Post- Magazine

white noise [narrative]

seeking comfort in lieu of sleep

Maybe I’m sitting at the dinner table, feeling the warmth of the tea mug and the crumbs on the tablecloth. My brother might be beside me, still eating—methodical as a surgeon. My mother is  probably ribbing him for sleeping until the afternoon, and between bites, he defends himself: “It took me so long to fall asleep last night.” Or maybe it’s approaching bedtime, and there are people talking outside my room, with errant lilts sneaking in under the door. What if they aren’t quiet soon?

Insomnia is always in the background. It causes a rush in my chest, distracting me from the surrounding banter. (Soon I’ll need to brush my teeth, which feels like putting on battle armor.) The word loses meaning as I repeat it over and over in my mind. By dissolving it into nothing, maybe I can weaken the word so that sleep will dissolve me into nothing too.


Inhabiting myself has consequences. As I prepare to go to sleep, I arrange my surroundings with care. First, I turn on the big white box fan, positioning it so the airflow is parallel to my body (its low-pitch hum masks cars-stopping-at-stop-sign sounds). Then I roll earplugs between my fingers and slot them into my ears. Finally, I play white noise through noise-cancelling headphones that go over the earplugs, artfully arranging a blanket around the bulky headphones so I can sleep on my side. 



But auditory control measures aren’t always beneficial. The more you block out unexpected sounds, the more sensitive you become to them, even to the unobtrusive ones. My defensive layers are the logical conclusion of an arms race with the heating-turning-on noise and the footsteps-overhead noise and the what-the-hell-is-that noise. And, when it’s naturally silent and I try to sleep without my armor, the room remains charged with the potential for sound—even if it’s just the insidious drum of my own heartbeat in my ear. This is why I like white noise: It’s beautifully predictable, full yet empty.


For me, sounds cause insomnia, and insomnia is self-perpetuating. Leafing through the past four years of awake-with-the-owls journal entries, I recognize this cycle. My handwriting falls off the lines in most of the pages, bearing descriptions of frustration, and the pursuit of comfort despite it. In a moment of inspiration, I search for the words “sleep” and “tired” and “insomnia” in my text history, and look through messages sent at all hours. I bore myself. Every insomnia-long night is a journey of frustration and despair and clarity; with it come roughly five changes of location, an hour of sleep here and there. And it’s always the same. 

Naive text sent on September 2, 2019 (three days after freshman year move-in): “I haven’t managed to sleep past 7 yet.”


When I started at college, I journaled about how the bright New England morning light shone in too early through my window, and how the garbage trucks were all beepy and vroomy outside. Even with my small black fan drowning out common-room-laughing sounds, I was often up at night. I tried not to disturb the sleeping roommate-lump as I read Plato’s Republic, my phone flashlight tucked partly under the covers to make it even dimmer.

Online questionnaire completed hastily at 4:30 a.m.: do you have problems with sleep onset, sleep maintenance, or early morning awakening?
Answer: all of the above.

During sophomore year, I thought I would sleep better in the predictability of my quarantine routine. I found “11 hours of sleep sounds” on Spotify, a playlist of two- and three-hour tracks of white noise. You can hear the gap between the tracks if you’re awake, a small but startling break. And I was awake, with a looming physics midterm, and my dorm-room-centered life providing no distraction. I did practice problems for hours—the same problems day after day, failing to remember how I’d done them before. Midterm grade: C.

Attempting to deal with the fallout of insomnia-induced irritability: “Okay so I feel like I tried to apologize during the call but then just made an excuse. So I’m sorry and will do better.”


Come summer, I was working in a lab. I wanted to use my early mornings to get ahead on experiments, but the lab building wasn’t always unlocked then. I circled its periphery, tugging on inscrutable doors in the cool quiet hours, feeling an automatic bond with anyone else I saw (you too, huh?). Later, I walked home in crushing heat. My hair was greasy from days without showering, my lab jeans were chafing, and I was utterly spent. (Dear housemate who often washed my dinner plates, thank you and I’m sorry). 

A summer journal entry: “Today has much more clarity. Also, I’m so tired.”


By then I had learned to be afraid as new semesters approached, since reading on little sleep is difficult. You finally get your eyes set up so they’re aimed at the page, and then you’re Googling different species of monkeys, and getting angry that your attention span is roughly two seconds. It’s so easy to forget that it’s not always been this way. 

(Still, I don’t want to mislead: Lots of good things can poke through a layer of fatigue. You can be really happy, a brain-dead Mona Lisa smiling and feeling incredibly grateful for the overwhelming abundance of her life.)


Through the years, I have become a student of my insomnia. I am attuned to fine-grained distinctions between the haze of two, four, or six hours of sleep. Through observation, I have formulated rules that I wrap around myself like an extra blanket (things will improve once you just get through the morning; time can banish even seemingly immortal insomnia spells). And, staring at the fuzzy green lights inside my eyelids, I have devoted much thought to why being awake right now is unpleasant. 

Maybe it’s because I’m divided within—by which I mean, often the only way to sleep is to trick myself. I will go and lie down in my friend’s room, feeling the hard floor through the poofy winter coat I’ve spread on the ground. I tell myself I’m just awake-resting: Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to fall asleep here? Then I doze off. Or, if it’s 5 a.m. and I can’t sleep, I get ready for the day. Shivering from the early morning temperature drop, I brush my teeth in the not-fully-night dimness and take clothes from my dresser, even though I can’t quite make out the colors. By the end of my morning preparations, sometimes I am emptied out of the intent to sleep, and am thereby insomnia-proof. I climb into bed, pull blankets over my day-clothes, and nap for a bit.

Amidst this outwardly invisible mental maneuvering, I wonder, who am I? Maybe I am the one who thinks, “I’m trying not to fall asleep on this borrowed floor”; maybe I am the one who knows that’s the whole reason I knocked on the door. Maybe I am trapped in a night-watch body that won’t sleep; maybe my poor sleep-deprived body is trapped by my mind. Maybe I am the tired person who can’t always reign in her nonspecific seething; maybe I am the well-rested person who exists between bouts of insomnia.

This is who I want to be: an annotates-the-reading student who goes on runs in brisk air while the sunlight is still gentle. 


And maybe there is a way to fit these pieces of myself together. Even if fatigue has material consequences, even if I keep waging my campaign against noise, maybe I can stop trying to cut my insomnia out from my being. 

At the end of one of many tiring days in the lab-job summer, my family picked me up in the parking lot outside the lab building. At a table outside a restaurant, the world illuminated by the clarifying mellow light of sunset, I mentioned my sleeping problems. Looking reflective, my mother told me a story. “Once upon a time, when you were an infant, we couldn’t get you to go to sleep. We did everything we could—we carried you around the block for hours—but nothing worked until we played wave sounds on the battery-powered white-noise machine.”

Was this why I found white noise so comforting, all this time later? I could see baby-me, bundled up in a stroller in the supermarket, unable to sleep because all the shopping-cart-rolling noises were aimed at her ears. I could see her parents driving her home and refilling her head with the ocean as she drifted off, baby-drool oozing from her mouth. 

The sameness of insomnia has long been frustrating; every time I thought it might be over, the saga began anew. But, the sameness can also be relieving. As I listen to white noise, even if I’m lying awake, I remember that my sleeplessness has persisted within me since my infant days, and—in a way—that is comforting. 

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