Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Why Are You Up? - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Why Are You Up?.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


Mary: Hi Nora. You asked, “It's 2 a.m., and what is keeping you up at night?” Well, it's 3 a.m. here in Denmark, Copenhagen. And what kept me up was your latest episode of TTFA. No, just kidding. 

I’m Nora McInerny, and I am a bad sleeper. I am recording this after two hours of sleep last night, from roughly 4:15-6:15. I got a little shut eye.

I don’t mean to be like this. I don’t TRY to be like this. I go to bed every night with the intention of falling asleep for eight uninterrupted hours, waking refreshed with the rising sun and the chirping birds, ready to have a good day.

And before you ask, I do all the things that every expert has suggested. I keep my phone in another room. Sometimes, at least. I don’t drink any caffeine after 9 a.m. and I take my adderall before noon … usually. I have a bedtime routine sort of. 

And I write in a journal and I exercise sometimes and I know exactly how important sleep is because I saw that TED talk, too! I know not sleeping makes me dumber and maybe could cause dementia? And will generally kill me. SURPRISINGLY, that doesn’t make it easier for me to fall asleep.

It also doesn’t help that I am married to a person who falls asleep with zero effort, sometimes after chugging a cup of coffee or eating a bowl of ice cream. My husband IS A MONSTER. The moment he lays down, he is basically asleep. And just not asleep, but sleeping FLAGRANTLY. Snoring like a cartoon with the little Zzz coming out of his mouth. Disgusting, disgusting stuff.

And when I see him, luxuriating in a REM cycle while I’m stuck in an anxiety cycle, I do want to kill him. I do want to. I don’t. 

I have been like this since I was a child. Not murderous but, some nights, I just don’t sleep. I just don’t sleep.

Sometimes I’m just too sad to sleep? Or too angry. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m sure that everything is falling apart around me and it’s somehow my fault, so how could I sleep? How could I sleep knowing that? I’m anxious about things that have already happened, which is weird, or things that might conceivably happen someday … which is also not very helpful.

But it’s not always anxiety or feelings that keep me up. Sometimes my body just will not shut off. My brain will not wind down. THC, CBD, Melatonin? They are useless in the face of this insomnia. So, I’ll just be up. I’ll watch the sun rise in the sky and feel so strange that a new day is starting when the other one never really ended for me.

I have no control over when this happens. There is no real pattern to it, no clear cause and effect. I’m just … up.

And on many of these nights, like last night, I’ve opened up my Instagram account and asked if you are up. And why. And you all have your own reasons, too.

I don’t know when you’re listening to this, but we are releasing this one in the middle of the night … just in case you’re up right now and you need it.

Molly: The truth is, like, I have so many things that I could say are keeping me up at night. I'm a 32-year-old single woman who's been taking care of my mom full-time. My mom has Parkinson's dementia. I'm like, working full-time. I'm doing this all by myself. You know, I'm kind of freaked out that, you know, I'm kind of like, spending this important time in my life, like kind of just, alone in my house with my mom, like not meeting anyone. I'm starting the process to freeze my eggs next week. Like, we got a lot going on. But honestly, the thing that really derailed me tonight was that I forgot to buy the correct shape of pasta that will not fall off the fork for my mom's dinner. And so I thought you might have a little giggle out of the fact that despite the, you know, the world being on fire and me having an uncertain future and living with the heartbreak and the stress of caregiving and having a full-time job and all of these things, like the shit that like, really got under my skin tonight was that, like, I bought like, the tiny shell pasta instead of like, fusilli, like spirally pasta. And that meant that I had to feed my mom with a spoon instead of a fork. And it took like an hour and a half for her to eat like a handful of pasta with canned vodka sauce.Things are not great, but things can always get worse girl, you know. Things can always get worse. You can always choose the wrong kind of pasta. But at least I didn't get angel hair. Am I right?

Caroline: I just had a baby in November of 2020, and I can't stop thinking about the state of the world. I think I'm just predisposed to like, anxiety and being nervous in general. But I’ve had a harder time now with bringing my daughter into the world thinking about the intentional space that I've brought her in, and how I'm making it better, and how I failed to make it better. And the crazy thing is like, my mom had four kids, and she started with me when she was 20 years old. And I asked her, you know, “Did you worry about the world that you brought us into in the world you're sending us to?” And she said she never thinks about that, and she never has thought about it. It just ... she had kids, and that was that. And that's crazy to me, because I can't stop thinking about climate change and COVID and, you know, her first heartbreak. And my grandpa died a month after  she was born and three days after my birthday. And, you know, I think about that loss and how gutted I felt, and that she'll feel that one day for people that she loves. I feel so alone in that. I wonder if other people feel that way about the tiny, vulnerable, sweet little human beings that we bring into this world. 

Emma: What keeps me up at night? Well, a more accurate question would be what doesn't keep me up at night? Recently, since the reemergence of the Delta variant has come to rear its ugly head, it has been the fact that my immunocompromised, cancer-diagnosed boyfriend is unable to get vaccinated, because it just really wouldn't do him any favors. It wouldn't make him immune. And that is not enough for some of the people that are very, very close to us to get vaccinated. That is not enough of a reason for them to put their trust and their hope into this vaccine. And it's not even for just John. It's for other people with cancer and other people who are immunocompromised and grandparents and kids so that they can go back to school and stay in school. And nurses like me, who literally dread going to work every single day because I don't want to be put through what COVID has been putting us through for the last God knows how long. I lost track at this point. I have anxiety over going to work myself and contracting it myself. And although I'm fully vaccinated and have been for nearly nine months at this point, I am afraid that I will still get it and I will still pass it to him, because I won't realize that I have it. And this isn't just your run-of-the-mill anxiety, this is anxiety that has turned into horrible, terrible fear of losing the person I love — not to cancer, but to COVID. Like, hundreds of thousands of millions of people have lost people to COVID, I don't want to lose my boyfriend, who is kicking cancer's fucking ass, to succumb to something like COVID that can be prevented. So, yeah, that was heavy. But that's why I am a frequent buyer of both melatonin and Unisom and occasionally a bottle of wine.

TTFA Listener: I have, it feels like, so, so many kids. I have five of them between the ages of infant up to teen. So I have everything to do for them, from literally keeping the baby alive to keeping the teenager semi-healthy in this pandemic. I wish that she could be a normal person and go out and hang out with her friends but can't. We're stuck at home, and it's, it's destroying her mind, and she needs to talk to me about it and vent her problems onto me, and I need to be the strong mother and support her and tell her all of the right things. And in the process, it's weighing on me, and I have nobody to talk to. And so at the end of the night, I come into my car to sit down and just feel some quiet around me. I'll step out of here in a second, go clean up my house, and then go lay in bed and stare at the ceiling and hope that sleep comes for me so I can wake up and do it all over again.

Kelly: My husband has long-haul COVID. We had a hard 2020, and he got sick in December and has not recovered. And this all came after we had our beautiful son at the beginning of the pandemic. I experienced serious postpartum anxiety. I didn't sleep for months. But I finally came out of it and I thought 2021 would be better. And it's been so much worse. Besides my husband being sick, our dog got hit by a car in January. He survived. It's probably the greatest silver lining. Then I had a miscarriage. I passed out alone in the waiting room of an ER in May. And now I'm pregnant again, which I realize is very lucky. But I'm also very scared. After countless very expensive treatments, my husband's health has not improved, and we're hitting the end of our rope, and I'm terrified for the future, as is he. At night, I think about, “Will I be able to get through another birth and postpartum alone? Will my husband ever recover? If not, can he mentally cope with his devastating chronic illness, or will I end up a single parent? Will my kids grow up with trauma?” It probably scares me more than anything. I don’t know. And it’s hard to pay my bills on my income alone. Keeps me up at night.

Of course it does. Of course it does.

We’ll be right back.


I have heard from places -- probably the internet -- that when you can’t sleep, you shouldn’t TRY to sleep. That you should just get up and do something. I can’t remember if you’re supposed to do something relaxing or just do ANYTHING, like dust your shelves or unload the dishwasher. Last night I took a shower at about 3 in the morning. I exfoliated. I shaved. I did a deep conditioner. Then I listened to a chapter of a rbook, then I read a chapter of a book, and then I wrote two chapters of my next book. I don’t know if that’s what I'm supposed to do. I just remember that if sleep is not coming to you, you should walk away from it — walk away from your warm, safe bed that is taunting you with what you want most and cannot achieve. 

But what do you do? Especially when what is keeping you up is that there are things undone … that there are things unfixed, things that cannot be fixed. People we cannot reach or save, who elude our grasp, just like sleep.

Ana: It's 2 a.m. and I can't sleep. And you want to know what's keeping me up at night? The short answer is the realization that my dad is dead, and I will never see him again on this earth. But then all the details of this reality start flooding in. My mind starts thinking, “Why didn't he just die on January 11th, 2020 when he fell on the ice and was left paralyzed from the chest down? How is it that at 34 years old I, was wiping my dad's ass and then changing my 3-month-old daughter's diaper? And how come nobody told me how much ass I would have to wipe in my life?” We were not even thinking after his paralysis that he would be able to live and use a wheelchair for at least another 10 years and work as a lawyer. But then COVID changed all that, when he had to go to the hospital alone in May of 2020. Somehow, between May and October, he went from paralyzed to being on a ventilator to coming home on hospice to dying on October 15th, 2020. On that Thursday in October, I watched my dad be removed from the ventilator, and it was awful. My 7-month-old baby was in the other room sleeping. She had no idea her grandpa had just died. My other two kids were at home with the babysitter. I know that most people say when people die surrounded by their loved ones, it's beautiful and peaceful. But this was not how it was, and this is not how I expected. And now I'm just walking around in the world with the images and the memories and all those things that he’s missed, that I wish I could tell him, even though I know he sees. Our body remembers what our mind tries to forget.

TTFA Listener 2: What keeps me up at night? Well, I'd like to start by saying that we're going through the process of an adoption. After my husband's mother passed away from substance abuse, we are adopting his baby brother, whom we've had since he was born. While at the same time we are currently separated. So, yeah, there's a lot of emotions that's keeping me up at night. I don't know. Sometimes it feels like, what's this for? But I don't know, we keep on trucking, I guess. I love the baby to death. I love the baby a lot, and I love my husband a lot. But clearly, it has put a strain on our relationship. It's feeling more like it's leading to divorce.

TTFA Listener 4: If it's 2 in the morning, and I can't sleep, there's about a 110% chance I'm thinking about my dad. He died on October 9th, 2018 from an accidental overdose. And I had no idea he was using drugs. We had talked a couple of days before on the phone, and he got mad at me over something that he typically wouldn't have gotten mad at me over and said some hurtful things that weren't in his character. And I told him I loved him, and he hung up on me. And then he proceeded to take the drugs that killed him. And I think about that a lot, because we had a really good relationship. I was 20 when this happened, and for 20 years we were each other's person. My mom left us when I was in ninth grade, and it was just us two. And we were friends. I mean, he was my dad, but he was my best friend and, you know, things weren't perfect, but we were close, and I just had to go to college. I just had to get away. I just had to make him mad that night, you know? And like, maybe there's something I could have said differently. If there's something I could have done. Maybe I could have stayed home. Maybe I could have just been there. Because if I were there, he wouldn't be doing this. He wouldn't be putting himself in so much danger because he knew it would hurt me, but because I wasn't right there, he couldn't see that and, you know, he was only 48 when he died. I think a lot about, you know, what could have been, and I'm 23 now. His death anniversary is coming up, and I have a picture of him on my bedside table, and he just has the sweetest smile. He's holding me when I was a baby and the tattoo of my name on his arm. And I just think, you know, I … I fucked up. This was my fault.

TTFA Listener 3: Hey, TTFA, it's 2 a.m. and what is keeping me up is I am newly engaged, and I should be over the moon, and all I keep wondering about is when is my fiance going to die on me? Because the last one did. Five years ago, my partner passed away suddenly of a heart attack. And I never thought I'd have the opportunity to have this sort of relationship again. And I'm over the moon happy with my new fiance but, oh, my God, it's so scary to know that, yes, the worst does happen because it did happen. So what's to say it couldn't happen again? And trying to get through wedding planning, and he doesn't have a will. I don't have a will. We really need to have wills. And we need to fix who our beneficiaries are, like, I want to do this ASAP before we're married just because I'm so scared we're not going to make it to the wedding. It's all so irrational and yet totally rational in my brain.

Rebecca: What's keeping me up at night? The world is going to hell. Climate change, politics, you name it. COVID, losing my childhood home right now, and not knowing what's next. Family that won't get vaccinated. I have insomnia, and when I wake up at 2 a.m., that is literally all I think about and my brain. Just won't shut off. I know I can't fix anything, let alone in bed, but boy, do I worry about them. I thought by now I'd have traveled the world and found a husband, had a couple of kids and all of those wonderful things. I'm 33 and in a relationship, but nowhere near engaged, jobless. I've never left the country. And it's all mainly because I have chronic back pain that started five years ago and I've never fulfilled any of those dreams. I'm in pain all the time, and I don't know what to do to fix these things and make those dreams come true. So I definitely thought that would happen by now, but it hasn't, unfortunately. And lastly, I have trouble forgiving myself for my lack of a relationship with my late father, who died in 2015. He died suddenly of a heart attack. I obviously did not know that was going to happen, but at the time I hadn't really spoken to him since I was 15. I had cut him off after he left us, and two weeks before he died, I decided to call him and make it right and start a relationship. So we had one phone call, but then he died. So. Yeah, I have really struggled with forgiving myself for those many years we didn't talk, for the many years I ignored his phone calls. And I really still think, after six years of him dying, I can't let it go. 

TTFA Listener 5:  I've had a lot of sleepless nights. I got a phone call that my father, who is in his 70s, sexually assaulted my mother after over 50 years of marriage. They were very unhappily married, and it finally culminated in this one horrific event. I raced home from vacation and got her out of that house as quickly as I could. Then I got home from a dog walk on January 4th of 2021, and my husband told me that the coroner had just left and that my dad had killed himself. Everything kind of went blank after that, but it started a series of horrific events where that same day I went to the sheriff's department and the coroner told me he had forgotten some things and I needed to go to the house to pick them up within 24 hours. Being kind of numb and in shock, I went to my parents’ house that I've been to thousands of times before to the scene of a suicide, where I stepped over everything that occurs when someone kills themselves with a gun. And I just kind of lost it, and lost it for months after that point, dealing with everything that's involved after a death, after a suicide. But then the thing that really, really keeps me up at night is seeing where my dad killed himself. As awful as he was, I had a relationship for every single day of my 37 years — the good, the bad, mostly bad. But he was my dad. It's a relief that he's not here to hurt us anymore. But it's also so horrifically sad to see what I saw and that this man who gave me life killed himself by himself, you know, that his life ended that way.

Whitney: When I saw your prompt “it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep” immediately brought to mind that I was up last night, it was actually 3 a.m., but it's because my husband just entered rehab for the second time this year. He was lying to me about the level of treatment that he was seeking. He lied to a psychologist about the depth of his problems. I know for a fact that I used to love him. I married him after all. Like, what does it mean that I've been lied to for more than four years? Does it matter if I believe that it's a disease and he's seeking treatment and so maybe it will get better, but does that mean that my heartache is any less real? What do I do? Do I stay? Do I go? Do I wait? Do I take this on as part of my marriage for the rest of my life? So now it's 3:30 a.m., I guess. And will someone please tell me, should I stay or should I go?

TTFA Listener 6: My story is my mom died when I was 24. She was murdered by my stepdad, who then took his own life. I’m doing my best not to laugh because I usually awkwardly laugh after telling something so horrific like that. But obviously it's not funny, but, you know, nerves and whatnot. She wasn't in a physically abusive relationship, as far as I know, but she was in an emotionally abusive relationship. So she's been with my stepdad for about 20 years at that point. My childhood brain, you know, young adolescent brain and then eventually my adult young 20s brain thought, you know, this isn't healthy. This isn't great. She's isolated, but I didn't really realize how bad emotional abuse was in isolation, and all those signs, I didn't really know about them until after he killed her. My first thought when I found out was that, “Oh, of course, yeah, of course he killed her,” which doesn't make any sense because I was also in complete shock of like, what do you mean my stepdad killed my mom. So I think that was sort of my wake up call of, “Oh, no, look, I guess I didn't know how bad this was and I didn't realize it could end up with death because I thought, you know, domestic violence is physical abuse.”

We’ll be right back.


And you’re still up. Maybe you’ve decided to get out of bed and do something else … like listen to a podcast about insomnia. Maybe you’re dusting your bookshelves. Maybe you’re sitting quietly on the couch thinking, “This is basically meditation, right?” Or maybe you’re still in bed, cataloguing all the worries stuck in that beautiful brain of yours, and hoping that you’ll get at least enough sleep to function at work tomorrow, that none of your worst case scenarios come true tonight.

TTFA Listener 7: What keeps me up at night is my career. I don't really know if I've done the right thing. I'm 28 and I've done like, years and years of education to get into my career. And now I don't really enjoy it. And it's kind of scary thinking about working until I'm like, in my 60s, for a career which doesn't really suit me. 

Carmen: If I'm awake at 2 a.m., it's usually because there's been some noise that was made. I escaped my relationship about almost a year ago. It'll be a year in October. And there were always loud noises at night. And I never slept when we were living together because nights were the worst. And I was afraid when I heard sounds that it would be him and any consequences of the day. And I've just got to stop and point out what I just said, consequences, that any threat of violence was a consequence to something I did. That's what I'm having a hard time forgiving myself for. I cannot forgive myself for being in that position for the years of my life that I lost on that man, being locked in that relationship, the friendships and my other personal relationships that I neglected because of that very horrible relationship. And so I'm working on that and I'll be working on it this fall as we approach the one-year anniversary of the day that I had to pack a backpack and have my family come pick me up without him knowing. 

TTFA Listener 8: I grew up in a very Christian, strict household, and my mom was always so much stricter than my dad. And she had a very rough upbringing: foster abuse, foster care, sexual trauma. And because of that, she was very cold as a mother, never emotionally available, most times not even physically available. She would, you know, be in the same room. And it's as if she wasn't there at all. And it's me, my sister and my brother. We're all adults now, all in our late 20s. And, you know, we talk about things and the way we were raised and how we wish our mom was more present because our dad is the best. He was just always there, always taking us to do activities, inviting our friends over, the perfect parent. And then recently I asked my mom to join a therapy session with me. And in that session, she admitted that my dad abused her, that he choked her, he has hit her before, that he had a porn addiction. He never paid taxes and put her name on, you know, credit cards and legal things, and then he left her when she finally told someone what was happening. Because I always knew that my parents didn't get along, but when he left, I entirely blamed my mom, you know, for just being absent and not being what he needed, and come to find out that he actually left because she told someone she was being abused.

TTFA Listener: What keeps you up at night? A deep feeling of loneliness fueled by PTSD and depression. I grieve the life I've lost and fights the anxiety of how to rebuild it all alone. I wonder how other people manage to feel happiness or how some might never know what it feels like to lack it completely. Fellow expats already know this loneliness and find each other through it. I moved abroad for love. I found my calling and happiness in an art I never imagined I'd love so much: building cakes. However, after years of narcissistic abuse, I also lost it all. Better yet, I walked away from it all. The family we were supposed to build together, the dogs we adopted, the dream home we bought together, because I wasn't truly happy. So here I am, living in the Netherlands, yearning for the life that I left behind, drowning in C-PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, grieving the loss of a brother in the throes of a pandemic, yearning to live alone and learning to live alone and facing my demons. And yet I never felt more myself than I do right now, trying to crawl my way out of the darkness. This fight to survive is what keeps me up at night, and as Kate Spear might say, tired is not broken, tired is not weak. I fight daily for this life of mine. And it's worth it, every step of the way. That's what keeps me up at night. 

Megan: So what's keeping me up at 2 a.m., so literally incredible head pain, neck pain, back pain, all from a concussion that I suffered six and a half months ago from a skiing accident. And then once the pain wakes me up, then I'm just overcome with thoughts of overwhelming stress and anxiety about how can I keep working, how can I keep surviving and existing while in so much pain? If I quit working, how can my spouse  and I survive on one income, especially when my spouse also wants and needs to find another job? And then it spirals from there and I hyperventilate and my emotions become very unregulated and everything becomes a shitstorm of pain and emotions that I can't seem to get out of, even in my non-nighttime waking hours. 

Theresa: It's been three weeks since I've gotten a good night's sleep. I stay awake until 2, 3 a.m. and kind of fall asleep and then it's time to wake up again. I haven't been home to India in two years because of the pandemic. I've been alone all summer. My partner has been living three states away for a research project. I don't have any other friends here. So, yeah, everything just sucks. I've had a number of chronic health issues, I have a herniated disc and I feel like now I'm just giving you my sob story but I guess it's kind of good to just let it out. I can't sleep, and I miss my family. I miss my city. Yeah. Everything just sucks. I just want to sleep one night. I just want to sleep for maybe six hours, seven hours. It's not too much to ask for. 

Shannon: My husband died when I was 28. And before he died, I loved the middle of the night. We’re artists, we would make love and make art and cuddle. And after he died, I went into an autistic burnout and flare up, although I was not diagnosed with autism at the time, so I had no idea what the hell was happening. Caregiver burnout, acute complicated grief, endometriosis, unknown to me. I can't remember if I said the OCD, ADHD, depression, anxiety. And the thing about OCD is that it will do things like, “Oh, the pain in your throat must be cancer and the cancer must be cut out and then you'll be disfigured and no one will love you.” And it's this constant middle of the night, you know, John Prine, I think it was said, “You never know how far away from home you're feeling until you watch the shadows cross your ceiling.” And when you have OCD and religious trauma, I've learned that a lot of people with OCD, demons are a theme because of religious trauma. And so the middle of the night can be very demonic, very heavy, dark, lonely, scary and constantly thinking about all of the health issues and how it's making me unable to show up for my community and world at the time that they need me most.

We know that worrying is not productive. But I also would like to reject that we are only allowed productive experiences and feelings. And I’d push back on that notion that it’s not productive because I think that we DO learn from this part of our nature. The rumination, the examination … yes, when taken too far we run the risk not of the unexamined life that Socrates warned of, but of an over-examined life.

One of the things I do when I truly give up on sleep is read — a book, not on my phone. I’ll go out to our living room and sit on our big, squishy couch and turn on the reading lamp and hope that in 20 pages or so, I’ll feel sleepy. It almost never works, by the way. Almost never. I almost always end up finishing an entire book.

And one that I picked up last night was “Taking The Leap” by Pema Chodron. The subtitle is: “freeing ourselves from old habits and fears.” And this is a book that I have read so many times that I have parts of it committed to memory. It’s the kind of book that I read to remind myself that I am capable of surviving. I am capable of doing whatever is in front of me, looming above me. It’s a book that I can revisit at any time, that I can open to one of the many pages I’ve dog-eared, and I shit you not … here is what I opened to last night:

We start by making friends with our experiences and developing warmth for our good old selves. Slowly, very slowly, gentle, very gently, we let the stakes get higher as we touch in on more troubling feelings. This leads to trusting that we have the strength and good-heartedness to live in this precious world, despite its land mines, with dignity and kindness … what is there to fear when we have stayed with ourselves through thick and thin?

How perfect is this passage for this episode? Think about it. Think about how acknowledging all of these worries, these anxieties, these very real fears … is practice. Practice for being kinder to each other, and kinder to ourselves. How there is so much to fear -- so much we all fear -- and when the morning comes, we will face it. We will stay with ourselves, through thick and thin.

This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. I am so tired today. I am so tired today. And really the only way out is through, baby. I gotta stay up until 7 p.m. and then fall asleep with my children. Our production team is Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Jordan Turgeon, Marcel Malekebu, and Megan Palmer. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar wilson. I record this in my closet, and I am a sweaty person. I am a sleepy, sweaty person today. 

“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman, executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Schaffert, Joanne Griffith.