Woman shaking her head as a man shrugs and talks with his eyes closed in the background

What Others Hear When I Say 'Insomnia'

The other day I was talking to a friend who asked how I was. It had been a particularly “awake” night prior, one where I’d slept only in short bursts and spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling, wondering how the rest of the world was sleeping.

I responded that I was flat-out exhausted.

She was quick to jump in and say she was too. She started listing all of the things going on in life right now, which are, of course, absolutely exhausting. Except, here’s the thing. I knew there was a difference. I knew that her exhaustion was different than mine for one main reason.

She doesn’t live with insomnia, like I do.

Our exhaustion is not the same

We got to really talking, and I asked her how she slept at night. She said that she was up late doing this, that, and the other, but that once she got into bed, she crashed hard until the sun came out in the morning.

I stifled my laughter. I told her that was wonderful and that she should be grateful for the actual rest she was getting between days to reset. She asked me what I meant.

A conversation about insomnia

I tried, in the most diplomatic way, to explain to her what life was like with insomnia.

That every night, I wondered if I’d be able to fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time or if it would take hours and a lot of work to drift away to dreamland. Then, once I was asleep, that rest might last 30 minutes or 3 hours, but that then I’d be awake again, for an unspecified amount of time, and that that cycle would repeat itself over and over and over again until the morning arrived.

That before motherhood, I was sometimes able to doze on and off for a few extra hours before work or "nap" after work before dinner and bedtime, but those things were no longer an option to me.

That before the pandemic, I could go to the gym or a coffee shop for a change of scenery, to get some endorphins and an extra boost in energy for the rest of the day, but during the pandemic, I could only really be at home.

'Oh, it can't be that bad!'

I tried to tell her how challenged I've felt lately, living with a sleep disorder in an ever-changing climate, where my sleeplessness and, as a result, my exhaustion were one in a number of things I'd struggle with each day.

Her response, while unintentionally dismissive, was, "Oh, it can't be that bad!"

But, before I could disagree with her, she jumped into asking me a slew of questions like:

"Why can't you sleep?"

"Have you tried sleeping pills?"

"What about melatonin?"

"My friend meditates before bed and sleeps so soundly. Why don't you do that?"

Can others ever truly understand?

And what I realized was that no matter how much I explain insomnia to others, if you don't live with a sleep disorder, it actually may just be impossible for you to understand what it's really like.

Have you had a conversation like this before? What has it made you feel like? How have you responded?

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