The Origins of Insomnia

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Warning: This post talks about child sexual abuse.

I sometimes wonder if I’ve ever had a good night’s sleep.

When I was an infant, I had pneumococcal meningitis. Bacteria was trying to eat my brain and spinal cord. The only way I could make anyone aware of this was by crying all the time. My mom tells me that she lost a lot of sleep because of me.

When I was a kid, we spent every summer at a hunting cottage on a lake that my great-great grandfather built in the north woods of Michigan. It didn’t have a proper door when he built it, just a heavy tarp, until one night during a game of poker, a huge black bear came in and made himself at home. My great-great grandfather let off a shotgun in his own house. The bear sauntered off unharmed and a door that locked was installed the next day.

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For seven years, that cottage was idyllic. It was surrounded by woods and the front yard was a lake. We had boat rides and swims. We built forts in the woods and took long bike rides. It was heaven to a kid.

And then he ruined everything.

Our next door neighbors, several acres away, had their son come up for the summer. He was a sadistic pedophile. Every night, he came to the window right next to the bed where I slept. He scratched at the screen and tauntingly whispered my name.

Since the place was designed as a hunting cabin for armed adult males in the middle of practically nowhere, it wasn’t built with security in mind. My great-great grandfather built it to keep insects and bears out, not pedophiles. The screens on the windows were held in place on the outside with a couple of eye hooks. They were easily removed by animals with thumbs.

Once he realized that removing the screen was as easy as that, the taunting turned into more. He would still come to my window every night and scratch at it, whispering my name, before he removed the screen and pulled me out of bed by my ankle. He’d take me to a little guest house on his property, in between my house and his, where no one could hear. I wanted to burn it down.

I thought I just had to survive the summer and it would be over. Little did I know that my family had invited the monster to live in our home downstate. The monster was just down the hall. I didn’t even have a window screen to protect me anymore.

Since then, I’ve had trouble sleeping on the ground floor. I can’t sleep at all next to a window unless it’s in a skyscraper and even then, I prefer not to be anywhere near a window. I sleep with my bedroom door locked.

The house I live in now is a ranch house, all of it sitting squarely on the ground. I put blackout curtains on the windows and bookcases in front of them. I pretend there are no windows in my room at all. My bed is in an awkward position, farthest away from the windows. I sleep with a baseball bat between my bedside table and bed.

Rationally, I know that the odds of someone reaching through my window again are very slim, but sleep is not rational. Sleep is when you are most vulnerable. You are unprotected. I can’t stand being unprotected. I put the blackout curtains and bookcases in front of the windows so that my subconscious brain feels safe. My subconscious brain is the part responsible for sleep, so I do everything I can to make it feel comfortable. It doesn’t really work that well.

Fingernails on screens give me panic attacks. Being tied up or restrained in any way gives me panic attacks. Waking up in the middle of the night to a noise in the house gives me panic attacks. The slightest noise wakes me and most of the time, with my heart racing, I can’t fall back to sleep. Just writing this has given me that odd, metallic taste of adrenalin and my fingers are shaking.

I’m an insomniac. I don’t remember ever not being an insomniac. He stole so much from me, but the worst thing he took was my ability to sleep. He made me feel unsafe forever. I will never know what it’s like to feel completely safe. When I am sleeping, I am at my most vulnerable. I sleep in a fetal position, instinctively keeping me legs out of his reach.

This post started off as something completely different and morphed into this. These things come out when I least expect them, but I think it’s good that they do.