On Insomnia and Insanity

When I used to go out to Burner parties in Chicago, and was still spinning on the dance floor at 3 a.m. surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same thing, I thought I knew the night crawler. We were the ones who defied any possibility of a pre-noon Sunday wake-up time, creatures of the pitchest of black witching hour. We were the warriors who wore feathers in our hair and walked the streets in the dead of winter to catch the bus home at dawn.

Fast-forward about three years. Warrior of the night? I didn’t know shit about what that meant back when I had whiskey Cokes buzzing through my brain at the Freakeasy. The true warriors are the ones turning over in bed and whipping out a booby, or treading ruts into carpeting pacing back and forth in living rooms with babies in their aching arms, or looking pleadingly at the bottle of teething tablets, hoping for the magic remedy to soothe their babies’ pain. Sleep, for more than four hours at a time, becomes an unheard-of, deeply longed-for, luxury for these people…the moms and dads to not just newborns, but babies of many ages and stages who are stretching and shifting and neurologically leaping at the most inconvenient hours.

I have been severely sleep-deprived since third trimester. That’s going on a year and a half now. And through the many sleepless nights, and the days that slid by in a blur that left me scratching my head when Inara turned one a few weeks ago…I reached a point where I was functioning, somehow, but just barely. Much of this first year of Inara’s life I was in survival mode. And at several crucial moments along the way, I lost my mind. I was, I swear, skirting the edge of insanity at times. I started to understand why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.

One morning, I was lying in bed with a list of therapists in my hand contemplating going on medication (which I swore I would stay away from), and something told me to wait it out, that I was getting to the bottom of something big, or the bottom was falling out from something that just had to go. But something else told me that I was completely losing my marbles, and it was terrifying. The notion that I was losing control, losing my grip on reality, moving forward on a loopy, slippery road with no steering wheel and no brakes, had me reeling.

But that’s just it. I was out of control…and starting to understand that control is an illusion. As is reality. Reality shifts from minute to minute, depending on our perspective. One day I was feeling great and absolutely enamored of my baby and the sun was bouncing off of everything in the shiniest, happiest way. The next I had tumbled into another crevasse, and a new goblin had crept out of another crevice of my shadow self. My hormones were still in upheaval, my adrenals were in overdrive, and no rest was to be found.

This is the gift and the curse of the postpartum mama. It’s easy to drift between worlds, and the subconscious is so readily accessible, the veil thinned, because we haven’t had the sleep we need and our defenses are down. We are raw, tender, vulnerable. We often feel shamefully weak. But I argue that it takes so, so much strength and courage to come through this period, to sit still with your baby while she naps on your chest and you feel like weeping because it’s all too much, or running because you haven’t since she was born, or escaping to the Caribbean because wouldn’t a tropical drink on a beach be so much easier right now? And you stick with it. Because you have no choice. This baby needs you. And for the first time in your life, you have to show up for yourself, and take care of yourself so that you’re able to take care of your baby, in a way you never have before. You see that being selfish at this point is survival, and you get in touch with what you really need, and you reach out for support to strangers, and you make new friends with people with whom you thought you’d have nothing in common, but who have children and who get it. And you savor those glimmers…the glint in your baby’s smiling eyes as she triumphantly stumbles into your arms. The squeal of delight as she discovers she can get a morsel of food from her chin with her tongue. Her murmurs of “mama” as she reaches for you in the middle of the night (nothing has ever sounded sweeter). And then it doesn’t matter so much, that you are up again at 3 a.m., and there’s no dance party involved. It’s just you and your babe in the dark, breathing quietly together for a few heartbeats in time, before she rolls over and sighs in sleepy satisfaction.

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