First Person: I Want to Go to Sleep | Essay | Chicago Reader

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First Person: I Want to Go to Sleep

The curse of insomnia: even when you sleep you dream that you're awake.

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The rats come at midnight, the raccoons at one, the demons sometime later. I watch the first two from my darkened bedroom, the glare of the nearby streetlight just bright enough to illuminate the garbage cans they're picking their way through. Lately there's also been a pack of unidentifiable varmints--a gluttonous throng of dachshund-size things that sounds like a gang of men as they hack their way through the underbrush on their march to the cylindrical mess tents. Every night, as I watch the animals on parade, I make a mental note to call the rodent control bureau to see if they'll come by and force the landlord next door to buy covers for the cans. But I never do--maybe because it wouldn't do any good, or maybe because the show is more entertaining than the Magnum reruns or the woman on six different cable channels who uses a giant drill to turn soybean oil into low-cholesterol mayonnaise. Besides, if you press the slats of the blinds back together and climb into bed, the demons might reappear--the illuminated dial on the bedside clock that suddenly is running on double time, the usually placid mind that races like a Corvette burning nitro, the dark reminders that morning is closing in and sleep is as hard to come by as an oriental rug store that isn't going out of business.

It happens all the time, although sometimes it happens only sometimes. What's the difference? When you have insomnia, even when you sleep you dream that you're awake. Sometimes I wake every hour, rising dutifully as if to punch a time clock. Sometimes I wake thinking that I've finally made it through the night, only to realize that I've only made it to 2:30. Sometimes I don't sleep at all; at least I don't think I do. And every morning, whether I've slept or not, I try to get up, feeling as if someone had sneaked into my room during the night and nailed my limbs to the bed. I can't move, and I tell myself that there's no way in the world I'm going to be able to get out of bed and go to work. But then I remember that I don't work, and I pray that the people calling to sign me up for MCI will have the courtesy not to call during my morning or afternoon naps.

Every night around 11 I remember that I forgot to drink a cup of Sleepytime tea, which I hope may be the answer to my problem. By then it's too late, because even if the hawthorn berries and passionflower leaves perform as advertised, the hot liquid will force me out of bed and into the bathroom, so what's the point? That sort of thing happens when you get old, which makes me worry about what else will go wrong with my body to further reduce my chances of sleep.

I've tried a lot of remedies. I've tried warm milk and hot baths, L-tryptophan and vigorous exercise. Usually I try reading magazines until my eyes burn, occasionally getting out of bed to see what's going on at the smorgasbord outside. Sometimes I turn on the television, but even when I could afford HBO I ended up watching the same movies that I watched earlier in the day because I was too tired from not sleeping the night before to do anything else.

A friend of mine who also has insomnia tells me that I should call her when I can't sleep, and we could go out and do something. There are a few reasons this doesn't appeal to me: first, I worry that I'll call on the one night that she actually managed to doze off, and I'll be riddled with guilt for the rest of my life; second, I worry that her husband will start getting funny ideas if I drag her out of bed in the middle of the night, and without him as a friend my miniature-golf companions will be reduced to one; third, I can't think of anything I really want to do in the middle of the night except sleep; and finally, the only other people you're going to meet out there at that hour are other people who can't sleep.

This can be embarrassing if you're not psychologically prepared. When I lived in New York, for example, and was suddenly stricken with claustrophobia, I'd avoid elevators at all costs and instead use the stairs. This is no big deal if you pass someone on the second or third floor, because anyone in a hurry might also be walking instead of riding. But when you run into a similarly afflicted soul on the 73rd landing of the World Trade Center, your clothes dripping with perspiration from the hour-long climb, both of you know what's going on and you really don't want to commiserate; you just want to avert your eyes and wish you were like normal people, who generally think nothing of wedging themselves into a suffocating metal box that would take the fire department hours to pry open in the event of a blackout. It's the same thing with insomnia: the only people who run down to the mini-mart at 3 AM for microwaved cheese dogs are either people who can't sleep or people you don't want to know. And sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. So instead of getting up to do something, usually I just lie in bed and seethe.

Often when I do fall asleep, things go awry. Once I managed to get a great deal on an apartment in a giant building with a grocery store and a beauty parlor, but not long after I moved in I was awakened in the middle of the night by what sounded like someone smashing a bathtub with a hammer--a series of deafening thuds that reverberated around my bedroom. I dismissed this as someone's drunken escapade, but the third or fourth time it happened I phoned the front desk and told the man at the switchboard that he should call my neighbor and tell him or her that if the banging didn't stop I would be going up there with an ax and blood would be spilled. The man at the switchboard said he wasn't authorized to say such things to residents, but he would request that my neighbor please keep the noise down, and he would also leave a note for management describing the incident. A few days later I discovered the source of the racket: the elderly woman who lived directly above me suffered from some sort of neurological disease that sometimes resulted in her doing things she wasn't aware she was doing. This made me feel awful about my death threat, and naturally it made it difficult for me to sleep. At the request of the building manager, the elderly woman's daughter intervened and tried to get her mother medical help. But the dementia was severe enough that the banging never stopped, and finally I had to move.

The best time to have insomnia is the summer, because you can usually find a baseball game from the west coast somewhere on the radio. But once the World Series ends, all you're going to turn up in the early hours is something like Larry King, and boredom doesn't mean sleep--at least not for the listeners or the guests, though the same can't be said for King. I was a guest on the show in the fall of '83, promoting a book on coping with the breakup of AT&T. While replying to one listener's question, my coauthor glanced nervously at me, then motioned toward King: his eyes were closed and his chin was bobbing on his chest. The people in the control room thought this was funny; we could see them laughing behind the glass. They acted as if it happened all the time and they got their kicks by watching the reactions of King's surprised guests. We didn't think this was very funny, since there would be no one to take the next call when we'd answered the one about how you get the decoy-duck phone to quack. But then the producer must have yelled into King's headset, because his head popped up in time for him to say "Paterson, New Jersey, for Alan Green."

Later that morning, while I lay in bed, I listened to a repeat of the show. I quickly understood why King had fallen asleep, but as bored as I was listening to myself drone on about inside wiring and the miracle of call screening on your answering machine, as always I couldn't quite make the all-important leap to shut-eye.

Once when I was in college I had mononucleosis. This, of course, is an insomniac's dream, since the disease leaves you unable to do anything but sleep. Not me. After five consecutive nights of sitting in front of the television waiting for Sunrise Sermon or Modern Farmer to come on, I decided it was time to consult with my family physician and plead for pharmaceuticals. He said he had never heard of anyone having insomnia and mono at the same time, but this was the doctor who got sick when my aunt once showed up in his office with a hand accidentally bloodied by a serrated bread knife, and who years later would be forced to take a sabbatical when it was revealed that he was drugging his unclothed female patients and masturbating behind a screen, so the fact that he wasn't up on everything having to do with medicine isn't particularly surprising. Anyway, when I told him my problem, he reached up into a cardboard box behind his desk and pulled out a small bottle of factory Quaaludes. This brought my eyes out of my head like a pair of Slinkys, and soon made me the envy of all my friends. The drug didn't exactly help me sleep, but it did mellow me out enough to be unconcerned when my anxious mother stood over me and wailed that my skin and eyes were still as yellow as number-two pencils and that she knew sending me away to school was a tragic mistake.

I've tried other sleep remedies, including Halcion, whose side effects include such inconveniences as a dry mouth and an occasional proclivity to commit homicide, but none works like Contac. When I was in college, we used to empty out the 600 tiny time pills, crush them with a pestle, and return the powder to the capsule. This strategy gives you 12 hours' worth of cold relief in one incredible spurt, and about three minutes after swallowing the pill you may see something like bears dancing on your chest before you slip into a coma. This is such an effective sleep remedy that it proved potent enough to counteract exam-time amphetamines. The only problem with the crushed-up Contac is that you not only sleep through the night, but sometimes through the next day or two, as well. Also, so much cold medicine at one time radically reverses postnasal drip, so if you ever do wake up your sinuses feel like they've been left under a sunlamp for a week.

Earlier this year I became convinced that my bedroom was haunted, that my sleep was being disturbed by some sort of poltergeist. My girlfriend, who sleeps like a stone in her own bed but not at all in mine, thought I might be onto something. So on the advice of her father, who apparently knows about such things, we tried to send the spirit away: I was ordered to put flowers on the bureau and a pan of water under the bed. Then we left for vacation. We went to the beach and the mountains and I still didn't sleep, although an out-of-town friend who used my apartment during that time reported that he slept like a baby. After that my girlfriend's father came by to take a look. He strolled around the bedroom a few times and reported that there weren't any spirits in attendance, which means, I guess, that the flowers and the water did the trick, or that there weren't any ghosts in the first place.

Usually my insomnia comes and goes, but not long ago, after months of not sleeping, I decided it was time for radical action. I read somewhere that depression can cause insomnia, so I called the National Institute of Mental Health to inquire about volunteering for a Prozac study. As it turned out, this research involved a combination of sleep deprivation and the popular new antidepressant; a woman from the program told me that if I decided to participate, I'd have to stay overnight, and I'd only be allowed to sleep four hours a night. "I'd kill for four hours," I told her. She didn't seem to get what I was driving at, but I asked her to send me an information packet anyway, and it said that keeping a depressed person awake at night can cause him or her to feel less depressed the next day. If that's so, I should be spending most of my life skipping around singing "Zippedy do dah, zippedy yea." After that I figured I wasn't depressed, just really tired.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Zielinski.

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