Insomnia plagued me for thirty years before I went to the mental hospital in March 2011. I would fall asleep at the end of the day quite easily. Then, about an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half later, I would wake. The work getting back to sleep fatigued me. Often, that hour and some was the only sleep I’d get in a night
For weeks and months on end, which then turned to years, little things would keep me up. Twinges of guilt stung me and set my mind to wandering. Something I said during the day would come back to me. I’d feel regret and vow never to say or do that again. A bill set aside too long would come to mind. I feared that my fathering abilities fell short. Anger sung through me as I thought of a slight. Then, the worry over how I’d feel the next day if I didn’t get back to sleep lingered in my head. In other words, the thought of sleep kept me awake.
None of it makes sense in the light of day. But these small items—things I said or left unsaid, regret over an action or behavior, the ruthless examination of self—created an evolution in me over time. When I was younger, I so wanted to belong. I did whatever I could to be liked and accepted. The Boy Scouts offered me some autonomy and I worked like an animal to become an Eagle Scout. While I couldn’t win trophies for my athletic ability, I tried. I joined the high school Backpacking Club, the school newspaper, the yearbook club. I wrote and wrote, hoping that someday someone would recognize my talent (of which I have little).
The harder I worked, the farther the approval of others seemed from me. I waited for people to call me, and they rarely did. I sat at home, hovering over the telephone. I felt sorry for myself. No one liked me. No one cared. I was not a popular kid and my home life reflected that. Nothing was worse than a Friday or Saturday night. Disappointment and dejection followed me wherever I went. These, of course, built on themselves. No one wants a needy person around, someone who’s over anxious for approval.
But I didn’t stop. When I went to college, I joined the Philosophy Circle. I wrote for the school newspaper. I went to bars and drank with people as socially as I could—before I got drunk and passed out in the back booth at the bar. People found me gregarious and friendly. I looked to every new relationship with hope and dreamed that they would turn into long-lasting connections.
Between college and now, somewhere in those thirty years, I quit being a joiner and became a loner. It was, in part, necessity. If I waited for others to call me, I might never get out of my apartment but to go to work. I ceased to feel I was open and honest with people. I drank more and more, always by myself. I withdrew, keeping my interior closed off from others. After a few failing romantic relationships, fear that someone would penetrate my insides moved me to close off my innermost thoughts and feelings. I traveled alone and often went to movies by myself. I felt safe.
When I moved to Germany in 1986, I was set up for a lonely life. At first, the lack of friends and people in my life hurt. After all, even when things were at their worst, I did have contact with others—people I worked with, other drunks I spent time with. Without them, I spent my vacant hours walking the streets and hills around the city I settled in, Trier. It was a lovely place. My drinking moderated. I read hundreds of books and learned German. I wrote many letters to people I used to work with. My drinking buddies received long epistles. I wrote family members who had not heard of me in years.
I did best when I was underway. A lonely walk served the hungry, melancholy, and introspective mind more than sitting in a silent room, where I thought about the life of the city and the people around me. Walking, exploring, satisfied the curious and inquisitive part of me. After a few weeks, I began to spend some time with others. I went out with work friends. Every other week, we’d meet at the brewery behind my house and have a plate of fries with mushroom sauce and a couple of steins of beer. But these social gatherings only filled a couple of hours. So, I walked and walked. Over the months, I came to know my city and, ultimately, met the man who introduced me to friends I have to this day.
Still, as much as my personality made these relationships possible, I laid awake at night, fearing that something I said or did would alienate them from me. I could not see the evidence to the contrary. Looking back over the years, I understand that I was not as defensive as I thought. Indeed, I must have done something right to make and preserve those friendships.
I returned to Kansas City from Germany and sank deeper into the thrall of alcoholism. I sealed myself off from those who might criticize my drinking. I accepted status as loner, a person who looked onto situations and relationships from the outside. When I finally sobered up, I was alone. My friends had fled from me as from a sinking ship or burning building. I moved into a new apartment. I chose not to get a telephone. I had no one to call.
Meanwhile, I laid awake at night, excoriating myself for all the wrongs I perceived I perpetrated over the course of the day or the past week or of sometime in the long distant past. I attended AA meetings and slowly came out from behind the defensive wall I built for myself over the course years of drunkenness. But I reserved that part of me I felt most vulnerable, that part of me that, if anyone got a hold of it, anyone could most damage.
Fortunately, that visit to the mental hospital put me on a drug regimen that eased the worry and fretfulness I felt every single night for three decades. Don’t get me wrong. Insomnia was only one of many things that put me in an institution.
Regardless, I began to sleep 12 and 14 hours a day. I might go to bed at 10 and wake at 9. A nap in the afternoon lasted two hours. At first, a little thought pricked me: I’m sleeping too much and wasting good time. But the idea that after thirty years I was sleeping made me feel as if, well, that’s all right. I’m just catching up.
It still feels good. Insomnia still gets me from time to time, but the bouts of sleeplessness are shorter. My mind doesn’t play the games with me that it once did. I am less defensive and more open, though, as I said I am not a joiner and would rather be by myself wasting time than socializing with others who can, perhaps, help me with my writing career.
In the end, I think insomnia—that wandering series of ideas, ideologies, and fears that kept me awake—made me more of a loner. The propensity was there and sleeplessness made it worst. People around me don’t feel I am so restrained once they meet me. Friends of mine tell me they don’t see it. But inside I have something no one can touch. There is a heart in here always ready to drive a different direction if a relationship falls apart. I always have a plan B.
And I have consistently contrary to my inner feelings. When I worked as a journalist, I spoke about the First Amendment and issues concerning modern journalism in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds. My books were published and I promoted them with energy. I was never confident; self-confidence escapes me. But I looked into the fear, acknowledged it, and walked right through it.
I recently attended an eight-week course that teaches artists how to conduct the business aspects of their creative lives. Much of it was oriented toward visual and performing artists, but I took the lessons allegorically and applied them to my writing. I still have a long way to go. But one of the things they espoused was the importance of being social, making contacts, and networking. If there’s anything I am not is a networker. I again had to set my reserved, defensive self to the side. I had to go out and shake their hands and make small but important talk.
As I look out toward the future, I have a couple of things going for me. I am sleeping, thank god, and loving every second of the ten or twelve hours of shut-eye I get every day. I also see that, for all my feelings of alienation and fear, I have not been the introvert I thought I was. Even in my lowest moments, I was friendly. People are drawn to me when I let my personality out.
Who knows where the writing will take me. I know, however, that it is the centerpiece of my life. I have to make it work for me. In the meantime, I look forward to 1:30 this afternoon, when I will lay down with a book, read about three paragraphs of it, and fall asleep with a peaceful mind.