Mar 21, 2013 0 Share

Sleepless in Norfolk

Woman with pillow over her head; alarm clock in foreground reading 2:00 a.m.

It sounds strange to say that the most important lesson I learned at the disability and inclusion conference I attended this past weekend in Norfolk, Virginia had nothing to do with the program itself. But nevertheless, it’s true. 

It was 1:00 a.m. last Friday, and I was trying to sleep. Several factors conspired to keep me awake: I was in an unfamiliar place, in a different time zone. I was keyed up from speaking at the conference’s opening banquet; I’d shared stories about my brother Willie, and they’d been well received. And I’d eaten a small dessert, so I had sugar and adrenaline coursing through my veins. Furthermore, I knew that I needed to lead a workshop the next day, so I kept thinking, “I only have so many hours of sleep before my alarm goes off.” But the main reason sleep eluded me was that the people next door had their TV on at top volume. And after I’d done relaxation exercises, put pillows over my head, and fashioned “earplugs” out of Kleenex, it started getting to me. 

Who were these people to be so inconsiderate? I thought. (I’m the kind of person who will use just one wastebasket in my hotel room, so that the cleaning crew won’t need to do extra work.) With every such thought, my anger grew. In fact, it mounted until I felt I might scream or cry. A sense of deja-vu struck me as I lay fuming. Why does this feel so familiar? I wondered. Why do I feel so powerless? Why can’t I call the front desk like a normal person? (Why didn’t I call hours ago?) 

Suddenly, I had it: this reminded me of home. Or at least, home as it was when I was in high school, when Willie started having meltdowns and waking up in the middle of the night screaming and smashing things in his room … the room next door to mine. I used to lie in bed at night and think: How can he do this? Why can’t he get control? Doesn’t he realize how his behavior is hurting everyone? Why can’t we stop this? 

Since I was tired, some deep-down, buried part of my brain took over that night in the hotel. Unconsciously, I’d decided that the best thing to do was what I used to do when Willie would wake up and start yelling in the middle of the night: wait it out. Try not to hear what you hear. Wait for Mom and Dad to come, wait for the struggle to cease. Only get up if it sounds like they need your help. Otherwise, put your pillow over your head, with the knowledge that you can’t change what’s happening. 

The anger I was feeling was old anger. As I lay in the hotel bed, I felt how I used to feel—upset that my sleep and peace were gone, and that there was nothing I could do about it.  

In the midst of this, however, some radical thoughts flitted across my mind. What was true before isn’t true now. What if you had permission to take care of yourself tonight? And what if you could trust that, no matter what, you will get enough sleep? 

But how can five hours be enough?! I thought. 

For tonight, it will suffice. Maybe what’s really keeping you awake is this anger, this learned helplessness. This insomnia is actually an opportunity in disguise; you won’t be able to sleep until you make the choice to let these old “coping mechanisms” go. After all, they’re certainly not serving you now.  

Once I realized this, I was able to act. I stepped out and knocked on my neighbor’s door, asking that they turn the volume down. When minutes passed with no response, I surmised that the inhabitants must be asleep (!). I called the front desk. At last, the volume lowered, and I drifted to sleep. 

When I awoke the next morning, I was tired, but OK. I led the workshop, and it went well. And that afternoon, I went back to my room, put my head down, and went out like a light.