Sleep has never come easy for me. As a little girl, I would stay up until the late hours of the night, worrying silently about any harm that might befall my family. I was never afraid of ghosts or the dark. I was afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning and house fires and home intruders and falling trees. When the thoughts of disaster became too much for me to handle, I would creep into my parents’ room in my pajamas and timidly touch my mother’s hand as it lay on the covers.
“I can’t sleep,” I would whisper. With practiced resignation, my dad would roll out of his side of the bed and go sleep in mine. He had to work in the morning, and he needed to rest. But my mom understood how it felt to be awake and afraid. And so she would sit up in the dark, her long hair a straight curtain of ash blonde, and begin to talk me down from whatever ledge I was standing on.
I’m 29 now. Every night, I sleep in a bed with two dogs and one bearded man. My husband is a heavy sleeper, and sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I try to match my breathing to his slow and steady inhales, his peaceful exhales. If he isn’t home, I put my hand on my black dog’s stomach and count her heartbeats, letting that interior rhythm of life lull me into comfort.
I have insomnia, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is my anxiety. It eats at my brain like a starving rat. It swarms in my head like a hive of bees. It is ever-present, and it is exhausting.
I have tried to calm my overactive mind in myriad ways. I drink tea, I do yoga. I take baths and I sit on the beach (water, I’ve learned, is one of my most powerful anxiety killers). I go to therapy and I take medication. They all work to some extent or another, but nothing is foolproof. There are still nights when I can’t sleep, still days where I feel paralyzed by fear.
It has taken years for me to say these words out loud: I have anxiety and clinical depression. These are hard things to say out loud, because there is a very real stigma against mental illness. Or admitting any kind of perceived weakness, truly. We live in a world where winning all the time is expected and those who doubt or worry or stumble are devalued. We’re not supposed to show our vulnerable underbellies, even though these are often the softest, most beautiful parts of a person.
Over the years, I have met many other women who struggle with their own thoughts. “I would never have expected that from you,” they sometimes say. And I say the same thing back to them. I tell these smart, talented, beautiful friends of mine that I would never have known they were struggling—yet I’m glad I know. We’ve all worked so hard to put up scaffolding around ourselves, to create hard shells that we hide underneath. But I have a theory about what happens when you do that: You wind up scurrying around like a cockroach, unable to see the sky. Your shell is intact, but your world is made smaller.
There’s another danger, too. My family has been horrifically marked by suicide. I’ve lost far too many loved ones to something so awful. And you know what people say about victims of suicide? “I never even knew they were struggling.”
For the past few years, I’ve worked hard to take care of myself. But all the yoga and tea in the world will never equal the power of words. When we talk about our fears and our problems, we close the gap between people. We invite empathy into our lives. Each true word we say acts like a thread, a thing that can tie us more closely together.
I want to thread my life with these words, and I want to pull my community closer to me. That, I think, may someday help me sleep at night. Until then, I have heartbeats and chamomile and long baths. And for now, that is enough.
Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor who lives in Buxton with two dogs and one husband.