My wife, Nicole, and I just stare at our bedroom ceiling, praying for Jillian to get a cold so we can pump her full of Baby Nyquil. Vigilantly, we listen through the wall for the tiniest sniffle, a whisper of a cough, and when we hear one, we sing: “Jillian’s gonna sleep tonight! We’ll fill her full of medicine and sedate her against her will!” And then we give her a decongestant (commonly used in the production of meth) and it causes Jillian to tweak harder than a trucker with an eight-ball. Shirtless, she flips over all the furniture in her room, as if to announce, “I need space to practice my nunchucks!”
And so it goes, our daughter’s nightly blitzkrieg. When she finally crashes, she literally crashes. Entering her room in the morning, we find Jillian wherever she was when sleep overtook her: in the corner, behind the dresser, on the windowsill. The sound of her falling to the floor in an unconscious lump might be sweet if it weren’t also accompanied by the tweets of birds greeting dawn.
Jillian’s insomnia has left her mother and me in a zombified state of sleep deprivation. There are three things a human needs to stay alive: food, water and sleep. I would gladly forgo the first two for a week in exchange for just one night of uninterrupted slumber. Lack of sleep messes with your head. You walk through your day in a cloud. A foul, hateful cloud. My wife and I begin to hate our lives. We hate each other. We hate the nighttime and we hate the daytime. Once someone at work caught me getting testy and said, “Before you act in anger, sleep on it.” I laughed. Then I ripped his lungs out.
If the sleep problem is ruining us, it’s wrecking Jillian. Waking her in the morning is like trying to rouse an especially surly seventeen-year-old. “GO AWAY,” she shouts, yanking the comforter over her head. Gently peeling the blanket back only provokes wild haymaker swings that often connect. Once the kid is on her feet, Nicole and I must work together to pour her limp body into clothes. Jillian cries, “I hate you! I wanna go back to bed!” Her teachers at pre-school have complained: “We can’t get her to focus,” “She’s upset and uncooperative all day long.” Jillian gets so painfully tired and yet every night there’s another after-hours rave. No matter how little sleep she gets, she still won’t go to bed.
Nicole and I have worked every angle: we’ve established routines, creating a ritual around the bedtime process. We’ve read volumes of bedtime stories to her. I’ve lain next to her on the floor for hours, waiting for her to drift off. We cut out TV and liquid before bedtime. We excised her naps and weathered the storms of irritability that ensued. Then I just begged. Together, Nicole and I have read every parenting book we could get our hands on, scanning for some yet undiscovered trick. When none of that worked, I got punitive. First, I struck all Jillian’s toys from her room. Then I took away all the decorative pillows. Then went the CD player with her lullaby music (fat good that was doing). I even took pictures off the wall. I stripped the room bare to eliminate all distractions. It made her mad, but it didn’t make her want to sleep.
By now, I am just about sick of advice. Nothing works. Then, an acupuncturist friend of ours, unaware that I am no longer taking suggestions, recommends we try giving Jillian melatonin.
“Melatonin?” I say skeptically. “You mean an herb?”
“No,” our Zen friend replies. “It’s a hormone.”
“Oh. Witchcraft.” This girl is nice, but she plans her week by astrological charts, so I tend to take her advice with a grain of not-crazy. I am not one for holistic medicine. I trust hard, pharmaceutical drugs with extensive clinical trials. If it hasn’t been injected into a rat’s eyeball or been injested by thousands of monkeys, I can’t take it seriously.
“Actually, my pediatrician suggested it,” our friend adds, as if using her voodoo to read my thoughts. I run this by our pediatrician and she says, surprisingly, that it’s worth a shot. “In some studies,” our doctor explains, “melatonin appeared to help regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle. It works in kids with autism.” Yikes, I think, let’s not start talking about autism.
But Nicole wants to try it. “What could it hurt?”
The next night, we drag Jillian through her regular bedtime ritual, but this time there is one milligram of melatonin at the end of it. “It’s a magic vitamin,” I tell Jillian, who is suspicious of anything medicine-like. The magic vitamin is accompanied by magic juice, a.k.a. watered-down cranberry cocktail. After the last story is read and all unctions are administered, I softly close Jillian’s door behind me. Jillian passes out at 8 p.m. At 8:03, I All of my parenting efforts were nothing compared to that simple little pill.faint from shock. Melatonin stopped Jillian’s sleep trauma dead in its tracks. The following night, lightning strikes twice. And then again. And again.
During the many serene evenings that follow, my wife and I don’t know what to do with ourselves. We couldn’t even imagine such peace, such quiet. I am awash in relief I feel I haven’t earned. In the end, what did I do to fix Jillian? I threw my entire parenting arsenal at the sleep problem – strategizing, studying, plotting – and it didn’t make a dent. All of my parenting efforts were nothing compared to that simple little pill. I can’t help but feel a little powerless. But now that I sleep soundly and wake to a smiling, rested child, I think I can learn to live with this witchcraft in the pill bottle.