The Ecphorizer

Some Reflections on Insomnia
Marshall Myers

Issue #67 (June 1987)

I can't really remember when it all started; my mind was so muddied that I have a difficult time accounting for days and dates. It seemed to have begun in mid-winter, one of those uneventful hazy, grey days that lingers like low-lying clouds and yields no promise of an impending spring.


Some can write, some can draw,...and some can sleep.

do remember that the first night I lay awake well into morning not particularly focusing my thoughts on any one thing, so that when dawn broke I was a bit surprised to realize that I had not slept at all. I'll have to admit that I was so involved in my thoughts, the directions they led to, their curious twists on reality, that I was not particularly frustrated, at that time, about losing [quoteright]one night's sleep.

Yet by noon the next day, my head was so befogged by lack of sleep that I hungered for evening to come so that I could rid my mind of the cobwebs that seemed to lace from one side of my brain to the other. Even the simplest thinking was little more than dulled, undefined impressions. I was confident that, somehow, when bedtime came, I would fall into the lap of Morpheus and drift off into deep, refreshing slumber. My spirits would be revived and I would feel truly alive again. But it didn't turn out that way.

I decided early in the day that I would treat the whole problem logically. I avoided caffeine all day, not even eating a morsel of chocolate candy a friend offered to me early in the day. I drank decaffeinated coffee. I sipped on caffeine-free soft drinks and I avoided the temptation to catnap just before supper. My actions were based on scientific laws, I thought.

At around nine that evening, I relaxed on the couch to watch some senseless television mystery. It neither interested me nor caused in me enough excitement to risk interrupting my gradual, purposeful winding toward bedtime. I had already locked the doors and secured all the windows. I had even picked up the daily paper and hung my clothes for the next day on a doorknob just above my shoes and a pair of fresh socks. Toward ten o'clock I yawned deeply enough to assure myself that sleep was imminent. After all, I had treated the problem fairly and science was science, wasn't it?

After optimistically setting the alarm for six-thirty AM, I settled into bed, carefully fluffing my pillow to fit the contour of the back of my head. With the lights out, and the only occasional click of the thermostat, I soon drifted into a deep and settling sleep. Yet, barely four hours later, I was awake again for seemingly no apparent reason. I had been dreaming, but it certainly was not any sort of horrid nightmare. But I was awake and I had to deal with it.

My immediate response to this ridiculous situation was, of course, anger. How could I not be sleepy? I had not slept the night before. I had not eaten or drunk anything that would keep me awake. Why had Iawakened at three AM for no logical reason? It just didn't make any sense.

I must have fumed to myself for at least an hour and a half until I realized that my own anger was keeping me awake. I reasoned that if I just calmed myself, I would soon get sleepy and fall back to sleep. After all, six hours of sleep was better than four and certainly better than none at all. I tossed about a bit before I nestled my body into the most comfortable position, lying flat on my back, and I prepared myself psychologically for a visit from precious sleep.

A half hour passed. Still no sleep. I began analyzing the images that flitted through my thoughts. Were my mental pictures characteristic of the left side of the brain and thus the types of images that foretold the onset of sleep? Were the images illogical, vivid in imagery and bizarre enough to signal that sleep was near?

Soon I realized that I had become so analytical that I was not allowing my mind to relax enough to allow sleep to come. As each image crossed my mind I began asking myself, "Is this an impression that has the earmarks of a sleep onset image?" Should I expect sleep to come any second considering the nature of this mental impression?

An hour passed.

I reasoned to myself that I had psyched myself out of sleeping in that bed on that night. What I needed was a change in environment, another bed or couch that would be different enough that I would quickly get back to sleep.

I found another pillow in the living room closet, along with a warm snuggly quilt and wiggled my way into the nest I had made for myself under that heirloom quilt which had the scent of security and sweet sleep.

Another two hours passed. Still I lay wide awake feeling no heaviness in my eyes, experiencing no fits of deep yawning, no signs whatsoever of an impending sleep. By this time, the sun's rays began to lighten the color of the curtains that covered the picture window. In frustration, I threw off the quilt, murmured a few appropriate epithets and shouted, "I give up!"

"One more day," I pleaded with myself. "One more day to get through and I'll surely fall asleep tonight. After all, a body can endure only so much lack of sleep and then it has to sleep. I have reached my limit."

By now, I had not had enough sleep to function effectively in an otherwise sane world. I twice tried to tie my shoes before I gave up and switched to slip-ons. I noticed during the day that my restless, sleepless nights also caused me to make some silly errors in judgment. That morning, I sat down at my desk, set my coffee cup on the desk before me and promptly swept my hand over the desk to shoo away a fly and sent an ocean of tan across a mountain of letters, memoranda and notes on important things I needed to do that day.
Later, as the day wore on, I imagined in very vivid details that the two men standing in the corner of the office were talking about me, that they were actually plotting how to get rid of me and how to lure my wife into bed with each of them — on the same night!

Somehow when I shoved my briefcase into the car and made my way into the traffic, I envisioned every car behind me as tailgating, every driver completely out of his mind, and all the road signs designed to confuse me. I sighed in relief as I turned into the driveway outside my house.

Soon, as the evening wore on, I felt that I should be getting sleepy. After all, I had had twelve hours of sleep to catch up on and twelve hours from then was the time when I would get up. Yet I reminded myself that I would be infinitely grateful to get just eight solid hours of deep, refreshing, relaxing, satisfying sleep. So that when bedtime came, I had convinced myself that one good night's sleep would more than make up for all the muddled moments I had spent in the last forty-eight hours. In fact, I was so settled in my notion that I began imagining how wonderful it would be to have a day when the fuzziness in my head would be gone, when I once again felt like a normal, fully functioning human being who was in peace and harmony with the ways of the world.

But sleep did not come. Instead of falling asleep almost at once as I had the night before, I felt no sleepiness at all. I was, quite literally, numb from lack of sleep. And as the night wore painfully on, I alternated between fits of anger and bouts with tears and uncontrollable sobbing about the unfairness of my fate.

Now I was desperate. Sleep became more precious to me than wife or family or fortune or the thousands of other things that offer gentle satisfaction to those who sleep at night. I thought seriously about ramming my head against the bedpost, but dismissed the idea through the fog when I reasoned that I may not knock myself unconscious and wind up with a headache that would further delay my going to sleep.

Milk! That was the answer that flashed through a mind desperate for sleep. Milk had the chemicals, I remembered, that my brain needed to go to sleep. So, seeking a sure remedy, I gulped down three glasses of cold milk, hardly taking time to breathe between guzzling each eight ounce glass. I climbed back into bed, content that now I had found the answer and all the time, it was in my refrigerator waiting to help me to sleep.

Fifteen minutes later, I hurried to the bathroom and relieved myself of at least twenty-four ounces of liquid that must have hit my bladder all at the same time.

Finally, at four-thirty that morning, I fell into a deep and peaceful sleep, awakening only slightly enough to turn off the alarm, curse the world, and melt again into a sleep that made much more sense than job or family or other obligations. I awoke at one o'clock that afternoon, fully refreshed and ashamed of all the irrational things I had done and said during my insomnia.

Since then, I have slipped into several other cycles of sleeplessness. They defy explanation. I can be physically tired, mentally exhausted, or I can be alert and fully alive. It makes no difference how I feel. I have no way of predicting whether or not I am going to fall asleep and sleep through the night.

If I am in one of my sleepless cycles, I have to accept a lack of sleep as a part of my life at that point. No amount of milk or exercise or even concentration will bring sleep's glorious company to my bed.

I am utterly convinced that being able to fall asleep night after night is a gift that some of us have, while others of us must wait each night to see if Morpheus finds us in his favor and grants us those precious hours of mental and physical refreshment. Some can write, some can draw, some can build beautiful buildings and some can sleep.

Sleep, after all, seems so easy. All most people do is lie there in a comfortable position and sleep overcomes them like the gentleness of a night breeze. We are prone to compare the simple act with young, innocent babies, using the phrase "sleep like a baby" to describe the fulness a good night's sleep brings.

Yet to some of us, sleep is a mixed blessing, granting us the peacefulness of its presence on one occasion, and frustrating us by its absence on another.

Surely, most of life's blessings are only blessings to us when we have done without them for a while. I learned then, how priceless sleep was by being deprived of it.

But wouldn't it have been easier if I had merely read about it in a book that I could tuck under my mattress? 

Insomniac MARSHALL MYERS is an English teacher who runs a part-time yard service. He recently published a collection of poetry called On the Inside.

More Articles by Marshall Myers

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