It’s Late, Why Aren’t You Sleeping? | Explorations in Tragedy

A Night Owl Thought Piece

Sheena Monster
11 min readSep 1, 2022
Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

It’s 4 am. Soon the dark velvet skies of the night will converse with morning in hues of blue. Birds will sing to rouse the plants and greet the sun. The world around me will be waking up, and I haven’t slept. To be fair, I run best on a nocturnal schedule, but I haven’t been sleeping much at all lately. I wish I could say this was an infrequent occurrence. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The truth is that restless nights happen more often than not, and have since childhood. Sleepless nights become more frequent when stress levels have reached maximum capacity — which is kind of ironic considering the body needs more rest to recover from the damaging physical effects of stress. I’ve tried all the tricks. Not working in places of rest, no caffeine after noon [no caffeine at all], healthy diet and exercise routine— going to bed only when ready for sleep. That’s the kicker. My body is not often “ready for sleep”.

Let’s unpack that

If you accept that we remember best what impacted us most, then it’s not a leap to assume that our rememberings are a library of clips and snapshots. Some of them are blurry and out of focus, and others are in high resolution. Always triggered by the strangest things. Like, I remember the night I fell in love with storms — terrified as I may have been. Sitting on the porch with dad, watching the cloud roll in and asking him why. I can still feel the electricity in the air and smell the dankness of the basement seeping up through the vents. No idea how old I was, not a clue what month it was. A mental snapshot of the basement door in a candlelight vignette is filed away somewhere in between the nostalgia and the fear of that night. Something about the fierceness of a storm dancing freely through the air induces what I can only describe as calm, in the pit of my chest. Fuck, I miss the rain…

Photo by Tasos Mansour on Unsplash

As much as I love storms, the fiercest can be especially destructive. Perhaps that’s why I love them so much; because they remind me of my mind. More memories than should be of that house are chaotically filed away, though I think they were once more organized. The only ones I ever seem to find are tragic, to say the least. I haven’t really explored this area for quite some time, so this should be interesting — for me, anyway.

My oldest memories are from that house, some typical of any kid growing up in a small town in the 1990s; all of them curious. I remember my older brother microwaving an egg with the shell still on — it exploded as soon as they opened the door. I don’t recall if I had an emotional reaction, but I vividly remember everyone in a panic and checking for shells in his eyes. Anything resembling the texture of that grody orange carpet takes me back to some darker memories from around age ten. I wish I could say that’s when sleep began to evade me. I have memories of nightmares from years earlier, though, and they disturb me still. One particularly disturbing terror reoccurred several times, each time a little different. At present, I only recall a pirate giving sage advice through riddles with consequences. It was genuinely terrifying, even if a bit foggy now. A clearer clip from a year or three before those dreams was being forced to “cry it out” in a dark room, alone; I can still hear my older brother crying on the other side of the door, trying to come in and save his baby sister. I’m not sure how old I was, but I do remember standing in my crib to scream. I’m sure it was meant to be some variation of bedtime, but it impacted me enough to remember it thirty years later.

Is trauma to blame?

It wasn’t any one solitary traumatizing event that complicated my relationship with sleep, no defining moment. However, it is likely a contributing factor; I do score a six on the ACEs test. But I have to say, in every scarring tragedy the worst part wasn’t the traumatic event itself that cut the deepest. It was the constant invalidation of dismissal by those meant by nature to protect and nurture my development.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s funny to me, how sentiments that were drilled into me in my formative years dissolved with time. I remember hating posing for pictures, but also always secretly wanting candid shots. My poor poetic teenage soul loathed the inauthenticity she perceived in posed photos. Group photos with fake friends forced to tolerate my angst and quirks for the sake of team unity, and family portraits — none of it felt real. Everything was about appearance, on that my birth-giver was correct; even if not in the way she thought was. See, I wanted the kind of snapshots that I could look back on in twenty years and be thrown right back into the moment. The kind you see in an old rolling stone. Hell, I still want that — has happened once, when it counted. Alas, it makes no never mind now. Any photos and memorabilia of my youth have since been destroyed; by a flood, I’m told.

Not having anything tangible to remember those years is a bittersweet tragedy. Like a piece of my soul was lost to this life. The price for choosing the path of supreme resistance both by inheritance and by choice. Think what you will about life after death, energy shifts — so, why can’t it attach an echo? Have you ever held an old security blanket or stumbled upon a photo of a memory you’d filed away to make room for practicality? Ever felt the nostalgia creep in, potentially overwhelming sensibility and encouraging a cleansing cry? It has always looked so forgiving in movies, and teenage me saved an entire tote full of the traditional treasure trove counting on it— any material remnants of that era have since been completely erased. I have my original copy of a childhood favourite that has seen better days. My birth-giver bought it for me as a jab at my “define normal” retort to her incessantly insulting my quirks. Joke on her, it was one of the most validating reads of my early adolescence.

Children don’t ask to be here anymore than women now have the right to choose to carry them, and they should not be forced to appreciate the toxicity of generational trauma. Verbal abuse is not love; abandonment is not love — neglect is not love.

That wasn’t the first time she botched attempts to embarrass me, wasn’t even the last; but it was one of the more memorable. Having the book in my possession doesn’t remind me of her so much as it does the lessons I learned from the main characters in Julie Anne Peter’s book. They, in many ways, represented my internal duality: my authentic self versus the person I felt was my expectation. Of course, when I tried to explain that and connect through appreciation for the ill-intended gift, I was mocked for my enthusiasm.

Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

Secret Night-Light

At some point during an elementary school term, I became incredibly motivated to read. Honestly, I think most of it was to curb boredom; but it was also heavily influenced by my insatiable curiosity. It must have been somewhere around fifth grade, and Library was my favourite class. I would take as many books as the librarian would permit, and it wasn’t until just now that I understood why she always asked if I was actually reading them. She accepted that I was — my obsession with the Scholastic book fair probably helped.

As I mentioned I’ve never slept well. When getting up and practicing your dance moves makes all the floor boards squeal, you learn quiet activities. Reading eventually fanned out into writing and drawing and painting or other. From the wee hours of the morning into blue hour, reading was the most convenient at its worst. It was for this reason I had stashed one of those old-fashioned candle lanterns people put in their window during the winter holidays. I kept it nestled away between my mattress and the wall because every time my birth-giver found it she’d put it back in the decorations box. Of course, I would never figure this out until well after lights out and end up having to wait until everyone was asleep so I could sneak out to the shed and dig it back out. At one point I had a desk lamp, but it was too bright — and loud; why are lightbulbs so damn noisy?

I digress. One night in particular I was set up against the window finishing the last of my library books. I only remember that it was a Thursday night because I justified pushing myself to finish reading The Winning Stroke by Matt Christopher before allowing myself to sleep. They only allowed students to take so many books home at one time, which is perfectly logical to me now; as an adult. As a kid, that was stressful to the point of emotional turmoil — and exacerbated sleep deprivation. With no more than maybe twenty pages left, I shifted myself and dug in. The whole single-wide vibrated under determined stomps down the hallway leading to my door. My birth-giver burst through my door prepared to find me being some form of mischievous I presume. Anger gave way to confusion, “it’s late, why aren’t you sleeping?” Apparently, my choice of activity was temperate enough to win her favour. The confused flabbergast lingering on her tone was noted, though.

Photo by Erica Marsland Huynh on Unsplash

Insecure Attachments

All focus is trained on the outcome. A journey is reduced to its bullet points and outsider perceptions. Only the moments deemed relevant by people outside of the self are remembered by the perpetrators of violence and their web of insidious enablers. Everyone wants to celebrate the resilience of a survivor, but no one wants to talk about the grit required to bounce back from the fringes of sanity. Strength is revered with envious praise, but no one wants to help carry the weight of the crosses that we carry. Cowardice is mocked, but no one wants to look into their own shadows and learn the lessons that shape courage; to accept that maybe their opinions lack perspective and that those who carry the onerous baggage of ignored adversity should be regaled. Instead, society admonishes them for their divergence and invalidates their experiences with every breath of baseless notions of embellishment.

Our attachment styles and our ability to self-regulate are developed early. When built on chaotic and detached foundations, connections to the world around us are depleting. Toxic environments force us to swallow it down when our divergent urges and stims challenge the limitations of totalitarian authority. Masking becomes second nature, and we suppress every compulsive impulse to satiate our own needs in favour of those around us; in favour of those who will never live a day in our minds. This, of course, leaves a film of isolation on every experience. Masks are worn around everyone because sifting through levels of distrust to sort out safe spaces is debilitating on a good day. Those lost to the suffocating pressure of living up to the expectations of the world around them are chastised in death for ending their own story, but only because their absence leaves a mirror in their place. A mirror reflecting back the bane of their existence. Silent screams suddenly deafening to the ones left behind. Misplaced blame fuels resentment; all accountability is consumed by ego, a lingering ache a salve of survivor’s guilt.

Photo by Rythik on Unsplash

It gets darker the deeper you go

Sleep evades in response to a constant state of survival mode. The persistent uncertainty of place and self creates an edge on every experience, every unfamiliar place — even familiar places can become unsafe, especially in the wrong company. As an adult I can see this; as a child, I had no frame of reference. Lack of sleep was seen as an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts — a chance to be alone with my feelings, not that I was equipped to process them.

I snuck out at night to retrieve my reading light from the shed, but I also ran away to stargaze in the field next to our property line— sometimes I even left a note to say I wasn’t coming back, the serenity of the rural Pennsylvania night gently rationalizing my plan to escape. It’s not like there was a bus depot within walking distance, and the prospects of employment in the city for a nine-year-old girl were grim. The angst of my innocence determined to live life in the five acres of woods behind the house. Even then I knew five acres would never suffice; today, my inner child still squeals at every thought of an off-grid homestead. It wasn’t until adulthood, though, that I embraced the raw obstinance of my youth and fully understood the source of my angst.

Reading, writing, and creation still play quite the role in my sleepless nights. I no longer require stealth and secrecy to stimulate my mind or process my emotional flux, but I am still healed best by nature. Many nights I still find myself barefoot in the grass, my eyes searching the polluted city sky for the stars that spoke to me then. Unable to connect with the people around me, I found peace in nature — some things never change. However, much has changed for me since sneaking off the through the creek and into that field. For one I am living in a city so far away from everything I had known; a jarring perspective that threw me for a loop at first view. Looking back now, it’s like reminiscing old scars; some still admittedly tender. That’s where the shadow work begins.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 — support is available 24–7. You are worthy and your experience is valid; your story does not have to end today.

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