Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ravages of Insomnia

She realizes that she's dreaming about brushing her teeth. It seems so realistic though. She can feel the hard width and length of the toothbrush's plastic handle; feel the exertion of her tricep and bicep and the rotation of her wrist as they push and pull the fibrous head across the cobbles of her teeth. This is too real. She wakes herself up to determine if she's really brushing her teeth or just dreaming. But upon waking, she only discovers herself lying prone. In her bed. Arms at her side. No, she was not sleepwalking, not brushing her teeth, but merely dreaming. She rolls over and continues the dream where she’d left off. But if she's aware that she's dreaming, is she really asleep?

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz {snort} Hunh?

Oh. You woke me up.


Sorry about that. I had to wipe the drool off my keyboard.

I first held hands with insomnia while in grade school. It was in my teens that we became lovers - back when I'd hide in my basement bedroom, listen to music, journal, make collages and dream about the freedoms of adulthood 'til chirping birds announced cool night's first blushing intercourse with light. By the dawn of my adulthood - from about age 18 to 28 - I was surviving on anywhere between three to six hours of sleep a night - usually passing out drunk in the desperate hours and mainlining pitchers of coffee in order to wake up the next morning. Random weekend sleep-marathons, held maybe every other month or so, allowed me to "catch up." I was proud during those years. I was sowing my dreams, wooing my sadistic ambition. But my invincibility finally gave out.

Most memorable was that audition. The casting director had made a face while looking at the Polaroid he'd taken of me during sign-in. Wondering what he’d frowned at, I looked at the photo myself only to find, gazing sleepily back at me, the most unnaturally blue circles under my eyes that God ever saw fit to create. But even several months before that audition, caffeine had already begun having an effect opposite than intended. My first morning cup o’joe sedated me - as did my second, third, fourth, ad infinitum - and hit me with the strongest urge to sleep at the most inopportune moments and places. Then, finally, began my brain's seesaw towards the decision that eventually led to the death of my acting career. Without an acting career, I had no evening commitments to keep me up at unreasonable hours. These three events collided into my decision to prioritize - over everything else - a good night's sleep. Eight hours of it. Every night. What I had thought would be a simple matter, however - get home early (and sober) and turn out the lights by 10pm - nightmared into over a year's worth of tossing 'n turning, chaotic thought-battles, tear-soaked pillows and sunrise haunts through deserted apartment hallways. It took removing all obstacles to sleep to discover that I'd forgotten how to do it. But I persevered. I read articles, took pills and created a sleep-time ritual that trained my body to recognize and welcome its own drowsiness. Slowly and soberingly, but as sure as sun, I climbed to where I am now - sleeping well more often than not.

It's significant that I’ve been combatting insomnia for the past two weeks. I was driven in my early life toward success and accomplishment of material goals. But my inner, emotional life did not reflect the …. Okay, you fill in the blank here. What is one supposed to feel once one has accomplished a hard earned goal? I don’t know, ‘cause all I was feeling was unhappy. So I shifted gears away from the material to the spiritual and emotional, and that’s where I’ve lived the past few years (the decision to sleep better was part of that shift). But now I miss the material world. I have such a vision for how I want to feel about and what I want to do with my life, for how I want to be in the world. I want to wake up every morning excited to go wherever I’m going, excited to see whomever I'll see. And to do that, to soak in all of life and enjoy it, I need a sharp mind. Some of you might roll your eyes thinking my vision is unrealistic. I don’t care. It's not my nature to pay attention to warnings against what can't be done. But my vision can only happen through a careful balance between the inner (spiritual) and the outer (material). When insomnia hits, a crises arises inside myself: which part of myself, the inner or the outer, needs the most attention right now, and if I give my attention to one, how much will the other suffer? Insomnia so wigs out my mood and physical being that I have to cancel plans I anticipate. It so clouds my thinking that failure at enjoyable and meaningful projects is inevitable. When I'm feeling rebellious, I push ahead with my plans anyway seeing people and doing things I want dammit it all to hell. But in those moments, the fog in my brain and the irascibility of my mood ultimately makes the push worthless - I can't enjoy any of it.

Curing my insomnia demands attention to my inner life; ignoring it risks greater disruption to my outer life. The crux of my problem with insomnia is that I am beginning to resent my inner life for interfering with my outer life. I feel I’m finally at the point where I can begin again to pursue my outer life. And while the majority of my inner life is bright, shiny and healthy after its past few years of attention, in this one area, my inability to sleep, I still struggle. And in those moments when I stumble at sleep, alarms of frustration and hopelessness clamor inside me, making everything worse. I want to be in the world, and I get pissed off at anything that stands in my way. In this case, it's myself that stands in the way. And a self-inflicted obstacle is the most frustrating of any.

I feel that any essay on this topic is incomplete without addressing how cultural pressure undermines our ability to sleep well. But I am unqualified to write on that, except to assert that insomnia should be a legitimate reason for calling in sick to work. Unfortunately, I suspect our culture is a long distance from making peace with sleep. Until it does, I guess I’ll just do what I can to try to sleep on it, when I can.

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