Sleepless in Seattle, and other places: Trump-induced insomnia stalks blue-state America

Lisa Belkin
·Chief National Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images

Susan Rogers, a poet and attorney in California, is “hurtling through space with no direction” on a plane that, she discovers with horror, has no pilot.

Alicia Bowman, a journalist from East Penn, Pa., is racing frantically through a train that is heading the wrong way, flinging off her belongings so she can run faster, calling frantically for her son, who is transgender.

Rachelle Pachtman, who does canine rescue on New York’s Upper West Side, is searching fruitlessly through her refrigerator for something to serve Michelle and Barack Obama, who have just happened to drop by for lunch.

And Alison Graham, a Los Angeles publicist, is in a hotel suite near her old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan, being interviewed by Donald Trump for a job as a supervisor on one of his big construction projects.

“But I don’t know anything about real estate; I have no qualifications or experience,” she tells him.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be great,” he says.

Then they all wake up.

Blue America is having trouble with sleep — tossing and turning as they lie awake, then falling into nightmares. And those who are suffering tend to blame the 45th president of the United States.

To be sure, a state of heightened anxiety over whoever is in the White House is not new. Two presidents ago, columnist Charles Krauthammer coined Bush Derangement Syndrome, the symptoms of which were the “acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” Next came Obama Derangement Syndrome, memorialized by a conspiracy-spouting satirical character on the “Stephanie Miller Happy Hour” radio show.

And now there’s what Hollywood screenwriter Sam Friedlander has spoofed as Trump-Induced Anxiety Disorder.

There is no way to quantify whether there are more sufferers during this administration than previous ones. But for those going through it this time around, it certainly seems very new and very real. And it looms largest in the dead of night, say dozens across the country who described their pillow-punching wakefulness and fraught sleep to Yahoo News.

“I fall asleep and wake up and get a snack and toss and turn and try to make sense of what’s going on,” says Linda Allen, who counsels parents of special-needs children on Long Island. “It’s unfathomable and that inability to reason with it is frustrating, and the whole situation is also enraging. Who could sleep?”

“I have not slept a full night since the election,” says New York fashion designer Ariane Zurcher. “I’m 56 years old. I have never had insomnia or issues with sleeping until this.”

What’s going through their minds in the dark?

Erika Kilborn, a training director for a software company, who has just been diagnosed with cancer, worries she will lose her job as a result of her illness and not be able to afford new insurance as a result of changes in the health care law.

Lea Grover, a Chicago writer, has spent more than one night calculating where in her home she could build fake walls behind which to hide immigrants facing deportation.

Craig Haller, who advocates with school administrators on behalf of students with disabilities in and around Boston, fears changes at the Department of Education will hurt those students.

“I’m afraid my son and nephew will be sent to a war I don’t believe in,” says Linda Cliff Derbacher, a former neonatal nurse now living in Southern California.

“I worry that even though my family members have been American citizens for generations we will be targeted … because of our surnames and our looks,” says Soraida Justiniano of Palm Harbor, Fla.

“I’m worried about the ‘Anne Franks‘ of Syria, Somalia, Yemen,” says tech industry employee Amanda Silver, who is literally sleepless in Seattle, her hometown.

“I am afraid the democratic process is under attack by a nationalist, far-right, authoritarian leader,” says Lori Rivere Rodrig, who teaches math at a New Jersey high school.

The looming prospect of insomnia at the end of the day has led to a swath of ways to encourage sleep. For some, it starts long before bedtime.

Charles Whitin has been rowing madly in Little Compton, R.I. almost since Election Day — “the equivalent of 18 miles a day for a month,” which leads to “a sore backside, but sound sleeping.” Deborah Skolnik is spending time with the plants in her new garden. (“They’re very soothing, and they help me remember that MOST living things on the planet don’t even know Trump exists.”) Lian Dolan, writer and host of the “Satellite Sisters” podcast, stopped watching the news as of Nov. 8, and adopted a German shepherd named Steffi right after Thanksgiving so that she could “walk us both into the ground, about 5 to 6 miles a day. Good for my sleep.” Her sister and podcast partner Liz Dolan is swimming. “There’s no news, real or fake, underwater,” she notes.

Others are meditating — or trying to. Lindsay Steiman, a consumer researcher in Hermosa Beach, Calif., was all but ordered to do so by her ob-gyn after she complained of stress and poor sleep from “trying to work full time, raise a family and bring down a fascist regime at the same time,” she says. That was a week ago, and she hasn’t managed to find time to follow her doctor’s orders yet. Hasn’t slept much, either.

As it grows later in the day, every day, the distractions become more varied.

There’s binge TV watching that has nothing to do with politics (“Hallmark Channel,” specifically “’Golden Girls’ and ‘Frasier,’” says Susan Barocas, a Washington, D.C., filmmaker) or everything to do with it (“‘Quantum Leap,’” says Donna Saady. “I keep hoping he’ll leap into someone a few years ago and put right what went wrong.”)

There are books that aim for the same. Portrait photographer Mellon Tytell will only read escapist fiction before bed nowadays — John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen are favorites. Elizabeth Wade, on the other hand, a retired nurse, goes to bed in Ashland, Ore., sharing biographies of former presidents with her husband. Right now they are reading “River of Doubt,” by Candice Millard, which she found on sale at Costco, about Teddy Roosevelt’s journey to find a tributary to the Amazon.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images

“Not sure why we went this way with reading material,” she says. “Maybe just to see what ‘presidential’ really means?”

Once the lights are out, and the screens go dark, that’s when writer Sharon Van Epps, also from Seattle, begins to pray. She’s always said a bedtime prayer, but since November the content has changed.

“I ask that God will help us with this mess and show us how to help ourselves,” she says.

Of course, there are those who skip all of the above and go straight to the medicine or the liquor cabinet. Kasie Shiflett, a bartender and waitress at Dino’s Gourmet in Plattsburgh, N.Y., turns to Tylenol PM. Mary Molina, a retired clinical research assistant in Durham, N.C., rotates among bourbon, vodka, or melatonin, depending on the night.

“Medical marijuana and Glenfiddich,” quips Frederic Alan Maxwell, a researcher in Portland, Ore. “Plus nonmedical marijuana and Glenfiddich.”

And when author Cathryn Jakobson Ramin brought up her troubled sleep with her new internist the other day, she left the appointment with a prescription for Seroquel and a two-page handout about sleep that the doctor had “just written because so many of her patients had the same problem lately.”

Do any of these strategies work? Not always, sufferers say.

Despite exercising more during the day, Bill Marcus, a venture capitalist in Chicago, is nonetheless “gazing at my smartphone at least an additional 30 to 60 minutes, lying awake at dusk or dawn, filtering through the fake and real developing stories.”

Diana Noya also finds herself staying awake late or waking up early in Yardley, Pa., because that’s when news (and presidential tweets) seem to break. “I feel like I have to consume it all in order to get my own thoughts out to my senators and representatives right away,” she says. “So I’m exhausted, but resisting.”

And when they do fall asleep, there are all those dreams.

“Last night I dreamed we were hiding people in our basement,” says Allentown, Pa., physician Jenni Levy. “Not sure what they were hiding from.”

“I dreamed I was in downtown NYC and it was gutted like Armageddon after 9/11,” says psychotherapist Donna Moss. “Everyone looked like zombies.”

Says Kelly Fincham, who co-founded the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, “My weirdest dream so far has been two lions chasing three giraffes in a disused Irish cemetery. Can you find someone to analyze that for me?”

Susannah Greenberg, a book publicist, recently “dreamt I was at a dinner. Someone accused me of leaving the ‘memory door’ open and that that was illegal. I shouted at them: ‘I don’t even know what the memory door is, so how could I have left it open? I did not leave the memory door open!’

“Somehow,” she says, “I think this was about Trump.”

Then there are those who are getting their eight hours because insomnia is not where their stress shows.

Allison Slater Tate, for instance, is having no problem with shuteye in Orlando. Possibly because she’s been stress-snacking since Election night.

“I’ve gained the Trump 15, but I can sleep,” she says.