I Can Never Fall Asleep When It Matters

My insomnia, years in the making, is a habit born out of innocence and self-sabotage.

Woman in Black Hijab Sleeping
I've always had trouble sleeping since adolescence. Illustration by The Septum

It is the fourth day running, and the words "I can never fall asleep when it matters" are all I can think of. It feels like my insomnia has slipped through the crevices of my self-gratification and found sanctuary in my hypothalamus. But that is an incomplete conclusion that hedges towards one-half of the story, neglecting the fact that I've always had trouble sleeping since adolescence.

Looking back through the years of innocence and self-sabotage are milestones of occurrence—within and outside my control—that have led me to my current state.

The provenance of my undoing was computers, specifically mobile phones. They were the double-edged-sword novelty that would lead me down a path of richness and abundance, give me a way in life, yet take so much away from me. I was introduced to them at a pivotal time when I could have been doing anything else, and I would often trade my sleep to do all I could possibly do with them: from playing games to listening to music and browsing the inter-web.

Those were the preluding years to my university days, when, slowly, in an attempt to protect my newly found possession, I became hostile and paranoid about outside interference, so much so that turning off at night almost became impossible. I was taken away, without caution, by the sheer magnificence of computers, and developed the habit of staying up late until a brief hiatus in my first years at the university.

Through no fault of mine, I spent the first half of my university days skipping classes. The days were gaping holes of silence and boredom that I filled with reading books, and the nights were a road well traveled. As usual, I would stay up for most of the night, only this time, doing nothing in particular.

Some nights, accompanied by the moonlight, I would step out into the dark, and mouth some prayers amidst the silence of it all.

One night, touched by providence, I was entered into the realm of unconsciousness, then, overwhelmed by its deprivation, I was jolted awake by chest tightening and shortage of breath. My ability to breathe was considerably reduced, and a natural, voluntary action became involuntary. Every breath I drew became controlled; every thought of it labored.

Hours later I was administered Salbutamol pills, a bronchodilator that makes it easier to breathe (it quickens your heart rate and can be pretty lethal in the case of an overdose). The chest tightening became a snapshot of an impending and transient doom, or so I thought, but I never had to think or worry about it again for years, until it resurfaced. But shortly after the pilot episode, I was cast out of dreamland and resumed my sleepless nights. Albeit, this time, I found a valuable and sustainable use for my nights.

A friend introduced me to software programming, and I immediately took to it. Although it exacerbated my insomnia, I would spend years practicing how to program computers. My inability to sleep coupled with my need to study complemented each other and edged me towards an unknown destination, one that I fully and serendipitously embraced.

It was a jackpot, as I am well past my formative years as a software developer but striking the bargain in those early years meant that I had taken matters into my own hands: the root cause of my insomnia was no longer completely natural or preluded by my introduction to mobile phones, it was now a conscious effort driven by my desire to succeed, and I reveled in it so much so that sleeplessness (at night) became something I could induce through a culmination of good and bad choices.

My insomnia is at odds with my ability to fall asleep in daylight, for which, I have no problems. In fact, in daylight, at some point, the struggle was staying awake, not falling asleep. At work, during a football match, around friends, or in meetings, I would simply fall into a power nap (sleep between 10 to 20 minutes). It wasn’t a sleep disorder like Narcolepsy, I figured, it was simply my body making up for the lost time. Then to stay awake I befriended the Monster energy drink, initially for the caffeine, then for the taste—it became my drug.

I am faithful, you see, to the Monster energy drink. Despite the perceived and occasional bloating it has caused me, I’ve never sought recourse away from it with another energy drink. But as much as consistency goes, our relationship has been quite irregular. Whenever I descend into complete decadence, I reach for my good old friend because it knows how to get me there.

For some reason I also have a slow metabolism, that is, food takes longer to digest, and in the past, I also feel immediately full after eating very little. A mere diagnosis of these symptoms would point to certain diseases like GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or even peptic ulcer, but I have never been diagnosed with any of those, even after undergoing a full body checkup that includes endoscopy (a test to look inside your body).

Since the first time, I have had several bouts of breathing inconsistencies, a manifestation that occurred so randomly that I derived a pattern and got the better of it (I haven’t had any issues for many months). However, it almost brought me down to my knees. I got an inhaler, Ventolin, which is, you guessed it, Salbutamol as an inhaler. I also got nebulized (it’s mainly for asthma patients), when one morning, I just couldn’t breathe fast or well enough.

I bet the reasons I have been stapled clean is because my symptoms intersect and are completely irregular. When I’m good, I’m really good; when I’m bad, I fluctuate. Today I’m gasping for breath, tomorrow I’m donating to a breath bank. I've been told to simply live consciously: eat healthily, reduce the intake of carbonated drinks, exercise regularly, avoid dust, live well, etc.

Over time, the cause of my insomnia has both been natural and artificial, and I am currently in remission: I’m getting better off than I used to be. I have been sleeping well and relatively living healthy as I was instructed to. But last night marked the fourth that I have fallen asleep, not for the lack of breath or bloating, but for the most mysterious reason I have ever had to deal with insomnia, nature.

Some days into April, I noticed some changes in my bedtime routine. Save for the occasional slip into the labyrinth of TikTok’s For You algorithm, the occasional well-fitted dungeons of Instagram Reel, or the dazing plethora of opinions on Twitter, I started having bursts of short periods of sleep anywhere between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m., then I will be awake all night to keep vigil.

Before my watch ends, I read articles in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. If I’m feeling instantaneous, I reach for The New York Times or The Washington Post. When none of that helps, I grasp for anything, even as much as starting a new video on Netflix or YouTube that I might never return to. The last resort is always the rejuvenated podcast or good old music. In the event that nothing helps puts me to sleep, I wait like I have done for the past four nights, for sunrise, because as soon as it rises over the horizon, I fall asleep.

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