I Can Smell My Pillow

Woman asleep at desk

Kristin van Ogtrop shares an excerpt from her latest book, ‘Did I Say That Out Loud?’

Excerpt from Did I Say That Out Loud? Midlife Indignities and How to Survive Them by Kristin van Ogtrop

I have a close relative who, for reasons I never want to understand, blamed every bad thing that happened to him between 2008 and 2016 on Barack Obama. He took this Obama-blaming to a ridiculous extreme. An example: One summer Saturday we found ourselves on I-93 in New Hampshire; due to construction, there was a traffic jam, so what should have been a thirty-minute drive took us more than two hours. When we  finally got out of the car, hot and hungry, my relative said, “It’s Obama’s fault.” 

This is how I regard estrogen. Although a woman has fifty hormones in her body, estrogen is the president and right now everything is her fault. Specifically,  I feel as if she has abandoned me—which is exactly  how I feel about Barack Obama—and I mourn her absence from my life. I can handle a lot of the problems associated with estrogen’s departure, and we’re not going to get into all of them now. Too sad, too tedious, too gynecological. But the sleep problems are another story.  

You wake up somewhere between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. Let’s call it 2:07. Maybe you’re having a hot flash or maybe your partner is snoring or maybe there are mice in the walls or maybe God just wants you to be awake for reasons you won’t understand until you’re dead. You lie there waiting for the arrival of your regular set of worries (looming work deadline, that kid who is a bad influence on your son, whether the pain in your jaw means you need another root canal). These regular worries are consistent and dependable, like old friends, and you know how to handle them. But on this particular 2:07 a.m., you find that your brain is a party that’s gotten out of control. Your friends have friend who have friends who have friends who have people they follow on Snapchat, meaning your few reliable worries multiply at a magnificent rate until every worry you’ve had in the past six months plus every worry you anticipate having in the next six all crowd together in your brain. It’s loud and hot and before you know it,  someone is throwing up on the living-room rug. Then the police show up.  

Today the party started at 3:03, and it went like this:  

3:04: There’s that load of whites in the washing  machine. Must remember to put in dryer before I  leave for work.  

3:18: Can’t forget to click on the e-mail link to have that thing delivered to the house.  

3:35: If I spray Bitter Apple on the sheepskin rug that the puppy keeps chewing, maybe I can leave the rug where it is for the day instead of hauling it up to the bedroom and out of her reach.  

3:36: Must make Axel brush the dogs tomorrow.  Tumbleweeds of hair in the kitchen suggest slip shod household attitude. Is this what my life has  become?  

3:41: Ashley hasn’t texted me back about baby sitting next weekend. Is she out of the country? She is awfully well traveled for a seventeen-year-old. Where does the money come from?  

3:50: Is it snowing yet? Do I need to wear my snow boots to work? Where are my snow boots?  Front porch?  

4:00: Oh, screw it.  

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and headed for the bathroom. My husband raised his head off the pillow. “You’re not getting up now, are you?” he asked.  As if that were a reasonable option for any reasonable  person who wasn’t a Today show host. When I crawled back into bed, he put his arm around me. “Try not to  think,” he said.  

“You used to say ‘empty your head.’”  

“Yes,” he said. “But I no longer believe that’s possible.”  The alarm was set for 6:05 (my ongoing and often futile attempt to exercise before work), and I reached over and reset it to 7:15, although I haven’t slept past 7:00 since the last century. Besides, would the seventy minutes even make a difference? I’d have an easier time figuring out game theory than solving that one, but it  was worth a shot.  

If you are reading this book, you probably aren’t scared that a guerrilla army is going to be camped out in your front yard in the morning or that your daughter might be kidnapped by Boko Haram. More likely than not, you have clean water and a house with heat. Unless you are a lifelong New Yorker who never learned to drive, you probably have a car you can drive  to a grocery store that sells a hundred and fifty kinds of yogurt. Still, your relative good fortune won’t keep you from waking up in the night, and it won’t make you feel any better in the morning.  

Whether it’s called monkey brain or insomnia or something more profane, few of us are spared. You know about good sleep hygiene; you’ve read all the articles.  Maybe you’ve tried gabapentin or melatonin; you have special reading glasses that filter out the blue light; you keep your bedroom temperature below sixty-five. You have a white-noise machine and earplugs. You never drink more than one glass of wine, even when you go out. And still.  

The morning after a terrible night’s sleep, you may look the same on the outside, but inside you are a dramatically different person. All the smooth edges are now jagged and there is a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo playing in your head. Coffee doesn’t make a dent. Everything around you is either (a) awful, (b) devoid of logic, or (c) much too difficult to attempt. You scowl at your children and snap at your husband and tell the dog you are too grumpy to feed him—the mere fact that he wags his tail as you enter the kitchen annoys you—and nothing-nothing-nothing is appealing, even the idea of going back to bed (as if that were a possibility). So you put extra concealer beneath your eyes and slog through the day.  

My Dutch grandmother had an expression: Ik kan mijn kussen ruiken. Loosely translated, it means “I can smell my pillow.” She would say this at the end of a dinner party as a way to get her guests to leave.  After I’ve had a bad night’s sleep, I am chanting Ik kan mijn kussen ruiken to myself all day long, and by nine p.m., once I’ve washed my face and brushed my teeth, I’m so desperate to smell my pillow that I think I might die.  

Let’s consider why you can’t sleep. Is it. . . 

• your children  

• your pets  

• your spouse  

• your ex  

• your job  

• your diet  

• your parents  

• alcohol  

• gluten  

• caffeine  

• your house  

• the news  

• your schedule  

• depression  

• anxiety  

• climate change  

• plastic in your water  

• too much exercise  

• too little exercise  

• squirrels on the roof  

• hooting owls outside the window  

• raccoons in the garbage cans  

• feral cats fighting  

• your siblings  

• your sex life  

• your social life 

• free-form despair  

• vitamin D deficiency  

• allergies  

• anemia  

• boredom?


Or it could be your thyroid. If you are over forty, there is a decent chance that your thyroid is about to betray you, if it hasn’t already. Ever heard of Hashimoto’s disease? No? Just wait! You’ll know you have it when your brain—as a matter of fact, everything about you, including your soul—which was once so crisp and defined, slowly turns to sludge. Plus, you get a little fat, and when you stop eating peanut M&M’s and take the stairs instead of the elevator, you just get fatter.

Last fall I went on a trip with four of my college roommates, women I lived with thirty-five (!) years ago. It was a  long, glorious weekend of discovering all the ways in which we have become different and all the ways we are the same. We live in different parts of the country, have very different jobs, and, to a degree, have differing political views. But we all have kids. We’re all in long-term marriages. And three of us start each morning with a pretty little synthetic thyroid pill. I was the baby of the group, as I take only 25 micrograms. One of my former roommates takes 150 micrograms, and she is extremely fit, with tons of energy and gorgeous skin. According to my endocrinologist, I will be on this thyroid pill for the rest of my life, which is fine with me.  I’m hoping I can work my way up to 150 micrograms and then maybe I will run for president.  

I wish I could say that once my thyroid was regulated,  everything else fell into place, but it didn’t. And, scientifically speaking, Hashimoto’s disease does not cause insomnia the way some thyroid disorders do. However,  gaining weight and having your soul turn to sludge leads to an existential restlessness that is not conducive to sleep. And so my mind-body connection remains unfathomable, a daily mystery that begins in the wee  hours of the morning. Sometimes the exact same wee hour for days at a time. There was a long period when I woke up every morning at 5:35, no matter what time I went to bed. I wish I could hack into the mind-body navigation system that directed me to wake up at 5:35. Why was it always the same time? What did my brain know that the fingers setting the alarm for 6:05 didn’t?  Did the number 535 have some significance, cosmically or culturally? I couldn’t shake the feeling that some where, someone was laughing at my expense. Last week at the dinner table my eleven-year-old son asked me if I  knew what the number 420 meant. He’s in sixth grade!  Let’s put aside for the moment the concern that my baby is just a blink of an eye away from smoking weed behind the garage while I’m making breakfast. What does 535 mean?  

There are two benefits to sleepless nights. The first is that being extremely tired makes you feel like you are covered in cotton balls for the entire next day, a soft, springy layer of insulation that makes you not really care all that much about whatever comes your way; the only important thing is that the hours keep moving forward until the moment that you once again smell  your pillow. The second is that, after a bad night, you are completely justified in going to bed at 9:15, where  you will read for eight minutes until the text begins to blur and you can turn off the light. Then you sleep  through the night.

When the alarm rouses you at 6:05, the sky is already light and the jagged feeling is gone; you are smooth and round and perfect again. And when you go to the grocery store and find yourself in conversation with the employee stocking the lettuce and he says that he is wonderful today—because his  grandfather told him that every night, some people go to sleep and don’t wake up—you say, “Yes! I agree!”  And you really mean it. No matter who you are or where you live, no matter whether you sleep alone or in a bed full of children or cats, no matter who is president, it is wonderful, truly wonderful, just to wake up in the morning.  

Excerpted from Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.