it's complicated

I Can Only Sleep When I’m Alone

Photo: Stanton Stephens/Getty Images/Image Source

It’s 4 a.m. when I drag my exhausted body out of my new boyfriend’s bed and wrap a blanket around my tired, creaky shoulders. They are so tense they like crack like kindling when I move. I tiptoe down the stairs and settle into his basement couch where finally, I feel my whole body melt. Here, I know I’ll finally drift off. I should’ve called it earlier, but I was too worried about what it meant. So instead I tossed and turned next to him for hours. I jostled him, rearranged the pillows, took an anxiety pill, and then another, before finally admitting defeat.

I don’t mind sleeping on couches. I’ve grown used to sleeping on couches. It’s what it means that bothers me. For the last few years of my marriage, the basement couch in my family home became my safe place to escape to on my routine sleepless nights. While I had never been a great sleeper, my restlessness became even more aggravated by the struggles in my relationship.

In the worst of times, I tried everything to set myself up for good sleep in my bed, next to my husband. I’d exercise, meditate, do yoga, eat my greens and pop melatonin. There was simply no good trick that could see me through. No path around my brutal, anxiety-driven insomnia.

Finally, I stopped fighting it altogether: I went to the doctor and got a prescription. Each night when I placed the anxiety meds on my tongue and washed it down, I did so without remorse. Still, even with the help of medication, I could only fall asleep when alone. So, I chose the couch that was covered in dog hair and smelled like dog breath instead of a bed next to my husband.

Sometimes, I’d ask him to go downstairs. And during the last year of our marriage, he stopped coming in our bedroom at all. He practically lived out of the basement, bringing his clothes for the next day downstairs with him. It seemed like the only time I saw him was in the morning, when we passed one another in the kitchen, and maybe for an hour before bed if he wasn’t working late.

Sleeping separately seemed to foretell the beginning of the end. After a year of separate sleeping, maybe more, my husband and I rented out a tiny basement apartment that reeked of mildew. We swapped in and out of it to make things easier for the kids for the next six months. I kept on taking my nightly drug, convinced I’d always need it.

Then, my husband found a permanent place to live. He moved out completely. And in the same week, as intense as the experience of watching him move was, somehow, that first night, I fell asleep on my own. Somehow, in the midst of the madness, I started to sleep better than I had since even before my kids were born. I stopped taking the nightly drug that had helped me doze off for nearly a year and a half, cold turkey. I knew I’d never sleep soundly all the time. But for the most part, it was no longer the intense nightly struggle it had become as a married mother in my early 30s. I thought that perhaps along with the end of my marriage, I’d finally put my sleeping issues to bed.

Only now that I’m in a new relationship, sleeplessness has found me again. I still can’t fall asleep next to a man, even a man I truly love and want to be with. My relationship is still relatively new. It’s an infant, or maybe a toddler. It needs to be nurtured.

I want so badly to embrace our time together, even when we’re sleeping. But I almost never can. Even though we’re still in the head-over-heels, rainbows and butterflies phase, I can’t sleep next to him no matter what I do. Even though I’m happy and at ease when we’re together, I’m not when it comes time to rest my head. Mostly, when I lie down next to him, I feel the same panicked feeling I grew so used to in my marriage. And I know sleep isn’t going to come.

After just coming off of a marriage where the end of my ability to sleep was a telltale sign that it was the end of us, I fixate on this. I wonder what it means. I’m terrified that perhaps something is off with our relationship, something I can’t yet see, but my body somehow already knows. It just feels so familiar. Sleeplessness is for the end of relationships, not the beginning, I think. I feel a bit like a failure. Why can’t I do something that is so simple for most people and a staple of most relationships?

But then I wake up on the couch in the morning and stretch my limbs. And I feel differently. While in my marriage, I still woke up in knots, wondering what arguments or tension the day would bring, I feel calm, yet eager. Before I’ve even cracked my eyes open, a smile spreads across my face. It’s the same smile that’s been there for the past few months. It’s the sign of a happy, fulfilling relationship. And it matters so much more than where I go to sleep or wake up.

The truth is that even if I have to sleep alone, I still can find my way to sleep these days, and that’s what really matters. I might never sleep great next to a warm body again. I’m mostly okay with that. I’m a flawed human with ingrained habits, and baggage, a history of anxiety and a touch of insomnia. I’d love the ability to fall asleep easily next to the man I love. But I’d much rather enjoy him when I’m awake. Sleeping alone might be just settling into who I am and learning to give deep, profound respect to what I need. Besides, there is almost no better feeling than waking up and being excited to see someone who is waiting for you.

I lie on the couch for a few minutes and exist in that feeling. Wanting someone who is just upstairs, wanting me. I wrap the blanket back across my shoulders, creak back through the house, and collapse into him. We are both smiling. There is nothing to fix here just yet. We have all the makings of a happy partnership. We still have love, sex, intimacy, and pillow talk. Having our own space, even if it means separate bedrooms, doesn’t change that. For me, sleeping on my own makes it so much better. From now on, I’m going to embrace it and rest easy.

I Can Only Sleep When I’m Alone