Steven Heller | Essays

Insomnia: A Wake-Up Call

“The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep,” my primary care physician told me during our last Zoom call. It wasn’t funny then or the half dozen other times since I began experiencing chronic sleep deprivation.

I couldn’t sleep a wink! Tossing and turning, crawling in and out of bed, getting increasingly agitated with each amplified tic tok from the clock across from the bed on the window sill. My head fills with globs of minutiae, like the fact that my doctor’s medical wisdom is not fully covered by insurance. But I know using this as an excuse avoids the real reasons for my insomnia-driven sleep-deprivation. At my ripe age, there are more, not less, things to worry about and getting requisite sleep is extremely difficult.

On my pillow at 11:00 p.m.! By 2:45 a.m. I realize I will rarely sleep like a baby again as the multitude of things seep into my porous skull — worrisome things, bothersome things and unimportant things, like what to have for breakfast. Still awake at 4:15 a.m. I know that if I do not get a few hours of shut eye, I’ll be nodding off at the computer struggling not to close my heavy eyelids during the day’s interminable Zoom meetings.

Zoom sleep! I thought I had tricks to avoid zoom-barrassment — like, if I keep the lights low, no one can see me dozing. “Can you see it when my lids are closing,” I sometimes ask my closest collaborator at work. “Sure, I do,” she responds. “That’s why periodically I ask you questions, to give you a virtual nudge.”

Take meds! For two years I’ve experienced three to four nights when despite ingesting 3gms of Melatonin each night — and although my body is kaput — it is impossible to shut off my mind. During the day I am likely to drift off at any moment. Yet the minute the clock hits 11 p.m. — time for bed — every infinitesimal meaningful or meaningless thought collides into a massive ball of neural fiber. When it does, I ask myself “Should I write some of these thoughts down?” I figure that the time should not go entirely to waste. But I don’t. I just think more about stuff — good, bad, and easily forgotten stuff. The stream ebbs and flows, but it won’t stop until the alarm rings.

Triggering insomnia! In my case it started one night, when I happily anticipated seeing and holding a finished printed copy of a book I’d worked on that was to be delivered the next day. Spending the bedtime hours imagining turning the pages over and over, made sleep impossible and began a nasty habit that continues today.

Sleep is perplexing! As a kid I used to wonder how could I just close my eyes and — BINGO — be transported to places so real yet incongruous and filled with alternate doses of terror and pleasantness. Where did these images come from? I looked forward to the dream state as a vacation from reality. Then, somewhere I took a wrong turn and got on the sour milk train moving further and further, deeper and deeper to places unknown and unpleasant where the dream of reason created monsters. Recently I’ve been at the point where trying to restfully sleep has become a chore at best and impossibility at worse.

Suffering! I presume everyone (if anyone is) reading this has suffered insomnia triggered by work, personal, social, asocial, or political anxiety. Maybe a proportion of you suffer from the hallucinogenic aftermath too, a kind of narcolepsy. If you are struggling, unable to alleviate or reduce your predisposition to insomnia, my heart goes out to you...

Answers! When he’s not telling jokes, my doctor suggests that two hours before bedtime I turn off all screens — TVs, iPhones, Laptops, iPads — anything that emits other than normal, incandescent light. He recommends light (no pun intended) reading to help slow down the mind. I comply — most of the time. The exception is when I am excitedly writing or researching for an article, I can’t just put on the breaks when the process is going well. Stopping just forces me to continue thinking about the next sentence and paragraph. Sometimes, I’ll discover a point that I had missed, or an otherwise elusive ending. Endings are always hard; it is a sin to lose the train of thought.

Training! My choice is to either get off the train or stay aboard, throw caution to the wind, turn on the screen to low light, and continue to write. I am convinced that once I get the idea out of my head, I am freer to fall sleep. Of course, it never works exactly as planned.

My fall back? I always have a book to read. But what kind? I am told that most of my favorite books about war, politics and history are not suitable for bedtime. But if I try to read them a few hours before bedtime, I invariably fall asleep for an hour or so, then wake up startled and find it impossible to get back to sleep again. Do you see my predicament?

The garbage trucks! I live in a neighborhood where private carters illegally pick-up industrial-strength trash (i.e. large, heavy metallic objects) at 11:00 p.m., 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. Legally, they must suspend operation from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. yet even after scores of complaints to the Community Board and police station right next door to my building, I can set a watch by the truck noise. I don’t wear a watch, and I cannot see the ticking clock without my glasses, but on those frequent nights when I’m not sound asleep, I hear them, precisely at their appointed hours. Although the garbage truck noise saves me the effort of putting on my glasses, once I am awakened, I do not have a prayer of going back to sleep while the compactors are clanging and engines are whirring.

City Windows! A triple pane window with heavy soundproof glass in each frame, prevents the majority of ambient street noise. Without them life in my building would be unbearable. But this soundproofing does not squelch the garbage trucks and blaring fire engine sirens. (Did I mention fire trucks from the station one block north, use my street when they speed eastward?)

In words! So many words with the prefix “in” have such terrible meanings – insane, insecure, incontinent, indictable, incapable, inexcusable. Inconsequential, you say? Maybe! But it is just one of the many extraneous things that run through my head when I should be peacefully asleep in bed.

Jobs | July 17