Saturday, September 08, 2007

new resistant strain of insomnia

“I’m depressed,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m angry,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m bored,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m nauseous,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I drank too much coffee,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m not tired,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

Soon he is snoring, blissful. It doesn’t matter what unpleasant place he starts from: in the end, he’s fast asleep.

I’m an insomniac. I always have been. I’ve hardly ever experienced this casual dropping off to sleep that others report, that Mark demonstrates every night. I am jealous of people who drift off to sleep in an instant, who don’t even bother reading a book in bed because they’d just fall asleep and drool on the open pages.

The only time I readily drop off to sleep is when I’m sitting at my desk at work, in full view of my co-workers, willing myself with all my might to stay awake and focus. I slump forward in my chair, my eyes roll back in my head, and I’m unconscious, my mouth hanging just a little bit open, my forehead conveniently replying to some spam that’s sitting in my Inbox. Even when I’m asleep at my desk, I don’t stay asleep. No, I’m just asleep long enough to be observed by passersby. I awaken when I accidentally control-A, select everything, and forehead-type over the last two hours’ worth of work.

^Z^Z. It’s no good; that text is gone and it’s never coming back. Even 5 minutes of crummy, poor-quality sleep has dire consequences.

The only time I stay asleep—really asleep—is when I have something to do in early in the morning. If I need to be awake at 6:30, it’s as if I took a powerful soporific at 6; I invariably sleep ‘til 10 and wake up groggy and disoriented.

If you confess all this to someone who’s not an insomniac, they will tell you solemnly, “Oh, you shouldn’t drink anything with caffeine in it after lunch. You should always go to sleep at the same time.” And then they ask, “Have you ever tried melatonin?”

Melatonin? No caffeine after lunch? Give me a break!

Fellow insomniacs would never say anything like that. They know that even Ambien doesn’t always work—that half the time, you won’t even fall asleep, let alone do any of that famous sleep-eating or sleep-driving that so scandalized non-insomniacs.

Most real insomniacs have special double-secret one-two punch formulas and sacred rituals for inducing sleep. Pills and potions and herbal teas and fitted earplugs and special egg-crate foam mattress pads. But, they warn you, don’t take those pills and potions for more than two days in a row—the whole intricately constructed nostrum will stop working.

In fact, it won’t just stop working for you: it’ll stop working for EVERYONE. It’s like antibiotics—a benzo-resistant strain of insomnia will develop. So don’t tempt fate. Don’t screw it up for the rest of us. We’ll all never get back to sleep.

My own theory is that when all else fails, small, immediate changes will help. So I’m migratory at night. I’ll move from one horizontal surface to another. From the bed to the couch. From the couch to the guest room futon. From the guest room futon to the kitchen floor. I’ll swap pillows. I’ll switch blankets.

It’s like going on a camping trip in your own house: you’ve bushwhacked from the living room to the back bedroom. You set up camp. You find level terrain. You clear off small obstructions: pebbles, toasters, cats, government cheese. It’s very important that the ground is perfectly smooth where you put down your Therm-a-Rest pad and sleeping bag.

Then you gather twigs and small branches and build a signal fire.

Wait. No. You may as well stop short of building a fire. You do not want to build a signal fire in the back bedroom. That’s the kind of bad judgment a lack of sleep will foster.

Instead of building a fire, you should turn on the bedside light (that ugly reminder of sleeplessness) and pull out something to read. A book. A monograph. A magazine. A journal article. It’s best not to torture yourself with something dull under the misapprehension that if you’re reading something dull, you’ll just go to sleep.

Because you’d be wrong! So wrong!

You’ll be bored, and instead of reading, you’ll start worrying about something stupid.

Worry can actually be constructive, but the worry that comes with insomnia is not the kind of worry that MacArthur genius grant winners indulge in.

Here are five things that I don’t worry about while I’m lying awake at 3 am:

1. The US-led invasion of Iraq
2. What my carbon footprint looks like
3. The three degree cosmic background radiation
4. The existence of God
5. The plot for a best-selling novel

If you work out how many hours you could apply to this stuff, you can see that you might get somewhere. Let’s say you’re like me and you lie awake with your eyes pinned wide open like Malcolm MacDowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange. And you do that for about 2 hours most nights. That’s 730 hours per year. 18 and a quarter really diligent work-weeks. About 4 months.

You can do a lot in 4 months.

But I’m not laying awake thinking about my carbon footprint and how to reduce it. No. I’m more apt to light on one of these topics:

1. Whether I should force myself to look at the ugly vertical gash down my midsection
2. Whether the 80-foot tall redwood tree planted in a precarious place in back of our house is going to topple in the wind and squash my bed with me in it. Or worse yet, squash Evert who will sue us.
3. Whether it’d be totally uncool to tell Evert’s friends that they’re disturbing me when they work on noisy projects and come and go at 3AM.
4. Suspicious moles, scaly patches, and other frightening skin anomalies
5. Why I don’t just stash my money under the mattress instead of losing it on bad investments.

Notice that I can’t really do anything about any of these things at 3AM. I can speculate about the nature of Evert’s friends’ projects, which involve whirring, grinding, pounding, coughing, and driving the jeep in and out of the driveway repeatedly. These are not the noises of kinky sex, hard partying, or fellow insomniacs; these are sounds I associate with miniature construction projects: building a teeny tiny replica of the Sears Tower out of authentic materials or assembling a warehouse-worth of IKEA furniture.

But notice: I’m not actually worrying about what they’re building next door. Instead, I’m worrying about whether it’d be way too uncool to get dressed and knock on the door and say, “Hey, could you guys keep it down some? The sawdust and metal filings are clogging my lungs and the noise is making it hard for me to get to sleep.” That would label me as some kind of hopeless square. Someone who doesn’t understand the nature of inspiration and the artistic temperament.

The thing is, I can picture what they’d say about me as I turned to go back into to my own house to get back to what is now noise-free tossing and turning. I can picture it all too clearly. There’d be some reference made to where I work and to the way I dress. And maybe to my age and gender. Aw. It wouldn’t be nice. This makes me worry even more.

And so I merely fret about how hypothetically uncool it would be to go over there. What I actually do is this: I smoosh the pillow over my ears to block out the noise.

It’s things like suspicious moles and nocturnal construction projects that make unsupervised 3AM thought ill-advised. So at 3AM I never read anything remotely oriented toward self-improvement, my research, or the life of the mind. I read strictly to be entertained, to have my thoughts steered toward the placid waters of popular culture and mid-list fiction.

By last night I’d already used up this week’s New Yorker (one of those accursed double issues that don’t really contain twice as much to read), so I started in on my copy of Details. Details is an odd magazine. It’s like a certain genre of gay porn, except that the young men are wearing clothes. The poses, the sullen expressions, the beautiful androgynous faces, the adolescent thinness—it’s gay porn with clothes on. The articles are too short, but Augusten Burroughs and George Saunders and other well-known writers put in a story now and then. It’s glossy and it smells good. I find it very comforting. And—best of all—it never talks about women’s diseases. Nothing in these pages to worry about.

This month’s Details is disappointing though. Augusten Burroughs is talking about—of all things—testosterone. There are the usual pieces about skin care, avoiding unflattering jeans, and growing into Fatherhood. It’s as if the writers are all on vacation and are phoning it in. Maybe these stories are computer generated. Certainly the computer could’ve acted more enthusiastic. I flip through 350 pages of Dolce and Gabbana ads, introductions of this year’s hot starlet and macho man-hero, and slick fashion photography in no time and, taking one last whiff of its scented pages, give up and chuck it on the nightstand. This rag isn’t going to lull me to sleep.


I reach for 153 hardcopy pages of Volume 1 of a JD Salinger collection I printed out at work, 21 stories that JD Salinger apparently didn’t want anthologized and pulled from bookstore shelves after a short underground print run. These stories had been published before in places like Collier’s, Esquire, and the Saturday Evening Post. Perfectly respectable venues for an emerging writer.

Jaina had turned up a bound copy—that’s how I knew this thing existed. I was able to find it on a server in an Eastern bloc country. I’d been looking forward to reading this illicit printing. I’d even planned to read it through my insomniac haze; I planted the manuscript beside step three of my nightly migration (the guest futon in the back bedroom).

Phonys. Manhattan apartments with doormen. The Lunts. Prep schools and reversibles.

This is gonna be good. Since so little Salinger remains in print, the last time I’d read any Salinger I hadn’t read before is when I was in high school.

I’ll cut to the chase: I was disappointed. So disappointed. I even found a short story called “I’m Crazy” that was the basis for the first couple of chapters of Catcher in the Rye. Whatever had happened between 1945, when this thing was published in Collier’s, and 1951, when Catcher in the Rye hit the stands, was important. It’s funny how just a few words and a few stray plot elements can make such a huge deal.


Okay. Here’s what Salinger wrote in 1945, the first two sentences of his short story:

It was about eight o’clock at night, and dark, and raining, and freezing, and the wind was noisy the way it is in spooky movies on the night the old slob with the will gets murdered. I stood by the cannon on the top of Thomsen Hill, freezing to death, watching the big south windows of the gym—shining big and bright and dumb, like the window of a gymnasium and nothing else (but maybe you never went to a boarding school).

By 1951, he wrote, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.

See what I mean? Something happened in those six years. Something good and necessary.

In the original, the 1945 version, Holden’s sister Phoebe is as precocious as ever, but she calls him “Holdie.” Holdie. It makes a difference. And there’s a little sister Viola too who’s still in a crib and who likes olives (“ovvels”), the kind with pimentos. It’s just as well that he pulled the older versions of the story from circulation.

Even Holden’s failing essay, the one he’s handed in to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, has been rewritten by 1951 and is bad in a much better way.

In the later version of the story, the one that’s in Catcher in the Rye, Holden still wonders what happens to the ducks in the pond in Central Park when it freezes, but there was absolutely no reason to change that detail. It was swell, grand even. Nothing phony about those ducks or about Central Park.

You can picture Holden, in those few seconds before he falls into the deep dreamless sleep of adolescence, thinking about the ducks and where they go when the pond freezes.

I think about Holden, the ducks, and the weird scaly patch of skin on my cheek as I drift into a fragile unconsciousness at the verge of dawn, the bedside light still on. Evert’s friends pound, buzz, and grind on next door, oblivious, engaged in a struggle of their own.


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