Why I Can’t Sleep or Once Upon a Mattress by
(285 Stories)

Prompted By Sleepy Time

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One of my favorite fairy tales is The Princess and the Pea. If you don’t remember it, the queen is trying to find a true princess to marry her son. She devises a test in which a pea is placed under mattresses piled so high, one on top of another, that only a true princess is sensitive enough to feel the pea. As is the way with fairy tales, a girl in rags is the one to pass the test, reporting that she was unable to sleep all night because she could feel a small lump in her bed. Perhaps that’s my problem?

I have a long history of poor sleep. When I was still working, a colleague and I used to joke that we should have called one another at 4:00 a.m. because we were both up at ridiculous o’clock every day.

We need a new mattress. Things have changed quite a bit in Mattress Land since the days when we bought a mattress and box spring and put them on a metal bed frame. Mattresses have become thicker and heavier. So heavy, in fact, that older folks like us struggle to make our bed without throwing out our backs. We selected one that will fit on the adjustable bed frame we already have, and I have convinced myself that once it arrives, I will sleep soundly for seven to eight hours, waking up only once to use the bathroom.

That’s probably not going to happen because I have a long history of poor sleep. When I was still working, a colleague and I used to joke that we should have called one another at 4:00 a.m. because we were both up at ridiculous o’clock every day. I’m not sure she still has the same sleep problems now that we are both retired, so, in lieu of calling her, I tried to lull myself back to sleep early this morning by reading An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

When I read this passage, I realized that Alameddine nailed my dilemma:

“Why is it that at an age when we need the curative powers of slumber most we least have access to it? Hypnos fades as Thanatos approaches.”

Or, in less elegant terms, a paradox for seniors — the older we get, and the more tired we are, the less well we sleep. My husband and I often begin the day with an important question – did you sleep? Of course, we did sleep some, but what we mean is a series of questions that describe the quality of that sleep. What time did you fall asleep? How many times did you wake up during the night? What time were you up for good?

Shakespeare must have had similar sleep issues. As I lay awake most of last night, my mind drifted and the former English teacher part of me recalled his words:

From Hamlet:
“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”

From Macbeth:
“Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

From Henry IV:
“O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”

From The Tempest:
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Of course, in many of these famous quotes, Shakespeare is confounding Hypnos (sleep) with Thanatos (death). But let’s not go there. For now, I’ll take them out of context as they roll through my too-busy mind that refuses to yield to a reasonable amount of sleep.

When I was younger, late night celebrations or crying babies stole sleep from me. Next, worry crept into my bed. It’s 1:00 a.m. and where is my teenaged child who promised to be home by midnight? How will I solve this huge problem at work tomorrow?

Now, I’m not sure what continues to wake me at 2:31 a.m. (a time when there is still the possibility of drifting back to sleep) or 4:25 a.m. (a time when some folks have noticed I may post a blog piece). Sure, I still can find tons of things to worry about, but I think my problem is more like the one described by Alameddine’s main character, Aaliya. I need those curative powers of a good night’s sleep, but as I age, they elude me. If I don’t get enough sleep, I know I will crash in the late afternoon. Or if that is not possible, I will fall asleep at 7:30 p.m. watching a PBS mystery, with my husband prodding me every five minutes to wake up so I don’t miss the brilliant plot twists and turns. And me grumping that I don’t care.

Last night was a perfect example of my struggles with sleep. I slept for about 90 minutes, waking up because I had to use the bathroom. I’m not sure I ever fell back asleep, spending much of the night with Shakespearean quotes and earworm songs running through my head. I tried reading in another room for a bit, yet I was still up by 4:50 a.m., ready to start my morning exercise routine while watching a taped Rachel Maddow Show from last night and delighting in Tucker Carlson’s demise.

Shakespeare really understood the issue of poor sleep. Maybe he was such a prolific writer because he was a bit of an insomniac. My dance with sleep is pretty close to watching Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, desert me just when I need him the most to make it through the day. Of course, Hypnos carried opium, poppies, and the water of forgetfulness with him. All I had was a good book that made me even more alert.

I’m sure I will once again drift off early this evening watching something we recorded on our DVR. Then, I will wake up in time to go to sleep and have a hard time falling asleep. If I’m lucky, I will only get up once and fall back asleep until 5:00 a.m. I guess I’m the poster child for poor sleep hygiene. Despite knowing this, I just continue to rinse and repeat.

Maybe to sleep like a baby I need to sleep with one?

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Sorry for your insomnia Laurie, but it did give you a wonderful and wonderfully written story!

    And thank you for those Shakespearean quotes!
    We had a favorite restaurant for years – sadly now closed – called The Raveled Sleeve!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, I am right there with you! I’ve seen 4:45am on the clock way too often lately and I was the teenager who drove my mother crazy, sleeping until noon. And I do tend to nod off while watching TV, then I have to go back and watch the 10 minutes or so that I’ve missed because I slept through some major plot point. My husband (ruefully) jokes that between us, we get one good night’s sleep. Wishing you a good night’s sleep soon!

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