where life's not empty, it's restless.

Restless Brain Syndrome

DSC00853Restless Brain Syndrome: I’ve had it bad lately. Typical onset: about five a.m. Starts with: review of dreams, none of which ever make much sense, but all of which seem to crescendo up to some cliff-hanger moment that wakes me up. I can’t keep swimming this river: there’s no more water! And wait: why am I wearing a slip? Who even wears slips anymore?

From these traumas, my brain moves restlessly towards the saving light of consciousness, only to find a whole new casserole of dilemmas. My husband is right: we’ve got to get rid of that storage unit. It is ridiculous to have a storage unit. Speaking of Rustin, his latest film review ends with him saying he doesn’t think he’ll want to see Lincoln again. I couldn’t agree less.  Speaking of presidents trying to work with congresses, what about that fiscal cliff? Speaking of fiscal cliffs, I fear our checking account may be approaching one…

After enduring this for a while, I start bargaining with my brain. OK, Brain, you’re awake: so let’s stop tossing more leftovers into the casserole and address these food groups one at a time. How about we start by clearing the table of the stuff you can’t personally solve, like the fiscal cliff? In this phase, my restless brain tacks back and forth between wanting to get up and make a to-do list and wanting to cocoon deep into the pillow and see if I could somehow find another five minutes of sleep.

While this Restless Brain syndrome is nothing new for me—or for, oh, billions of other humans—there are seasons when, collectively and individually, we’re more likely to catch it. Like the flu, the restless brain favors winter: it’s dark, it’s cold, we’re cooped up with our worries. The charming ways in which our homes tend to crumble in this climate suddenly matter: a gap in the window frame is now a gateway to an arctic breeze; that tiny paint bubble has morphed into a peeling blister. Deadlines that were far away—fiscal cliff, college application, colonoscopy—suddenly loom like lethal icebergs. And in winter, we spend more time reading, seeing movies, staying on top of the news—all of which is good, but much less conducive to a good night’s sleep than the hiking, swimming, gardening of summer.

Lincoln is very much a brooding, winter film. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays President Lincoln as a man with a crushingly restless brain who paced the halls of the White House, night after night, through the Civil War’s dark seasons of slaughter. Of course he couldn’t sleep. The problems he faced make the fiscal cliff standoff look like teens playing Truth or Dare. What was so moving about watching Lincoln not sleep was: I felt like we could see him turning over every scrap of his own life experience, every trip to every battlefield, every conversation with constitutional scholars, as he worked out what he felt was his defining dilemma: how to ensure that slavery would indeed end—legally, constitutionally, finally—when the war ended.

Now, we have a whole pharmaceutical industry out there, luring us to end our insomnia with this pill or that one. And truly, none of us can not-sleep forever. But I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is: we try to move too quickly through the screen-centric tasks of our days. We don’t allow ourselves time to brood, pace, tell stories, think. So our restless brains make us do it at five in the morning. Maybe it’s not a syndrome. Maybe it’s just—the way we’re wired. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.



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5 thoughts on “Restless Brain Syndrome

  1. i love your “whole new casserole of dilemmas” musings in the middle of the night. sounds like nora ephron, thinking in food. splendid!

  2. Ugh! I totally had restless brain syndrome last night. My son woke up with a nightmare at 1:45 and it was hours before I got back to sleep. I lay there thinking, which generally, for a short while, I do enjoy, the quiet dark house, time to hang out with me, but then I wanted to go back to sleep and political dilemmas I can’t solve and whatever else creep back in. I think you’re onto something about the “moving too quickly.” Thanks for the post, Liza

  3. Ten or 12 years ago I discovered Tylenol PM. Probably saved my marriage (among other things)! But I wondered about it, despite my doc telling me it wasn’t a problem. It just bugged me to be reliant on two little blue pills to knock myself out. Nightly. For a decade.

    Then, one night about six months ago, I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. My last thoughts were “Hey, you forgot to take your little blue pills.” The night I thought I’d give it a try again. Haven’t needed them since, though I have to be careful about getting overstimulated late at night. Like not listening too closely to Road Songs 😉

    • Yes. At Thanksgiving I ended up huddled in the bathroom with another female guest comparing notes on lack of sleep and remedies. I was showing her a tincture, a couple of herbal supplements, and theorizing loss of estrogen as a culprit. I now do so many things to achieve a good night’s sleep: complete elimation of all caffeine (including chocolate!!!), turning off all screens fairly early in evening, focusing on music or light reads for the later part of the evening, reducing light and sound – it is quite the list. And during the winter I still wake up around 4 or 5 and sometimes the brain just won’t quit. Meditating or journalling seems to help in those desperate times which supports your suggestion, Ann, that more reflective time might be needed. I really love the quiet time in the dark and it’s hard to get during the day. My soul settles down happily and I usually can go back to sleep for a last hour or two deeply relaxed. Not a habit I want to set, but definitely an occasional beautiful respite that eases the frantic conversation whirling in the wee hours of the morning.

  4. Natasha on said:

    Hmm, very good point about needing, yet not having/taking, the time to think.

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