Bates Motel: No Vacancy for Sleep

coping with insomnia

21 April 2024

What is it like to consistently get a good night’s sleep? I’ve always wondered this as a professional insomniac. The stubborn bags under my eyes and my waning tolerance for energy drinks are evidence — no, battle scars — from a lifelong struggle with insomnia.

The signs were unmistakable from an early age. As a kid, I squirmed and fidgeted around bedtime while everyone else in my household seemed to have an ability to effortlessly power down. Night after night, I helplessly watched as my “other” self hijacked all of the controls. My mom had hoped that I would grow out of this affliction as I got older, like allergies or eczema. It’s hilarious, looking back, how mistaken she was.

My condition got significantly worse over time, and by middle school, I had pulled my first all-nighter. At the time, however, it was a revelation. Suddenly, I had precious, undisturbed free time to read books, watch movies, and occasionally sneak out of the house. These nighttime adventures became routine, and eventually, I got pretty good at avoiding the creaky spots on the wooden staircase near my parents’ bedroom as I snuck downstairs. These nocturnal escapades weren’t driven by anything in particular; I simply reveled in the joy of neighborhood exploration and getting my steps in. I found refuge in the night, the chaos of the day at a safe distance. There was no one to boss me around. Being a kid is hard (as adults, we sometimes forget how hard it is). But during these nights, I could finally embrace the essence of childhood—having fun and exploring without constraints.

As time went on, however, staying up all night lost its appeal as the consequences of sleep deprivation hurt my mental well-being. Like most college students, I became well-acquainted with anxiety in many aspects (school, relationships, job search, etc). However, one other source of anxiety haunted me consistently — the fear of not being able to fall asleep. Right before bedtime, my mind would run through questions like: what if I don’t get enough sleep before my midterm tomorrow? What if I can’t function throughout the day? What are the chances of me developing a heart condition over time? Unsurprisingly, these ruminations only worsened my condition. I was trapped in an anxiety-insomnia death spiral, my own purgatory.

And before you ask, yes, I’ve searched far and wide for a remedy. It started with front-line defense mechanisms like putting my phone away and taking melatonin an hour before bedtime, but these were futile. Insomnia’s grip required powerful solutions. Desperate, during my sophomore year, I resorted to sleeping next to a bottle of wine and Benedryl to knock me out, but I quickly realized this was not sustainable or healthy. Occasionally, well-meaning individuals would offer me unsolicited sleep advice, which, given my decade-long pursuit, I couldn’t help but perceive as a subtle form of mockery. Still, I wondered — what does one do when there is seemingly nothing left to do?

During one unexpected evening in my mid-20s, I stumbled across the answer. The night began as usual. Unauthorized, my mind ran through previously dormant memories that suddenly sprang to life from the depths of my subconscious. Among them was a vivid recollection of a kid named Vincent from the fourth grade. Bizarrely entangled in this reel was the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard legal drama. As I sat through this avant-garde cinematic experience, the familiar tendrils of anxiety crept in, foretelling another sleepless night.

But this time, I had reached a breaking point. I was fed up with being a prisoner in my own body. What if, in a radical act of liberation, I summoned one of my middle school specialties — skillfully utilizing newfound time to my advantage? The night ahead was mine to savor, and I was determined to extract every drop of joy it could offer.

Propelled by this newfound resolve, I got out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen. Luckily, we’re a household that believes in having a well-stocked pantry. With childlike delight, I poured myself some cereal and grabbed the bag of hot cheetos. Fuck it, bring the Gushers too. I was in full goblin mode. I hauled my midnight feast to the living room, melted into the couch’s comforting embrace, and burrowed under the blankets’ soothing folds. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever join the ranks of Alan Ginsburg, Sylvia Plath, and Vincent van Goh, acclaimed artists who did some of their best work during the wee hours of the night. Alas, I am a mere mortal, seldom touched by a stroke of artistic inspiration. So that evening, I simply flipped on the TV.

Soon after I had settled in, a familiar sleep-addled voice drifted from the bedroom, “Heyyyyy”. My boyfriend, Eric emerged, hair mussed and eyes bleary. He had been roused from the crinkling of the snack bags and my rummaging. He joined my blanket-swaddled form on the couch, and we indulged in the snacks together. It didn’t take long for us to binge watch Bates Motel, a show that had become our lounge time ritual. Episode after episode, we watched Norman Bates unspool his psychosis and teeter between reality and delusion. Sheesh, I thought, at least I’m not that guy.

At some point, the birds outside our window heralded a new day. Eric, ever the busy body, enthusiastically suggested going for a walk outside before the morning bustle. At this point, I was physically and mentally exhausted, so I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of swapping out my PJs, looking presentable, and going outside. However, considering we had made it this far into our sleepless night, we reasoned that we might as well push through to the final stretch and venture outside. It was sprinkling, so we put on some layers and grabbed the umbrella, setting off aimlessly in one direction until we found ourselves on the MIT campus. However, as a proud alumna of Brown, my emotional loyalty deemed this place boring, so we turned around and headed for the local diner.

Not surprisingly, we were the first ones there, feigning the appearance of early risers who were industriously starting their day — a coveted sleep cycle that I’ve never been able to achieve. We stared at the menu, but the words started to blur and swim as I succumbed to the delirium induced by sleep deprivation. With great difficulty, the words “eggs benedict” emerged so that’s what I ordered. And a badly needed coffee (actually, the coffee didn’t really work, it just made me nauseous).

After breakfast, we trudged homeward, our bodies heavy. I wanted to desperately collapse on my bed, but I resisted. It was already 8am and I needed to start answering work emails. I felt terrible; my head was throbbing and my breaths were shallow. I wondered how I would ever make it through the day. But, unfortunately, I’d done this many times before, so I relied on my routine. I grabbed 2 cans of Red Bull from the bodega downstairs and chugged whenever I needed to. I got on painfully with the day—back-to-back Zoom calls, corporate chit chat, circling back, putting pins in things, etc.—until the evening came and sleep finally took over. I finally got a good night’s rest until the sleep cycle inevitably repeated itself the following week.

I’m 28 now and still trapped in a relentless cycle of weekly all-nighters. Sometimes, I will painfully stay up for 3 days straight. On most days, I simply surrender to the sleep deprivation by staying in bed, doom scrolling on my phone, too miserable to do anything else. But I often look fondly back at that carefree night where I gooned around with good company and made most of the situation, defying insomnia’s grip, if only for a little while.

© 2024 Uka Battulga