I have trouble sleeping. I don’t mean that I have trouble getting to sleep. I have trouble getting to bed, doing what I have to do to prepare to give up, go under, put out the light. I have trouble trusting that the world won’t forget me, fly off in its spinning, leave me dumbly unconscious, alone.
So I stay up late. Sometimes I do things I would never do in the afternoon. I’ll sit at the kitchen table in a trance and read the real estate transactions in the newspaper. I’ll sew on buttons, listen to call-in radio. I’ll sing and look in the mirror and draw dark lines and shadows on my face to see how I’ll look in 15 years.
At 2, 3 AM, it doesn’t matter what I do because no one’s keeping score–the day is over. It’s elastic time, acquired time, a gift. An extra pocket. It’s quiet, but I don’t feel alone–no one’s ignoring me, everyone’s just asleep.
Sometimes I do the necessary, what’s been shoved to the end of the day, the isthmus of it. I pay bills. I grade papers. I write on deadline. I’m being dutiful, but at the wrong time–a sop to my rebellious spirit. I admit: I have a tendency to put things off; therefore I have a tendency to finish things late at night.
Sometimes I stay up just because it’s the best time of the day for me. I write fiction and get lost in it. At one, two, three in the morning, there’s a certain settling, an end of the day sigh. I can concentrate.
And it seems that because I’m lively at 2 AM, I’ll be lively forever. I can’t imagine being sleepy later in the morning, after a few hours’ rest.
For years, fighting sleep was my own private battle with my own personal demon. Aside from the group rituals of slumber parties, high school newspaper sessions, college all-nighters, and some late romantic evenings, staying up has been my own one-woman show. And the mornings after–because I rarely had time to sleep it off–I was irritable, distracted, and this close to tears. I could go on: feeling like a snappy dog on a short leash, suffering from a raw headache that shouts, Not enough! and afflicted by profound weariness. In time, it became the norm. That’s what I do. That’s how I feel. That’s how I am; that’s how I always was.
Now I find that my weakness may be the characteristic affliction of the tired decade of our waning century. And it’s not just fun seekers who carouse the night away, as they always have, back to the time of Juvenal. (And before him, too–it’s just that I recently saw a reference to the Roman poet chastising revelers for going to bed at the hour that generals decamped.) “The average American is chronically sleepy,” says William Dement, head of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders. The New York Times says most Americans need an hour to an hour and a half more sleep a night. The sleepless Clinton administration is working itself to a frazzle, chides the New Republic, blaming “the politics of exhaustion” for presidential missteps. On public television doctors appear solemn-faced, parental, white-coated, urging us: Sleep. They call us a nation of zombies. Magazines and newspapers put tiredness on the front page, in the science section, in features. Some headlines: “Rat race turning half of us into ‘walking zombies.'” “Cheating on Sleep: Modern Life Turns America Into the Land of the Drowsy.” “Lack of sleep can be dangerous to health at work.” “Lack of Sleep a Danger to Time-Conscious Americans.” Researchers blame lack of sleep for disasters from Bhopal to the Challenger explosion. The problem, says Dement, is more serious than the national debt.
In the medieval European village, you had to have your own tallow if you wanted to stay awake (or at least see what you were doing). In the modern global village, the satellite never shuts off. If you want dark and quiet, you have to turn off, tune out, unplug–and the temptation is not to. As Wilse Webb, a pioneer sleep researcher, puts it: most people in industrialized countries go to bed when they want to and get up when they have to. Even children sleep less than they did two generations ago.
Though researchers are concerned about all nonsleepers, there are categories. There are the relatively blameless, whose schedules are determined by circumstance: new parents, truck drivers, pilots, medical interns, the 20 to 30 million shift workers in the U.S. In the same group I’d include some, but not all, of the 65 million who complained to Gallup pollsters about insomnia. (It’s unclear how many insomniacs bring their troubles on themselves by disregarding sleep until they have to chase it down.) The experts save their fire for the truly willful among us, the people who could go to bed at a decent hour and don’t. Like me. The ones who lean forward into temptation. Into the night. Who treat our sleeping time like disposable income and often spend it foolishly. Who are torn: We want to sleep. We don’t want to sleep. We want to be well rested. We want to stay up. We want to relax our guard. We don’t want to die.
I keep waiting for the rules to change. Someday, a fundamental reprieve for humankind: Sleep was a mistake. Sorry about that. It is no longer required.
In Eden no one slept. The animals held rowdy no-slumber parties, all-night galas, storytellings and songfests by the light of the always-full moon. Lion danced and lay with lamb–this was BC, Before Carnivores. One midnight the glossy, glistening snake sidled up to Adam and Eve, saying, “Friends, are you not made impatient by this eternal vigilance? There is a magical realm called Sleep, which you could visit if you so desired. There are new worlds you could enter each and every night. You could sing in different languages, talk with creatures that do not exist, travel to exotic lands. All if you take only the smallest bite from the fruit of that tree.”
The fruit had been forbidden but the couple, entranced, took a bite. They went to sleep and slept all night and all day. Soon they came to regret succumbing to the lure of the snake. The world of sleep was all that he had promised, but they couldn’t leave it or control their dreams. And they couldn’t stay awake.
God thundered down to the humans in his garden: “You had the power to sleep before, without the fruit, you only had to wish it. But now you have become slaves of the body. You are no longer pure and endless. Because of your disloyalty I will introduce Death, and you will never forget him. I will let you be awake for two-thirds your life. During the day you will work and each night I will send down Death’s slight brother Sleep to transform you. You will pray before Sleep that your soul will be returned to you in the morning. And you will awaken–but with the dry taste of death on your tongue, a memory and a portent. Yet without sleep, this small stingless death, you will surely die.
“Your descendants will suffer even more. Some will be assigned to night shifts; others will stay up all night fighting wars, engineering inventions, composing symphonies, comforting inconsolable infants, studying for exams, arguing my existence, weeping in loneliness and despair, memorizing dramatic roles, tapping out E-mail messages, and being mesmerized by Vegematic commercials. In the morning and all day long they will be regretful, and they will be doomed the next night to repeat–through the end of time.”
It’s bad enough to have to sleep every night. Another curse of nature is that humans are out of sync with the natural structure of night and day. When people are put in windowless, clockless sleep labs and allowed to sleep and wake whenever they want, they live out approximately 25-hour days, going to bed an hour later every night, and waking up an hour later. If we lived this way, we’d fall into anarchy, chaos. When would dinner be? When would stores open? When would Morning Edition start? Suppressing our internal 25-hour urge is the price we pay for living in society, a tithe.
So here we are, winners of a Pyrrhic victory: we have the technology to light up the night, but we don’t have the bodies to live in it. We’re like Prometheus, that old fire stealer, who was punished for taking what belonged to the gods.
It’s hard to live in these irreconcilable worlds of now and later, the way we won’t see the connection between that piece of cheesecake and that inch of fat around our waists.
And if we can get our fat cut out, why can’t we have sleep inserted?
That’s not a frivolous question. Sleep researcher Webb confessed to Psychology Today that his original quest had been to find a way for people to sleep more efficiently, and thus cut down on sleep time. It didn’t work. He learned to accept sleep as a “fixed biological gift.”
A friend who studies psychology says that people’s first memories shift according to their moods. When they’re happy, they recall good memories. When I’m cheerful, I say that this is my earliest memory:
I am two or three and not yet myopic. I’ve just made the transfer from my crib to a real bed across the room. From the bed I can see the mobile of birds that hangs above the crib: red cardinal, yellow bird, bluebird. The same ones that are mentioned on my record Bozo and the Birds. This is what happens my first night sleeping like a grown-up: I awake in the middle of the night to the birds come alive. They flutter. They do not fly across the room, but hover above the crib, content. Perhaps they don’t realize I’m just a few feet away. Or maybe they are giving me this opportunity to see them in their splendor, a farewell-to-the-crib gift.
I believe that this happened. Or: I believe that I believed in the awakened birds.
Is is any wonder that late night remains magical? That the lesson I take to heart is: Things happen at night; you must be awake to see them.
When I’m not so cheerful, this is what I remember:
I’m three and sitting in Dr. Janse’s office on a couch between two big lamps waiting for him to call me in to lie on the table. He will stick thin tubes in my nose and siphon away mucus. He is an ear-nose-and-throat man, thin and gray. He is different from the benign allergist who gives me shots twice a week. I have asthma. During the day my breathing ranges from clear to wheezy. At night it gets worse. I listen to the whine of my lungs and imagine little German villagers playing accordions inside my body, laughing, living in thatched huts with Heidi and her grandfather, healthy and foreign. (I didn’t realize at the time that Heidi was Swiss.) It seems like it’s always been this way and always will be, this bruising of my chest, the hurt of it, which gets worse, won’t let the air out.
Is it any wonder that the night always held mystery and promise and terror? Close your eyes, drop your vigil, you could be overtaken, transformed, by an internal coup. The villagers could get out of control, looting and pillaging and stopping up my lungs.
There’s at least one song about refusing naps, a defiant anthem by Jonathan Richman, called “Not Yet Three”: “You think I should be tired now / But my body’s all inspired now / Yes it’s true that I’m not yet three / But I’m stronger than you, you’re simply bigger than me.” I remember not taking naps; I remember learning the word “cantankerous” even before I went to nursery school. That was what my mother called me.
A few times a year my family would take the train from Houston to Dallas. Even with a suitcase full of dolls, I was sullen. Just tired, my parents said, when we got to my grandparents’. I wasn’t friendly like the girl cousins from Midland or wild but endearing like the boy-puppy cousins from Harlingen. Or shy and sweet like my older sister.
I was different. I needed medicine, was allergic to their Friday-night chicken, their occasional salmon patties, refused to eat their boiled peas. I had different habits. And I grew more and more different as time went on.
In high school I slept five hours a night, weekdays. I was an editor of the school paper. The two days a week before the paper came out I’d go home with the car pool and drive back after supper in my mother’s car. The newspaper sponsor was long gone; it was just us, a handful of good kids with keys to the journalism shack, the permanent temporary building just outside the main brick building. Ostensibly we were there because we hadn’t finished the paper during the day, but it felt like tradition. We’d make puns and headlines, write manifestos. I’d do last-minute French homework. After 11 the other editor would arrive from his shift at Jack in the Box, still in uniform, and we’d get a second wind. We didn’t have sex or smoke dope or drink. We didn’t need to. Night was a place we could go to on our own. During the day we wandered the fringes of popularity. At night we cast a magic circle and for a few hours lived safely inside it.
When the paper was finished, we’d lock up and I’d drive the mile home. And stay up even later at the kitchen table eating frozen bagels and reading Dear Abby. The next morning I’d drag myself back to school, carrying a big Thermos of black coffee. It was a mark that I had been where others hadn’t.
Besides coffee, I drank Tab and Diet Dr. Pepper and took No-Doz. I was irritable, had frequent headaches. (My mother took me to the eye doctor for the headaches. Get more sleep, he said.) I was also prone to energy spurts, got a certain giddy high, one that I don’t recall seeing mentioned in the books and articles on sleep deprivation. Maybe the doctors are scared to tell us. You never see headlines like “Staying Up Makes People Laugh” or “Four of Five Americans Thrilled to Be Silly at 2 AM.” All I can say is there’s much to recommend the curious insulation, the fragile delight bordering on ecstasy.
In high school my mother gave me a red candle on Valentine’s Day, with a card that said “For Sandi who burns her candle at both ends.” My parents wrung their hands over my late hours, but they never gave me a curfew: my work was important. I was a sleep-defying wonder.
I was a ghost in that house, slipping in, slipping out, occasionally taking human form to yell and accuse. Maybe I wanted to escape from their hovering concern: I had pneumonia one year and was hospitalized for asthma the next. I used a breathing machine twice a day. I didn’t want my parents to worry about me. I wanted to stay away, out of their line of vision. I escaped by being out of sync.
I carved out my independence on my own body, shaving hours off my sleep time. It was a quiet, prefeminist, mildly self-destructive way to rebel.
In my high school class there was a pretty, voluptuous girl who lost about 20 pounds–for a time–and became gorgeous and thin. Her fantasy, she told a friend who told me, was to spend all night in the grocery store, alone, with an oven, and eat whatever she wanted.
It sounded reasonable; we girls were all keeping our appetites reined in. And she chose for her secret fantasy theater a neighborhood place, familiar as the pink cans of Tab we drank incessantly. She knew that at night the store became mysterious and secret as only the everyday does.
Or was I living out the Jackrabbit Theory?
Hunter S. Thompson speculates in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972 that he wrote in marathon sessions without food or sleep for the same reason that a jackrabbit will wait until the last minute before he darts across a highway.
A rabbit’s life is pretty boring, Thompson says. Almost getting run over is the only way for them to put some excitement into their lives. Even jackrabbits need cheap thrills.
Historically, doing without sleep has been a way of transcending the world of the flesh. In tribes around the world, doing without sleep has been used in ritual, denying the needs of the body to join with the Great Sleepless Being, something like fasting for purification. The 18th-century mystic Novalis claimed “the less sleep we need, the more closely we approach perfection.” On Shavuot, a spring harvest festival that also celebrates the receiving of the Torah, Jews customarily stay up reading portions of the books of the Old Testament and Talmud. According to The First Jewish Catalog, it is said the heavens open at midnight, “making it a propitious time for our prayers and thoughts to ascend.”
Sleep has been seen by the more pragmatic and judgmental among us as a waste of time, an indication of sloth. Plato said free men shouldn’t sleep all night. An old saying: “Nature requires five, custom gives seven, laziness takes nine, and wickedness eleven.” Ben Franklin said there would be time enough for sleeping in the grave. Exceptional people throughout history have battled with sleep; they have too much to do and just one lifetime. While a student, the scholar of religions Mircea Eliade trained himself to sleep only four or five hours a night. (He went on to write about sleep-deprivation rituals.) Eliade, who taught at the University of Chicago, wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, “The struggle against sleep, like the struggle against normal modes of behavior, signified for me a heroic attempt to transcend the human condition.” He tried to cut back further to emulate the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who slept only two hours a night. With enough coffee, Eliade found he could stay up for 22 hours, but he started sleeping more because he was afraid of ruining his eyesight.
Read any biography or profile of an exceptional (or even merely spotlighted) person and you’re likely to find a testimonial to sleep deprivation couched in words describing hard work, dedication, energy. Just from a magazine at hand: “How Macy’s dynamo fashion director sails through her twelve-hour workdays (and four-hours’-sleep nights).” The pantheon of famous short sleepers includes Virgil, Napoleon, Darwin, Emilie du Chatelet, Leonardo da Vinci, George Bernard Shaw, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Isaac Asimov, Edward R. Murrow, Donald Trump. The common message: They have too much to do. They can’t be bothered. They live fast, are impatient with the demands of the body. Their waking lives are important. The same holds true for groups. If a legislature stays in session through the 11th hour, its work must be essential. Even though it’s obvious that the legislators are in a bind because they put off important decisions.
The history of the trade union movement, until very recently, has been the struggle for an ever-shorter workday. The salaried white-collar worker-warrior of today is steeped in the culture of sleep as a waste of time–and money. “Higher wages reduce sleep,” a Michigan State University researcher concluded in a study commissioned for the National Bureau of Economics Research. The study found that when wages increased 25 percent, sleep dropped 1 percent.
Short sleeping is good for the images of movers and shakers. How can we hate moguls and call them fat cats when they deprive themselves of sleep like old-time spirit-seeking ascetics? They’re not capitalist pigs; they don’t have time to wallow. And how can we begrudge Congress another pay increase? How can we criticize President Clinton? They’re working overtime.
On the other hand, short sleeping isn’t always so easy to verify among the ones who flaunt it. Legend has it that Thomas Edison needed only two hours of sleep a day. He said in 1924, “Lack of sleep never hurt anybody.” But he wrote in his diary that he slept four or five hours, admitting that he sometimes went back to sleep, and that he took frequent naps. Sleep researchers, advocates that they are, are particularly gleeful when recounting this.
The nameless middle managers, bound to work by modems, appointments, and voice mail, work more, work scared. They come to work early, eat lunch at their desks, and leave late, fearing they won’t be taken seriously otherwise. They struggle because it’s expected, because no one suggests they work nine to five. They don’t punch time clocks. They’re upright, trustworthy, and by God they’ve got to get ahead.
Federal workers were the first in this country to get an eight-hour day, back during the Andrew Johnson administration. That explains the terrible word for those boring people who work nine to five because they lack the creativity to think of working longer: bureaucrat.
But the ambitious hard worker is a far cry from the hapless person who just doesn’t sleep much. From time to time “ordinary” people appear who claim they need little sleep. Sometimes they’re monitored in sleep labs and found to be impostors. The apparently legitimate cases seem pathetic. In his book Sleep, Harvard sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson says an Englishwoman who sleeps 40 minutes a day feels fine but is “rather bored.” In Wide Awake at 3 A.M., psychologist Richard Coleman cites a Reuters story of a Cuban man unable to sleep after suffering a trauma during a botched childhood tonsillectomy. He had recurring nightmares of dying and became afraid to sleep. The man hadn’t slept for 40 years. He needed drugs and transcendental meditation in order to rest and even then was technically awake. He described himself as feeling drained. “It’s a tragedy,” he said.
At 4:01 AM on December 2, 1987, the City Council elected Eugene Sawyer acting mayor of Chicago. The crowd that had gathered to protest in the lobby of City Hall at some point became a group, a group doing an extraordinary thing together–staying up all night in a public place. By around 2 AM, people seemed to have forgotten their lives outside City Hall. We had shed our identities and become a new minority–people in a public building in the middle of the night, on neutral turf. (By day, officialdom lays claim to City Hall. By night, it’s up for grabs.) I remember the feeling: we’re all in this together.
The same thing happens when people line up all night to wait for tickets for a ball game or concert. Community forms nightly, routinely, says sociologist Murray Melbin in Night as Frontier, where he compares nighttime on-the-street populations to populations in the 19th-century American west. Only the brave, the outcast, the desperate venture into this fringe territory. Most of its inhabitants are young single men.
In Melbin’s experiments, people on the street at night were more willing than daytime pedestrians to take the trouble to return a lost key or give strangers directions. (And less likely to be pressed for time.)
And just as the Wild West gave way to civilization, the night is being tamed by more and more, becoming less and less strange.
The street at night, however, has never belonged to women. Women organize rallies to take back the night. They check calendars, get permits, make fliers, issue press releases, line up speakers, set up sound systems, silk-screen T-shirts, photocopy song sheets, gather noisemakers–in order to walk down the street at night.
The indoor night has terrors of its own, but children are told to trust it: “Don’t be afraid of the dark. Trust the shadows, there is nothing in them. They are empty. That is not a monster but your jacket draped over the rocking chair. Freud said you were not touched and you only imagine that you were. It was the night. It was a dream. You are crazy. You didn’t see a shadow. And if anyone touched you, it doesn’t matter. Besides, it was only touch. It wasn’t violent. That wasn’t a hand under the covers when he came to kiss you good night. It was a dream. You’ll forget in the morning. It never happened. It was a love pat. He was trying to kiss your heart. If you were awake, it wouldn’t have happened. If it did. If you had been sitting in a chair. Reading. Doing homework. If you had kept awake.”
And in the dusk of memory, women and men remember and forget, bring the pictures and the sounds into clarity and lose them in more shadow.
Second childhood, we get lost and lost again. Forty percent of people over 60 have some kind of sleeping problem. In Sleep Disorders: America’s Hidden Nightmare, business consultant Roger Fritz tells of a study showing that nursing-home patients don’t sleep more than a full hour at a time; two-thirds of the residents suffer from sleep deprivation. Are these the wide-awake thoughts we can look forward to–“Someone is coughing, someone is screaming, someone is thinking of screaming, someone is watching, someone is waiting to snatch my meager belongings. Someone is waiting to snatch me from myself, someone in the hallways, scratching, pacing, scuffing, someone is asking me, What do you want? Why don’t you sleep? Why don’t you close your eyes? Someone is waiting for me to drop off.
“It’s already day, it’s not yet day, it’s yesterday, a year ago I didn’t have these side rails, a year ago I had a yard, there were children and snow and a helicopter overhead and cookies and card playing. I was looking for the ace of spades. I was avoiding the queen of hearts. The cookies were heart-shaped, they’re burning. And the children call and then are silent. My mother’s apron. Gone. Snatched from me in my sleep.”
When I was young and looking to the far future for a love life I could barely imagine, I would read Dear Abby’s advice to teens. She cautioned against “going all the way” to “prove your love.” Nowadays sleep is the thing that’s sacrificed.
And the beauty of the concept of giving up sleep to your sweetest is that it’s low-cost and nonsexist. You sacrifice future alertness, make yet another withdrawal at the sleep bank.
So you find yourself, for example, driving down the highway in the heart of the late night, the white line between lanes thickened to a smudge, sleep pressing your eyelids. Your body wants to sleep but wants to merge, to hurry home with your lover, though it’s already recklessly late on a weekday night.
Your unspoken gift: “This is a measure of what you are worth. You are worth an eclipsing of duty. I will be inside a dumb stupor all day long, and in that small way I am giving a crumb of my career for you. To you. Full in our desires, aware of every nerve and nuance, we are outlaws, while the good burghers are slumbering in their close, double-bolted, narrow chambers, hemmed in by pitifully small dreams.”
Though of course the good burghers are doing nothing of the kind.
We know we’re not supposed to. Really we do. The data is accessible, the consequences plain: people who don’t sleep enough become paranoid, lose concentration, do poorly on tests, can’t do routine tasks. But–here’s the rub–they often recover quickly. One of the first bona fide experiments on sleep deprivation was in 1896 at the University of Iowa. There three young men did without sleep for almost four days. They were miserable. One hallucinated.
But after they went to sleep, they were restored.
In 1965, a 17-year-old Californian stayed awake for 264 hours as a team of Stanford sleep experts and clinicians observed. He wasn’t much good at routine tasks during the 11 days he didn’t sleep, but he managed to win pinball games every time he played one of the researchers monitoring him. And he bounced back after a long sleep.
But it’s common sense that deprivation as a way of life is not a good thing. In August the New York Times reported the newest catch, a suspected link between weakened immune systems and inadequate sleep. “And it is not a coincidence,” Martin C. Moore-Ede posits in The Twenty-Four-Hour Society: Understanding Human Limits in a World That Never Stops, “that the most notorious industrial accidents of our time–Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez–all occurred in the middle of the night, when those with hands-on responsibility were dangerously fatigued.” Moore-Ede, a Harvard Medical School professor and a workplace consultant, points out that the NASA officials who gave the Challenger the go-ahead had been working for 20 straight hours, after only a few hours of sleep the night before.
In reaction to more common and less horrific consequences of sleep deprivation and other aspects of workaholism, a countertrend has developed called downshifting. For the 90s. From the people who brought you quality time and slow food. Downsize your ambition a few notches, wake up later and smell the flowers. Moderation. The new discovery of the mid-90s will be sleep and its natural restorative powers. The paeans will flourish, in how-to books and interoffice memos. I can see it now: Be proactive. Go to sleep.
Public service announcements will proliferate. But the ads will have to prove that sleep has a tangible payoff. I imagine something like this on the radio:
Background noise of footsteps of people arriving in an office; sounds of phones ringing and being answered.
Joan (slightly harried): “Hey, Mary, you look great, especially for a Monday morning. Did you go to some fancy retreat last weekend?”
Mary (calm, secure): “No, Joan, just got my usual eight or nine hours, like I do every night.”
Joan: “But doesn’t sleeping take a lot of time?”
Mary: “You know, Joan, I save time by sleeping. When I get enough sleep, I don’t need an alarm clock. I wake up rested, I think more clearly and I’m more productive. You know that $10,000 bonus I got last week for the new ad campaign?”
Joan: “I’ve been meaning to ask you where you got that idea. It was brilliant.”
Mary: “You’re not going to believe it, but it came to me in a dream. You know, lots of achievers get ideas in dreams. Let me tell you about this chemist who was trying to figure out the structure of benzene . . . ” (Fade out.)
Voice-over: “Sleep, Nature’s Labor-Saving Device. Get to sleep. Sleep and grow rich.”
(This public service announcement may not be so farfetched. The Japanese government runs campaigns to persuade workers to take time off. The slogan one year was “To Take a Vacation Is Proof of Your Competence.”)
A sleep researcher once told me: Staying up late is like building a secret extra room over the garage. And then one day you wake up and find you have to pay taxes on it.
I know what he means. Sleep deprivation is finally taking its toll–in fact, it’s hitting me over the head. Nowadays when I don’t get enough sleep, I get–surprise, it didn’t used to happen–run down. And when I do get myself to bed at a decent hour, I have trouble falling asleep. I’ve tried to give in to my night-owl proclivity–to set up my life so I can stay up till three, sleep until noon, but it’s hard. I have more flexibility than most people because I free-lance and teach. But things don’t always go my way. Periodically I’m offered a class that starts at the crack of dawn–10:15 or so. And even if the trains don’t run on time, at least they run more often during rush hour. It’s safer to walk the streets in daylight. And when my friends go out to dinner they go at, well, dinnertime.
On my birthday last year I had a few close friends over for brunch. I drew up my courage and whispered my resolution: I’m going to get adequate sleep.
I did, maybe 20 percent of the time in the year that followed. And I learned that I need nine or ten hours of sleep to feel truly rested. Which explains some frustration in the past. I’d sleep for seven or eight hours and still feel tired. So I scaled down to five–if I was going to be tired anyway, I might as well allow myself more time to work.
In my quasi-reformed life-style, when I do get enough I take note of the calm, awashed feeling from a full night’s sleep. I become a pool of water in a bowl, a perfect, uncracked one. I can finish sentences, retrieve the right word. I can focus. But the cost: sleeping through those hallowed dark hours, the time when I feel most myself.
And the time it takes!
I’m most afraid, I think, of losing my sense of purpose. If you don’t get enough sleep, it’s always clear what you need to do–sleep. You can arrange your life around that struggle. It’s like being an alcoholic and knowing you need to stop drinking. The need to sleep protects you, even as it strips you of a lining of comfort, prevents you from probing into what you really need to be doing, what you’re really feeling. And what if I get enough sleep every night and my rough edges don’t round off? I’ll no longer be able to explain the general shortness, spaciness, brittleness. I’ll have to say this is my real personality. “I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay for it,” begins the short story “Days” by Deborah Eisenberg. That sort of unmasking terrifies me.
And when I don’t get enough sleep, the headaches, the sleepiness, they feel like the beginning of a conversation. At least I’m not wandering aimlessly on this darkened plain; there are walls to it, you see, something to push up against. If I were to get enough sleep and end the wanting, I’m afraid, really and truly, that I would feel alone, suspended in the universe, no point to it all, the end of call and response.
Adam and Eve say to the snake, “We want to return. We want vigilance, we want life without death, without end, without fear of the end. We don’t want to grow old. We want this world and none other.”
The snake replies, “I didn’t know it would turn out this way.”
God refuses to enter the conversation.
At this year’s birthday gathering, a dinner just a few days ago, I recounted my shaky progress toward getting enough sleep. My friends, indulgent people that they are, said they were impressed. Satisfied with my efforts in the area of sleep, they asked about my plans for self-improvement in the coming year. Exercise, I said.
But before that conversation took place, we had a dramatic brush with danger. One guest strode into the apartment, declared that she smelled gas, and started opening windows. I hadn’t noticed anything. I called the gas company, and two employees arrived, pulled the stove from the wall, and found a leak. Another friend reminded me that she’d said she’d smelled gas in the past, but I’d dismissed it because the burners were working.
I’ve been in the apartment for 15 months. The Peoples Gas workers couldn’t tell how long the valve had been open.
This is and is not a metaphor. You get used to what your life is like because that’s what your life is like. I’m a person prone to headaches and spaciness. I’m a person who had a gas leak in my stove, perhaps for more than a year. I’m a person who often doesn’t sleep enough. You do what you can. When it gets bad enough, you do something.
“I’m constantly working with real people,” says Stanford psychologist Richard Coleman, who takes a commonsense approach to helping people with sleeping disorders. “My idea is to simply ask how they’re doing now,” he told me. He asks people how much sleep they get, how safe they are on the job, how effective they are. “To show a particular schedule, to say, here’s the ideal thing to do, is a total fantasy. You as an individual decide if you want to make a few changes.”
Every night it’s a struggle to remind myself that if I go to bed now, I’ll be alert in the morning. I recall with such fondness those high school late nights–that urgency, the sense of time rushing forward while it stands still. I’m explaining this to a friend, pattering on about the decor of the journalism shack. And then something hits me, I put my hand on my forehead, the lump rising in my throat. In high school I had the run of the place, but I couldn’t breathe.
I had the keys to the house, my mother’s car, the shack. My asthma has always been better when I’m awake, vertical, and I didn’t have any trouble staying that way. (I wasn’t surprised to read in Sleep Disorders that 70 percent of asthma deaths take place during sleeping hours.) Whatever time I got home, no matter what, I would have to spend 20 minutes on my breathing machine. I would park the car in the garage, then sit at the kitchen table till finally I could put it off no longer–the moment when I’d measure out the millimeters of liquid, clamp my teeth around the white plastic mouthpiece, and breathe in the mist that would clear out my lungs until morning. The machine couldn’t help but remind me, my psyche, before I turned off the light and faced the darkness, that I was incomplete, not just mortal, but in danger.
And it didn’t matter how many French verb tenses I knew or puns I could make about required English texts. For at least a couple of hours I would have to lie down and let the body take over. Completely. Nestle into it really–not trusting it, not welcoming sleep, but accepting finally that that was all I had, all there was left to do.
And all I could do was fight it like hell.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.