Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Insomnia

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If only sleep could be hoarded, accumulated, and traded; if only you could store it up for a rainy day or borrow it from friends or buy it on the street in little glassine bags. You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry, says the old song, and only those of us who have trouble sleeping recognize how delicious and how crucial sleep is — “sore labor’s bath, / balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,” says insomniac Macbeth, appreciatively, longingly. Consciousness is something we all need reprieve from, regularly.

Sleep deprivation is torture when it’s inflicted from outside; it’s insomnia when you’re wound up in such a way that you can’t wind down enough at night. I’ve been that person, intermittently, for decades. It seems common among writers in particular, as though whatever’s turned on in our minds won’t turn off.

I call it the hamsters on the wheel when those thoughts run all night, because they’re making about as much progress: these are the brooding, dreary, repetitious thoughts dragging deeper the ruts of the past or the dread of the future. Sometimes revelations come in the small hours, and I keep a notebook handy for those; occasionally I have retrieved my laptop and gone straight to writing — but that’s when the thoughts are neither hamsters nor on a wheel.

There are two kinds of insomniacs: the ones who have trouble falling asleep in the first place, and those who wake up in the middle of the night. I’m the latter kind. F. Scott Fitzgerald was, too: “Those seven precious hours of sleep suddenly break in two. There is, if one is lucky, the ‘first sweet sleep of night’ and the last deep sleep of morning, but between the two appears a sinister, ever widening interval.” (See A. Roger Ekirch’s essay on segmented sleep, page 35.)

Fitzgerald also told us that “[i]n a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.” At three a.m. everything is overwhelming, against you, doomed, arduous. Obstacles that look surmountable in the daylight loom like boulders waiting to crush an enfeebled, despondent version of yourself. At that hour you could probably contemplate pancake recipes with terror.

Somewhere in my late twenties after just about everything had gone wrong, I woke up at three a.m. for a couple of years. I was too young to know that you should never think about Life at those moments — you need to think about flavors of ice cream or devise a way to build a better swing set or read a book — and the sleep inducers I sometimes reach for now had not yet entered my life. I became extremely thin and at times lost my appetite for anything stronger than custard. Life without enough sleep is unbearable — you can starve for sleep. My psyche felt like my body: unpadded, unfed. Sleep is nourishment; it’s when the body restores itself; it’s the great pause between chapters, like the silence between songs.

During sleep you’re not working or buying things or taking in advertisements, so corporations are uninterested in it, unless they’re selling you a mattress. Sleeplessness gets prized as a sign of dedication: Business Insider published a list of “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep.” It’s hard to think of Condoleezza Rice and the CEOs on that list as people whose inner lives you might aspire to, however prosperous their outer lives.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer by her own account rose at Google thanks to 130-hour workweeks. She has become the monster du jour in her relentlessness, a woman who’s proving she can be less humane and more mechanical than the men in her technocratic field, the Iron Lady (Margaret Thatcher also slept little) of Silicon Valley. All this could explain a lot about the people who run the world; they’re subjected to the same sleep deprivation as the prisoners at Guantánamo, and it affects them in similar ways.

Sleep and dreams are the wilderness of the mind. The rulers of the world are probably eyeing that land as something that can be harnessed for production; the torturers must see it as enemy territory to be napalmed and carpet bombed. I’m for wilderness protection. Because when I do sleep, I dream, vividly and elaborately, and the dreams are a great gift — “a second life you’re living,” an envious lover who couldn’t remember his dreams once remarked. Sleep is another country; I can’t spend enough time there.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her article “The Separating Sickness” appeared in the June issue.

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  • Robert

    This was a really great article. I have had this experience of being up late and going through the same thought process constantly. Nice to know F. Scott Fitzgerald did too! Although I’ve never read one of his books. I really liked how the author focused in on how so many “successful” people don’t get enough sleep on purpose, and how companies never try to advertise to people while they’re asleep……because they can’t! how sleep is this whole other netherworld of life that is so special. There is something very incomplete and narcissistic about a lack of respect for our inner worlds and unknown parts of ourselves that is not respected by our society enough, that I think the author highlighted very well.

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