Live Through This

Living After Midnight

I kind of love not sleeping, you guys.

Illustration by Emma D.

So, here’s a surprise: I am a bit uptight sometimes. In fact, I am even a bit of a perfectionist. I know this, because I diagnosed myself with it at the age of seven, when (I believe) 60 Minutes did a segment on “Perfectionism: Is It Ruining Your Life?” I looked at the list of “Perfectionism: It Is a Terrible Personal Flaw and Here Are Its Red Flags” list, and told my parents, “But I have all of those.” And then I got really obsessed with not being a perfectionist, because perfectionism WAS NOT PERFECT. I know that I did not accomplish this, however, because of the fact that I have chronic insomnia.

Eventually, wee little 60 Minutes-watching me turned into college-aged me, and college-aged me had to write and turn in essays. Now, the reason that this freaked me out was not that I blew off assignments. It freaked me out because, at some point, I would actually have to finish assignments. Instead of doing things my preferred way—writing, and then rewriting, and then deleting some paragraphs, and then writing those paragraphs again, forever, until I had written the Infinite Jest of three-page essays about anthropology—I had to stop, at some point, and hand the papers in. And if I ever stopped writing those papers, THERE WAS A CHANCE THAT THEY WOULD NOT BE PERFECT. So I looked for ways to increase my writing time. And I looked for quiet places to write and live. And then it hit me: There were 24 hours in the day. And there were a good six or eight of them that most people weren’t even using.

This is how I wound up with insomnia. Because I write, and I learned to write by staying up all night, and writing for as long as possible, until I had to finish the piece out of sheer exhaustion. It was a terrible habit, and bad for me both healthwise and socially, and I found that I couldn’t actually get to sleep before three AM even on nights when I wasn’t working. I don’t recommend it.

But let’s say that you can’t sleep. It happens. Let’s assume you’re doing the responsible thing, here, and you are going to doctors to see if your sleeplessness is a medical problem, and that even if it is not, you are doing nice things to help yourself sleep, like turning off all your lights at a certain hour, and making soothing non-caffeinated tea, and perhaps buying those freaky little melatonin capsules. They do work! But tonight, you’re not sleeping.

I kind of love not sleeping, you guys. I didn’t always. But there actually is something deeply magical about those hours of the day that no one else is using. It’s like you’re the only person in the world. And once you appreciate that, you start thinking about what the Only Person In The World can do. Exactly how weird you can get, when there’s no one around to watch you. For example:

1. The Internet Is a Vast and Magical Resource. Here are some things I know more about than I should: Elephants, and their social structure and behaviors. The history of elephants in captivity, and the abuse thereof, and whether keeping an elephant in a confined space constitutes abuse (it does). Irish and Scottish folklore; Scottish witch trials; witch trials, generally. Guns N’ Roses music videos throughout the years; their relative longness and strangeness; which Guns N’ Roses video has a dolphin dressed up as Axl. Dolphins, and their social structure and behaviors.

All of this, more or less, I owe to insomnia. Also, YouTube. And—SHAME OF SHAMES—Wikipedia surfing. I’m not saying you need to go down the old internet-hole. What I am saying, however, is that there is nobody to stop you. What’s on Netflix Streaming? WHAT ISN’T, my friend? Get out your roommate-considerate headphones, because tomorrow, someone is going to be able to discuss, in great detail, both Doctor Who Christmas specials and the making of The Exorcist, and will also be able to answer the question of whether Satan or William Friedkin was the bigger jerk in that situation. (It’s debatable!) That someone is you.

2. All Art Is Created in Solitude. Well, all art that does not require making noise or moving around too much, anyway. If your preferred art is tap-dancing, you’re out of luck. But I got bad sleeping habits by doing work for other people, and I kept them by doing work for myself. You can write poetry at four AM—in fact, four AM might be the only time when it feels reasonable to write poetry, because when you refer to “the darkness,” you will be referring to something fairly literal, instead of that time you were bummed out at Arby’s. (We refer to that feeling as “being at Arby’s.”) You can keep a very long, and somewhat loopy, journal—it’s actually better to do this at night, if you’re an insomniac, because the entries you write during the day all read “SO TIRED NO SLEEPING WHYYYY.” You can draw. You can sew (by hand; sewing machines, like tap dancing, are forbidden). You can develop a very special relationship with your iTunes library and master various forms of very quiet, restrained dancing. Nighttime is you time. You had really better make your own fun. But there’s something beautiful about the haze you see the world through, late at night, when everything sort of makes sense and sort of doesn’t. It’s a time to pursue all your weirdest little fascinations. Which leads us to:

3. Being a Straight-Up Weirdo. Here’s a shocking recent development: I’ve started meditating. I am a person who meditates, now, sometimes. I am also becoming shockingly prone to doing yoga and shopping at the health food store. I have told someone to notify the authorities if I show any signs of booking a solo trip to Italy, so that I don’t actually take this bus too far and drive right straight to Eat Pray Love Town. But it’s actually been great for me, to have new ways to deal with stress. And I don’t think I would have tried it if I could sleep. Because, here’s the thing: I started meditating, at three in the morning, because I thought it was sort of like sleeping.

Seriously! You know that thing where you’re lying in bed, with your eyes closed, trying to breathe slowly and calm your mind down, and you know it’s not working, because you’re not sleepy? It turns out that the key to meditating is to do that, while sitting up. It gets more complicated sometimes, depending on how you do it. But sitting and breathing is really the main tactic. I had dismissed all this as flaky, and religious, and hippie-like, and all sorts of things that I did not think I wanted to be. But I was doing a version of it every night. So I tried doing it for real. Because I couldn’t sleep, and no one else was around, and no one would ever have to know that I was acting like a straight-up weirdo.

You’re spending a lot of time with yourself, tonight. Try asking yourself how you feel, and what you’re up to, and what might make you happy. And then—even if your answer is sort of weird, or not something you’d expect—try doing it. You might be surprised.

4. There Are Others! So, here’s a place where you’re going to be someday: On your own. You may go to college, or simply get your own apartment. And when that happens, you are going to get the chance to meet the other denizens of the night. No, not vampires! Those don’t exist, silly. You may, however, meet dudes who hang out at coffee shops at four in the morning and claim they are vampires, which I actually met more than one of, when I went off to college.

I had a big social life, in college, that revolved around not sleeping. I knew other people who wanted to be writers; we hung out, and we bonded, and we did it all in the middle of the night, because we were awake together. We visited 24-hour coffee shops. We worked together, and workshopped our poems. We learned the value of night driving—how spooky and intimate every conversation seems, when you’re having it while driving around in a circle on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere. We watched the dawn, in the woods, together, and it was not nearly as twee or pretentious as it sounds. (Which is good, because it sounds like it was recommended by this guy.) I made out in those woods, during that dawn, and it was with the first guy I ever fell in love with.

Oh, that’s one other thing: don’t date anyone that you meet at four in the morning. You are kind of loopy at that hour. Which I found out, when I discovered that this guy was a full-on Hacky-Sacking hippie-pants, of the sort who would tell you he wanted to travel around with you in a van selling handmade jewelry, and also give you a lecture about tantra and “universal love,” which I later found out was code for “trying to hit that with my best friend and/or my best friend’s roommate.” And now, that is my story about the first guy I ever fell in love with. Forever. Don’t date anyone you meet at four in the morning, is the moral here. Let my sad, judgment-impaired example serve as a warning.

But there was a beauty to it. It was all so much weirder than anything that I’d do at ten AM, with a full night’s sleep. I started to enjoy sleeplessness because it was a way to be alone. And I like being alone; I think that it’s essential, at a certain point in your life, to really be OK with solitude. (This is my newly meditate-y self talking; again, if the speedometer goes past “centered” and into “Oprah,” feel free to pull me over and take my keys.) But it’s not always lonely. Outside of your bedroom, there’s a world. And it looks different at night. The people are different, and stranger. The places to go all have that hushed or slightly seedy up-all-night vibe. The possibilities are somehow weirder, and more exciting, than anything available in the day. And it feels great, after all that solitude, to explore them. To find the other people who are with you; to realize that you are all the only people in the world. ♦

40 Comments

  • megan January 20th, 2012 7:25 PM

    It’s currently 00:22 in Scotland (officially living after midnight here guys) and I was going to watch a film but instead I have read this very good article and ended up having a very descriptive conversation with one of my mates about having roast beef and the different sizes of Yorkshire pudding that you can get, although this is also something that would probably still happen even if it was 10am

  • Lora January 20th, 2012 7:29 PM

    This is exactly my story. I am slight taken back. Where I live, it’s just past 1 in the night and I told myself I should not go to bed after 4.

    I usually don’t go to sleep before 3 these days. I’ve always been more of an evening / night person, but now it’s kind of gotten out of hand because of perfectionism. I feel very very guilty if I go to sleep before 2. Even if I don’t even do that much because I’m tired, it still feels like complete failure if I decide to go to bed at 12 or something.
    But in a way, I don’t mind so much either, because like you write, the night is good, magical, silent. In summer I like to take walks around my neighbourhood at night and see the cats, look for burning lights in houses and search for the moon in the sky.

    thank you for writing this.

  • missblack January 20th, 2012 7:35 PM

    Oh my God I agree with literally ever single word of this article. I’ve somehow gotten on this sleep schedule where I stay up until three and sleep in until 11:30 (ah, the benefits of home-schooling) and I actually really love it because even though I’m tired during the day there is nothing like being the only one awake when everyone else is sleeping. It’s like a complete solitude, and it’s way less lonely than actually being home alone.

    Little&Trivial

  • I.ila January 20th, 2012 8:03 PM

    The Doctor Who Christmas Special!!!!! OMG it was amazing.

  • whoopingcrane January 20th, 2012 8:05 PM

    Most of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had have taken place between the hours of 3-5 AM. My roommate and I have had the habit of staying up til the wee hours of dawn, sometimes even all night, and chain smoking while we share parts of ourselves that seem to become clouded during the day. We draw pictures of pieces of butcher paper and try out make up and hair ideas on each other until we both look like terrible 80′s era background dancers. We go on ‘night-walks’ to the nearby 24 hour vegan cafe and slurp down thick coffee and play Trivial Pursuit with strangers.

    And even though I end up feeling a little weird or loopy the next day, I keep doing it. Again and again. I wouldn’t trade my nighttime adventures for the world.

    • whoopingcrane January 20th, 2012 8:06 PM

      *on pieces of butcher paper, whoops!

      only running on 3 hours of sleep here…

      • giov January 23rd, 2012 7:21 AM

        Did you just say 24 hour vegan cafe? Now, that would make my insomnia much more enjoyable.

  • Marguerite January 20th, 2012 8:05 PM

    Oh. My news year’s resolution was to go to church this year, as I am actually Christian, but I haven’t stepped on the property yet, so I think I’ll meditate/pray instead!

  • LucyJ January 20th, 2012 8:35 PM

    It’s 1.30am here – have been sewing tassles onto a dress since about 10. Super tired now, but i kind of like it too!

  • dandylioness January 20th, 2012 8:35 PM

    I don’t really sleep- it’s 2.30am here. And I gotta say, that has led to some of the best and worst descisions of my life. but the biggest end result is a strong coffee addiction and an inabilty to stay awake on Wednesdays. Ever Wednesday. oh and i’m not quite sur why I’m posting this message.. god I’m tired.. oh yeah this article is perfect! it’s nice to have my own thoughts so clearly laid out.. wow that sounds vain. what I mean is that it’s a very nice peice of writing and that I can totally relate

    ho hum ho hummmmmmmmmmm

  • Ruby B. January 20th, 2012 8:58 PM

    I can relate to every word! Even when I have nothing to do, I stay up super late because I love feeling like for a few hours, nothing matters- no stress, no school, no drama, no nothing. Just me, some craft supplies, my laptop, and my Ouija board.

    (PS: Night is the perfect time to play with dolls and nobody will ever know.)

    • caro nation January 21st, 2012 9:54 PM

      Playing with dolls into the wee hours of the night is a good premise for an experimental horror film.

      I’m writing the screenplay.

  • aliceee January 20th, 2012 9:00 PM

    Every night lately I’ve been trying & failing to get to sleep before four am, & in the moment I often hate it– mostly, though, I love being up & alone, uncovering stuff on the internet or writing or drawing or just thinking. At night you can’t really be judged for what you’re doing, because there’s nothing you should be doing. Unless you count sleeping.

  • MissKnowItAll January 20th, 2012 9:19 PM

    Wow, I saw that 60 minutes episode and pretty much thought to myself ” story of my life”

  • sedgwick January 20th, 2012 9:29 PM

    My favourite bit about hanging out while everyone else is sleeping is how quiet I can have the volume of the TV AND still hear it. During the day the volume is always around 30 – 40 but at night I can have it on a mere volume 2 and still hear every joke on Thats So Raven! (disney plays the best TV shows in the wee hours of the morning). It’s like at night I have supersonic hearing. Films with subtitles are also fantastic to watch really late because you don’t need any sound at all!

  • bummersummer January 20th, 2012 9:57 PM

    This is basically my life. There is just something so calming about being up later than I should be and not being judged for whatever it is I am currently doing.

  • Maddy24 January 20th, 2012 11:50 PM

    Did you go into my head and write this from what odd things you found? I think so. Hmm…

  • Lucy January 21st, 2012 1:46 AM

    There is something magical about nighttime. Everything seems to come alive while everyone else is sleeping, and it’s just me. I lose track of time every night discovering all this amazing stuff on the internet. But lately I’ve been re-watching The Mighty Boosh, witch is the most suitable thing to watch late at night.

  • andtheskywasallviolet January 21st, 2012 3:05 AM

    This article was amazing. I have insomnia and i just couldn’t have been easier to relate too! :D xx

  • PlatformShoesBlog January 21st, 2012 2:05 PM

    I don’t go to bed late, but I wake up early :S

  • samhatt January 21st, 2012 5:47 PM

    thanks for this article :) i also take delight in the late night hours of solitude, sometimes i feel as if that’s when everything starts! but i resent when it’s because i’ve put off some major project until the end :P which i do a lot. . .

    http://pretty-in-trivialities.blogspot.com/

  • stellar January 21st, 2012 6:03 PM

    i love how u *own* it…sometimes i think the thing that makes it so hard to do is because deep down we simply don’t want to, and why do it if we really don’t want to? what other reason except that someone else won’t like that or understand your own knowledge of what works for u and what doesn’t? i stopped having problems with “not sleeping” once i realized i was more awake up then and had more time i hadn’t had (and better quality time) earlier. i simple stayed up and did what i didn’t have privacy/inspiration/energy for earlier. and guess what? i felt happier and fell asleep naturally…not being able to go to sleep maybe just means ‘unfinished business’ in the personal happiness/personal time dept.

  • Maddy January 21st, 2012 7:04 PM

    My friend is an amazing artist, like actually legitimately talented not just manga (sorry no offense guys), and she stays up really late starting and finishing big paintings or mixed media stuff. She runs on coffee.

    • Emilie January 22nd, 2012 6:59 PM

      yeeesss your friend sounds like my soulmate

  • FashionHauties January 22nd, 2012 1:03 AM

    This is so true to me! It’s been 1am on the first day of school and I’ve decided to wake up and write an essay that wasn’t due for weeks. And then I blew off work. Still do. Oh joy. Plus the perfection thing. Gosh this is so true!
    http://fashionhauties.blogspot.com

  • SpencerBowie January 22nd, 2012 2:09 AM

    1am here, I work in retail, so I don’t have to go into work untill 3pm most days. That factor plus the middle of the night being the only time I can be alone with my cats on the internet and my parents are snoozeing. It’s bliss.

  • she_never_was January 22nd, 2012 5:02 AM

    it’s 2 am where i am right now and i wouldn’t have it any other way. i love being the night owl that i am. :] this article is great.

  • rebelgrrrl January 22nd, 2012 4:55 PM

    this is my life

  • insteadofanelephant January 22nd, 2012 5:44 PM

    lovely and true. my best (or sometimes my worst) poems are created in the wee hours of the morning. the night is when i feel the most alive, it’s almost like i am more awake at night than during the day

    XX
    instead of an elephant

  • Emilie January 22nd, 2012 6:58 PM

    This article… I love it. It is magical and wonderful, and it makes me reminisce about past nights I have not slept and at the same time makes me think about all the things I will do with future late nights. i. love. it. (and you sady)

  • bellalane January 23rd, 2012 12:17 AM

    My first job I ever had my schedule was 5 pm to 2 am. I’ve never had a “normal” sleep pattern since – and I wouldn’t change a thing. I get so annoyed at those people who think that you have to wake up at the crack of dawn to be a productive, worthwhile member of society, the whole “early bird catches the worm” nonsense. Who wants worms? I want a world that is truly mine for a few hours, someplace hushed and quiet and awesome and full of possibilities.

    Thank you for writing this article. It is perfect. Maybe someday we’ll meet in the middle of the night, have a cup of coffee and swap stories.

  • truepenny January 23rd, 2012 12:26 PM

    I was feeling guilty for staying up until 3am last night writing a blog post on my favourite slackers and burnouts, but now I feel like it was a magical, rewarding experience.

    I know I should try to go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight, but I kind of love my insomnia too.

  • Flower January 23rd, 2012 1:29 PM

    This morning I only got to sleep at 6:30 am, and then I had to get up 1o minutes later, so I’m sure you’ll all be glad to know I’m getting my full 8 hours.

  • richard100 January 23rd, 2012 2:31 PM

    absolutely! love this Sady. similar to my experience. always loved pulling an all-nighter with friends, eg sneaking out to pick strawberries from a local farm age 12-14. Then got worse with me loving movies and the best movies being on tv in the early hours and me thinking “I’ll finish that homework while watching the movie” of course not! By the time first light comes through and the birds start tweeting you’re like, might as well stay up now… There are cons eventually though I don’t regret a moment of my self-inflicted disease. PROS: impressive stamina for nitelife – others get tired I’m fine! That magical time you refer to: wonderful, especially the sounds and the light. Walking empty streets of foreign cities – amazing! Have watched lots and lots of films. CONS: very very hard to get out the habit if temptation to stay up is occasionally there. So my advice is find a job that’ starts after midday.

  • geriballmeow January 24th, 2012 11:55 AM

    I’m a big sleepy-head and always fall asleep as soon as I get in a comfortable position and then I sleep for hours and hours, so I’ve never experienced any of what you describe. A few times when I’ve had to get up super early for a flight or something I’ve marveled at the quietude and eeriness of the night, but for once I think I’m going to drink a couple espressos and try staying awake into the wee hours!

  • isabellehungryghost January 24th, 2012 2:26 PM

    haha, i know that. the most time (if its possible) i work at night. ive got silence, and its just so peaceful.

    http://blogbyisabelle.blogspot.com/

  • hollz January 27th, 2012 4:04 PM

    I always used to go to bed at midnight due to that good ol’ OCD of mine, but then I occasionally started staying up late talking to this guy until 4 am. Now, even if we don’t talk, I’m still awake. There is something very satisfying about listening to The Smiths at 2:30 am when everyone is asleep.

  • Sparkie February 4th, 2012 7:19 PM

    Story of my life . It’s actually 1:16 in France right now, the thing is that I need a lot of sleep otherwise I’m in the worse mood I get REALLY upset REALLY easily haha . But oh well still I love to stay up late every night I do keep my diary and play piano, with earphones on, of course . I build forts and read in them ( yeah I still do that ) . I watch old movies or cat videos on the internet and usually come across some video with IT the clown or the exorcist girl and get really scared, so much that I can’t even go to bed anymore haha . I love that time of the day.. or well of the night, it’s my guilty pleasure :)