How I Learned To Sleep Alone

Jenna Vanella

© Copyright 2024 by Jenna Vanella

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash
Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

My older sister always had the ability to sleep in her own room. She was even brave enough to have her door closed, and to fall asleep to the sound of her own breath. I, on the other hand, was terrified of my room. The bed was very high off the ground, leaving too much space for any sort of being to crawl out and grab me. Cars raced by my window, making shadows on the wall dance closer to me. I closed my eyes shut and hid under the covers, wishing endlessly for the days when Julia and I had shared a room and I could leap from my twin bed into hers for comfort. She was courageous. She was an umbrella in a thunderstorm, she was rocks being crashed upon by waves, she was a tree blossoming on the edge of a cliff. But, now, she was in the room next to mine. I was petrified, drowning in my own hellscape, lit only by a nightlight in the form of an earless Mickey Mouse.

I decided it would be better for my mental health (and my mother’s as her child cannonballed into her bed at two in the morning) that I’d move into my mom’s room. My nights became entangled with the left side of her bed, a lullaby of snores to support my tameless nightmares. I’d watch her television until I couldn’t fight my drooping eyelids any longer. I learned a lot from George Lopez and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on those sleepless nights.

Often, I would stare at my sister’s bedroom door, wondering what she was doing. Did she feel safe in that purple room? Did she not believe in the monsters that haunted me? Or, was she afraid too, hiding under her covers and wishing her bed was still next to mine?


Now and then, on the rarest of occasions, Julia would let me sleep in her room. My excitement radiated off the walls. However, she declined to let me on her bed without socks, and I refused to sleep with them on. I would drag my High School Musical comforter and a pillow from my room into hers, taking refuge on the rug. It sort of felt like camping, minus the stars, the fun, and the fact that I was staring into the nook under her bed for half the night. I wasn’t afraid, though. Obviously, nothing lived under there if Julia still slept in this room. All the monsters were evidently under my bed.

We were nine and twelve then, and she was just on the cuff of growing into a different world I didn’t yet understand– a teenager. I would force her to tell me about her school life. It seemed infinitely better than mine. She told me stories about the boy she had a crush on, and I traced the wooden bedpost with my finger, wondering why I didn’t feel that way about someone yet. Julia told me how he was sweet and kind and shared his lunch with her. I told her how I went around sharing kisses with boys who asked. She called me obnoxious, a word I had never heard before and could barely pronounce. I thought she was so smart. She was a twelve-stringed guitar, she was a looped roller coaster, she was the high score on a video game.

I rolled over and squeezed my teddy bear. We had a matching pair, gifted to us by our uncle one Christmas. Julia was too old for hers now, but mine was a nightmare thwarting charm. She yelled at me for breathing too loud, and I snapped back with something foolish. It didn’t matter. How lucky I was to be allowed to sleep on her floor.


At eleven and fourteen, we began to share a room again at our father’s, much to my delight and my sister’s annoyance. Though we even shared the same bed now, with myself on the bottom bunk and her on the top, I began to see her less and less. Most of her attention was directed at her new boyfriend. I still didn’t really understand what was so great about love, and she didn’t bother to explain it to me. She stopped wanting to play games with me and spent most of her time on her phone texting him.

It didn’t upset me all too much. At night was when I needed her most.

Julia knew I was afraid, and sometimes, she would stick her hand down between the crack of our bed and the wall, and I would reach to hold it. She’d give me a squeeze to let me know she was still there. I braved the night in what was the closest to sleeping alone I had ever come to, in my compact bed protected by my sister’s mattress. Though I couldn’t see her, her presence was enough, knowing I could climb the ladder that separated us at any moment.


I was twelve, and I still had not been able to leave my mother’s bed and go back to my room. That room had practically become deserted. My embroidered comforter laid flat on the bed. The stuffed animals Julia and I used to play with sat on top, waiting for us to return. We had sold the dollhouse that used to reside in the corner. I had grown out of most of my childhood clothes, receiving many hand me downs from Julia and other family members. I rarely, if ever, went into that room.

I didn’t have any reason to fear the night anymore. Anytime I slept, somebody was with me. My mother, or my sister, sometimes my father or grandparents, or even a friend if I stayed over. But I was growing into that unknown territory Julia had survived years ago– my early teens. I knew that, eventually, I’d make my way back into my old room, or our bunk bed would come undone and we’d separate once more. Though I was growing to want to finally sleep on my own, I clung to those companionships with desperation. My claw marks indented every bed I’d ever been in.

Julia was suddenly around more often. Though there were times she still felt far away, slowly, bit by bit, we were recouping. I couldn’t tell if it were because I was growing older, or because she gained a newfound tolerance for me. Maybe it had to do with her and her boyfriend splitting. Still, she confided in me at our bunk bed sanctuary. I felt like the coolest person in the world.

I should just leave.”

Wouldn’t mom and dad be mad?”

They wouldn’t care,” Julia declared. “Nobody would.”

I would care,” I told her quietly. I stared at the bottom of her mattress, wondering if her sharp breaths were her laughing or crying.

Julia was quiet for a minute. Then, I saw her hand reach down the nook of her bed. “You think I’m leaving you behind? If I leave, I’m taking you with me.”

I held her hand, and she squeezed mine before retracting back to her concealed bunk.

Where would we go?” I wondered.



Sure. California.”

And can mom come? Or dad?”

The point of running away is that nobody is supposed to know.”

Oh.” My tone turned sour. “Is he coming?”

Julia took a deep breath. “I don’t think I ever want to see him again.”

Me neither.”

Julia laughed. Those nights became filled with sad songs about moving on. We learned all the words to “We Are Never Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift, and she taught me about how it was stupid to fall in love. We plotted how she would get rid of the things she still had from her boyfriend, and she settled on donating them to Good Will. She was audacious. She was a climber summiting Everest, she was dropping sandbags from a hot air balloon, she was the jump before the fall. I was overjoyed to have her back.


For the first time in thirteen years, I had finally slept on my own. I took my sister’s room rather than my own, claiming it as mine a week after Julia’s funeral.

I spent most of my time in that room after that.

The drawers are filled with my clothes, the shelves have my trinkets, the walls have pictures without her in it. I try to convince myself that it is my room now, but I still feel as though I am intruding. I sleep under her purple duvet and sit against her purple walls. My unwanted feet, and my heavy breathing, and my nightmares, all combined in her bed. Part of me wants to keep it that way, hoping that if I do something wrong to her room, she’ll suddenly storm in and kick me out. If only. She is a boxed puzzle missing three pieces, she is a planet from a different galaxy, she is a one way sign on a dead end street. She is foreign to me now.

It can be incredibly lonely sleeping by oneself, even in a house full of people. There are days I miss having a reason to dive under my mom’s covers and hug her until I can fall asleep. But I’m older now, older than Julia ever got to be. I can’t rely on my sister’s stories to put me to sleep anymore, or hold onto her promises of running away.

I used to think she was courageous and intelligent and audacious, but now I can remember the nights where I would hear the top bunk creak, and familiar footsteps climbing down the ladder. The blanket would slowly lift off my left shoulder and the bed would sink as my older sister laid down next to me. Perhaps she thought I was all of those things too.

Sleeping in a room on your own will never be the same as sleeping in a room with a teddy bear from your uncle, or with a High School Musical comforter to hide under, or with a broken Mickey Mouse night light, or with your sister. All of which, you remind yourself, you will never see again.

Jenna Vanella is a proud recent graduate and an aspiring author. Jenna's passion for writing began at a very young age, with her first published work being a poem she wrote at age ten. She currently lives in the Boston area.

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