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From Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia, which was published this month by Semiotext(e). Translated from the French.

Sleep, sleep, how?

The passageway is shut. The door has disappeared. The wall is smooth. Sleep is known only by name, like a myth, like a phantom. How, how? What does one do in order to sleep? That’s all, sleep. Sleep—with oneself, by oneself. Find sleep within oneself.

There are sleep champions. They rest their head on the pillow and off they glide, hurtling down the slope. The wave curls. The sky opens up. Oceanic sleep. Their arms supported by atoms alone. With crazy ease, with an astounding knowledge of abysses, they never fall. But we insomniacs plummet into horrendous ravines and the bags under our eyes are bruise-colored.

Without pills, I can’t do it. I’ve been running on barbiturates for almost thirty years. I savor soporifics, I booze on benzodiazepines, I stagnate on sedatives, I’m hypnotic with narcotics.

I remember the first time I took one, the night before an exam, in 1990. A quarter of a Lexomil, given to me by a girlfriend. I loved it. The wave of relaxation. The guarantee of sleep on its way. You head out on the frozen lake; the ice doesn’t give way. Leisurely, you reach the opposite bank. No waking up in the frozen water.

Sometimes all I need is to have the packet. I gaze at it. I know it’s there.

Real sleeping pills, ones that work, are hard to obtain without a prescription. It means going through the ritual of seducing the doctor, and sometimes the pharmacist; it means having connections, conniving in some way. Whether you like it or not, you’re engaged in a relationship, you stick with the prescriber who comes up with the goods, you move on from the schmucks.

When I don’t take them, I don’t sleep. And when I don’t sleep, I want to die, so I read, or I try to read. There’s Shakespeare, whose real drama was not-sleeping. Iago warns Othello that “Not poppy nor mandragora, / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world” will let him sleep. “Ha, ha,” replies Othello. Every book I open talks about insomnia. On every continent, that’s all literature talks about. As if writing were not-sleeping. If I could pray, I’d pray to Kafka. His whole oeuvre is one long night of insomnia haunted by ghosts: “Dread of night. Dread of not-night.” And the champion of insomnia is Proust, whose work opens with literature’s most famous failed bedtime.

On October 2, 1904, Proust writes to Princesse Hélène de Caraman-Chimay, “Such a mysterious gift, this tetronal. Through what sort of incomprehensible communion does the white wafer, which in itself seems to contain oblivion, allow me to forget my sorrows for a few hours, and leave me in the morning, on waking, more hopeful, more acquiescent? I thank you for your gift, Princess. I will owe you my sleep tonight. Until now you had given me only dreams.

One of the dangers of sleeping pills is that they attack short-term memory. “Chloral makes holes in my brain,” Proust confided to Paul Morand. And you can die from those memory lapses: you don’t remember when you took the first dose or the second. You say to yourself, It’s not possible, not possible to not sleep so much. So you take more. The self-medicating insomniac is flirting with death; the tightrope walker living on a suspended sentence juggles the white tablets of his addiction.

How many celebrities have ended up dead in the hope of sleeping? Michael Jackson (lorazepam and propofol), Prince (fentanyl), Jimi Hendrix (nine Vesparax tablets, the story goes), Judy Garland (ten Seconal tablets). Or Heath Ledger, who died after taking a cocktail of six different prescription sleeping tablets, painkillers, and anti-anxiety medications. Friends described him complaining often that he had trouble sleeping. I’m filled with a maternal urge to cradle this young Joker in my arms.

And then there is the multitude of anonymous people who have dug their hand one too many times into the drawer where the white tablets are kept. So they can sleep. So it will all stop. So they can sleep, finally sleep, confusing death with the end of suffering.

I’m not sleeping; I reach my hand toward oblivion. The world no longer exists. I am in a state of toxic, blessed numbness. I’m dying to believe that I’m falling asleep.

Another pill, and another. Repeat the same error. Sink into white forgetfulness. Into somnambulic death.

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September 2023

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