The Insomniac

(A piece from almost 20 years ago:  Originally published in The New York Times Magazine – July 1996)

I would steal an hour of Steve’s sleep if I could. I would slip beneath his eyelids and yank it right out of him. He would feel nothing. Nor would I — neither remorse nor shame. One hour of perfect unconsciousness: one clean, soundless dive, deeper and deeper, as far as my lungs would take me. I would come up for air before he woke. Instead, I lie motionless, sewn to the sheets by the smallest demons, watching his silhouette against the bedroom blinds. Fondness becomes hostility. How does he do this for eight hours? I listen to his tranquil breathing, furious that he sleeps while I cannot.

Finally, at 3 A.M., I snip the threads, discard my carcass at bedside and leave it behind in disgust. Time for the insomniac to make his rounds. I creep into the next room, where I feel a thrilling freedom from my own body. I am naked, but not cold; neither thirsty nor hungry; I can smell nothing. My eyesight is shot; I cannot face the TV, work or read. The plug is out of the socket, the circadian clock stopped, and I roam the apartment of my own power, on my own theory of time, occupying a fragile space between dreaming and functioning.

Sleep Demons

Sleep scientists spend their entire waking lives studying people like me, but I’ve learned little from them that my own body has not divulged. In one brilliant conclusion (the noble contribution, no doubt, of painfully drowsy lab animals), they report that sleeplessness may harm, but can never kill. It is a secret that lifelong insomniacs already knew: chronic sleep deprivation transports the body, as through a time warp, into a condition in which it cannot be killed. As much as you might wish for it, the body will neither sleep nor die.

By the time I cross this line, the stress and anxiety that first kept me awake have gone. I am beyond the phase of tossing and turning as I worry about a nagging problem — something everyone experiences occasionally. One hour of sleep lost the first night turns into two the next and four the night after. Sleeplessness feeds on itself, reproduces and quickly becomes the source of apprehension. This severe insomnia visits me at least twice a year. I may live with it for weeks — dozing just two hours a night — before ordinary rest returns.

In my pale, haunted face, I glimpse my father, who felt just as betrayed by sleep’s unfaithfulness. If there’s such a thing as an insomnia gene, my father passed it on to me — along with his green eyes and Irish melancholy. When I was growing up, the question “How’d you sleep?” prompted genuine reflection at the breakfast table. My mother, five sisters, and I each rated the last night’s particular qualities — when we fell asleep, how often we woke, what we dreamed, if we dreamed.

My father’s response influenced the family’s mood for the rest of the day: if “lousy,” the rest of us, were “lousy, too.”

I lay awake at age 10, my mind racing like the spell check on a computer, impossible to turn off. As a sleeping aid, I would try to recall my entire life — a straight narrative from first to last incident — and impose order on the inventory of desire and memory. My story always started with a plane ride from Minneapolis to Spokane, the family moving West when I was three. The trip actually occurred; the recollection must be imaginary. But there I am regardless, in memory as if in a movie, still gazing out the window of a jet.

If my boy’s life-story didn’t lull me to sleep, I’d sneak into the den, where I could find my mother watching Johnny Carson and drinking Coca-Cola, simultaneously smoking Pall Malls and folding laundry. For her, I suspect, not sleeping offered time on her own, a break from her husband and six kids. For me, visiting Mom after midnight was the only time I had her to myself. She never shooed me back to bed. I helped her fold socks, she gave me a glass of Coke. Some combination of the two helped me fall asleep.

Nowadays, I prefer to overlook my past rather than recall it in precise detail. At 35, I still seek the peerless soporific. Everybody seems to have a cure, whether it’s warm milk, frisky sex or melatonin. One friend solemnly recommends whiffing dirty socks before turning out the lights. I find, though, that home remedies are no more effective than aphrodisiacs. Sleeping pills can force the body into unconsciousness, it’s true. I’ve had my jags on Halcion and Xanax; I’ve slept many times on those delicious, light blue pillows. But the body can never be tricked. The difference between drugged and natural sleep eventually reveals itself, like the difference between an affair and true romance. It shows up in your eyes. Sleep acts in this regard more like an emotion than a bodily function. As with desire, it cannot be pursued; sleep must overtake you. So I will wait, as long as it takes, for it to come.

Recent Essays

Essay Archives