nightmares.

Then there have been the standard bouts of sleeplessness — the ones that many women go through. The final weeks of pregnancy, which was like having a squirming bag of puppies stapled to my abdomen. The first sweet months of a new baby when nobody slept and nobody cared. The beginnings of menopause, when I woke up once an hour feeling both physically and emotionally like the bed was on fire as heat and adrenaline coursed through my veins. But those were resolved by labor, time and estrogen pills, respectively.

But this last bout, which has taken place over the past few months, has got me really and truly worried. The Gray Dog has always been with me, but lately she’s been raising her hackles and baring her teeth. Frankly, she’s starting to freak me out.

It started when we moved into our garage in early September, to prepare for a renovation. Not just a renovation…a complete reworking of our home. New kitchen, an entirely new laundry room, an expanded dining room, new heating, air conditioning, flooring, windows, doors, insulation, sheetrock, electrical wiring and siding. To save money, I decided to be the general contractor, making all of the big decisions and hiring sub-contractors to carry out the work I couldn’t do myself.

Amusingly, I thought that this would all be finished in a few months’ time and planned accordingly, storing most of our possessions in a borrowed horse trailer and paring things in our garage-cum-apartment down to the bare minimum. We had a microwave and a mini-fridge. A rolling rack and a few wire baskets for our clothes. A television, couch and two desktop computers. And of course we had our beds. Our good, old beds.

[pullquote]As they attached the vent and flipped on the new circuit, the older of the two carpenters looked at me with something like fear. He stroked his beard and said, “You are not a normal woman.”[/pullquote]

We felt truly cozy in that space. My son, who is thirteen and still doesn’t hate our guts, really loved it out there, saying that we should live this way all the time. We made tea with an electric kettle, walked through the yard to get to the bathroom (which was the only room untouched in the house) and ate microwaveable food in front of the TV.

At night, we slept snug and warm with a decent heater and thick feather duvets as the weather cooled. All day long, I dealt with carpenters and electricians and tile guys, but at night I was safe in the bosom of my tiny family.

So why couldn’t I sleep?

It started almost immediately. At first, I blamed the change of venue, along with the fact that I was jammed up against a wall, which was the only way the bed fit into the space. But I figured I’d get used to it eventually.

As the weeks rolled by and I got less sleep every night, however, I realized that I wasn’t acclimating and that none of my usual tricks were working.

My chakra visualizations? I never got past orange. My toe-up relaxation routines? ONCE I made it up to my knee, but most times I couldn’t get past my ankles. My head-down scanner visualizations? I could not jam that scanner down beyond my neck.

Instead, my mind was choked with thoughts and images that I simply couldn’t banish. And, here’s the worst part, and the crux of this tale: the thoughts were of the most banal, most mundane topics imaginable.

I saw tile ends.

Yes, I did.

I saw the cut ends of white subway tile, butting into a windowsill. How would they meet the window elegantly, especially considering that the substrate below them is uneven and has a huge gap around the edge of the window?

I saw a hatch cover — a piece of flooring that had been cut to provide access to the crawlspace below. How could we cover it properly, and what sort of hinges would be both strong and invisible?

I saw knotty pine trim, lining the interior of a newly spray-foamed hip roof. How could it navigate that strange little corner where the roof flared out over the porch?

I saw these images over and over. My brain, out of its depth and completely flustered by this entirely new task of being a general contractor, could not quiet itself at night. I saw baseboard trim, sill plates, masonry blocks, roofing angles and toilet valves. I saw four different kinds of dryer vents, for god’s sake.

When I was very young, I was assaulted, and for at least a year afterwards I suffered from what I now know was PTSD, playing the attack over and over in my mind like a video on loop.

This was like PTSD, but on the DIY channel.

After a month or two, I resorted to the drugs. I’m a smart gal and always have a bottle of Valium around for emergencies. Normally, I take one every six weeks or so, but now I was taking two or three a week with no effect. Ambien knocked me out for three or four hours, but by 3 a.m. I was wide awake again. Even Nyquil, the sure-fire way to wake up on the kitchen floor at 10 a.m., didn’t make a dent.

Every night. 3 a.m. Like a clock. A very badly broken clock.

Finally, I gave up. It hurt too much to think about things that I didn’t understand, so I started getting up at 3 a.m. I’d watch Netflix and read the NY Times until dawn when my husband and son got up. I’d cry cathartically over Call the Midwife and freak out about the Supreme Court and the First Amendment. I’d drink instant coffee and eat leftover Christmas candy. I’d stare into space and think about dryer vents.

I barely got any of my real work done (I’m a graphic designer by trade), and I hardly spoke to my friends on the phone. I became a zombie in private and in public. But the work moved along.

This past weekend, I finished the grout in the kitchen. The tile ends butt into large slabs of marble that I found at a discount tile store. And they look fabulous.

The crawlspace hatch, covered with leftover flooring pieces and attached with a piano hinge, looks like a work of art.

Last week, I had my carpenters help me install the washer and dryer. I was FINALLY on the phone with a friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in weeks when one of the workers came out to the garage and said, “We can’t make it work…you have the wrong kind of dryer vent.”

I smiled triumphantly. All those sleepless nights came to glorious fruition as I excused myself on the phone with a promise that someday soon we WOULD talk like normal friends do. And I walked out to the shed where I had two more types of dryer vents stored away.

As they attached the vent and flipped on the new circuit, the older of the two carpenters looked at me with something like fear. He stroked his beard and said, “You are not a normal woman.”

Last night, we slept in our lovely new home, with its gleaming oak floors, fresh paint and central heat. I don’t remember much of it though, because I slept like a warm puppy.

Filed under: Health


Annette Earling

Annette Earling is a graphic designer, benignly neglectful mom, occasional essayist and cursing PTA president who is deep, deep in the thick of it. You can find her on Twitter at @acearling.

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