In 2016, 4AM became a close friend. I’d awake with no provocation, roll over to check my phone, and mutter a string of my favorite swears. My insomnia was as reliable as it was frustrating, but it was unusual for me, too. All my life, I’d bragged about my ability to fall into a deep, coma-like state wherever, whenever, rivaled only by the dead.
These sleepless weeks stretched into months. Desperate to put an end to my wakeful nights, I stocked up on melatonin, invested in an aromatherapy machine with oil scents that promised to waft me into slumber, and downloaded a few ambient sound apps with high hopes for fuzzy background noise. I researched sleeping pills but didn’t trust myself with the habit. I cut coffee and drank more water. I practiced meditation in bed and tried to focus on taking smooth, steady breaths. For a short time, each method seemed to work. I would start to fall asleep easy again — and then, eventually, relapse.
With every toss and turn, the progress I’d make in those minor weeks would roll backwards, and I’d inevitably find myself just as tired and cranky as before. I sought solace in reading advice online from others who’d had the same problems — but scoffed at their idea of using this time to work. The majority of my waking hours were already filled with an obsession to work, or at the very least thoughts about work. I opted instead to drag my laptop onto my bed and catch up on the TV, music, and games that I had missed.
The leisure time somehow felt productive. I sunk into rewatches, replays, and revisits of things I love: Master of None and Bojack Horseman were my go-to shows; Blonde and Lemonade kept me company on nights when I only wanted to listen; games like Firewatch for when sleep was absolutely out of the question. Within each, my mind — too tired to squash negative thoughts — spotted similarities to the deeper anxieties I have about failure, being alone, or even simply existing. I’d unwittingly gorged on existential crises, but watching them play out helped me to vicariously reckon with some of my own dread.
A short time before my sleep issues, I’d turned my life upside down. I moved into a new apartment, quit my job, and forcibly removed people from my life. Long, significant relationships were ended like yanking a cord from a wall socket. I’d killed off my old life with about as much grace as an HBO show and never gave myself the headspace to mourn it.
Coming to this realization while binging on pop culture in those gray hours felt earth shattering. Retreading old comforts (and this precious, quiet window of time) were permissions I didn’t know I’d been looking for: a place to think about problems or even depression without feeling selfish, conceited, or ignorant. We are all constantly grappling with some greater shadow in our lives, and to highlight our pain above others around us can feel like an act of egotism. But there is empowerment in being able to admit that things are hard — or even just to say, “I am sad today” — without necessarily needing to understand why.
I still find myself occasionally struggling to shut off my worries and rest. I can always find a reason to lay awake at night. But gone is the frustration of my sleepless nights, replaced by acceptance and even brief moments of nostalgia-induced happiness. Each revisiting of some pop culture gem is a safety blanket I can wrap myself in when I need it. And on nights I do find myself restless, I try to cherish what they give me: some time with things I love; some time to reflect on myself.