On Not Sleeping

There are few things as miserable as not being able to sleep.

(Admission: There are many things in life worse than not being able to sleep. Aside from the obvious ones, such as hunger, poverty and war, there are rarer but nonetheless still unpleasant experiences including, but not limited to, wild dogs, milky discharges, and poopy diapers.)

For people who enjoy generally comfortable lives, though, the loss of sleep is one of the most frustrating and also one of the most common difficulties they will endure.

I have a troubled relationship with sleep. I suffered from extreme sleeplessness as a teenager, tossing and turning until I had only two or three hours until I had to wake up. What sleep I got was fitful and riddled by nightmares and, I suspect, night terrors. (I say “suspect” because I was never formally diagnosed with them.) The most vivid nightmare I ever experienced took place near the end of my senior year of high school and involved a humanoid shape that is best compared to some popular images of aliens. A friend of mine was convinced that I was abducted. I think I was stressed out. A few months after graduating, I found that I was able to sleep for nine or ten hours at a stretch, a blissful and fleeting time in my life that would never be repeated.

My current bout with sleeplessness began in 2007 and was formally diagnosed as insomnia. I was prescribed Ambien for about a year, but it didn’t really help. I didn’t sleep much more than I did usually and I’m told that, when I did, I was always moving, raising and lowering my arms, kicking, and so on, a routine that would explain the weariness I suffered every day.

Insomnia is a self-fulfilling cycle: You can’t sleep, so you think about how you can’t sleep, and you become so worked up that…you can’t sleep. You pressure yourself. Sitting in the living room at 3am, you can see how dark it is outside. You can hear the absence of the background daytime noises to which we’re all accustomed, the telltale signs that life is going on around us. And you think: “I should be asleep!” Perhaps some people are disciplined enough to make productive use of the “extra” hours they acquire through sleeplessness, but most of us are too preoccupied with the thought that we’re supposed to be sleeping right now, and it’s ridiculous that we’re not, and, okay, I’m going to read a little bit, but I can’t concentrate, so maybe I’ll watch some television, but the shows that are on at this time of night (morning?) are all crap, so I’ll just stare out the window at that street lamp and OH MY GOD WHY CAN’T I SLEEP!!!

I don’t have as much trouble sleeping anymore. I still have some rough nights (like tonight), but I generally get sufficient sleep.

Here are some things I’ve learned you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t stay in bed. It will only make you more frustrated and anxious and prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Don’t look at screens (said the dude blogging at 11pm on a Monday night). The light freaks out your brain.
  • Don’t watch TV in bed!
  • Don’t dwell on it. (Easier said than done.)

Here are some things you should do:

  • Read a print book.
  • Write down the things that are bothering you.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.
  • Make sure that your bed is used only for sleeping and, uh, procreating.
  • Create a pre-bedtime ritual, such as making some herbal tea.
  • If all else fails, and if sleeplessness persists for at least two weeks, talk to your doctor.

Now, one interesting tidbit I learned during my travails with insomnia is that the notion that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is essential is an eighteenth century construct. Prior to the advent of widespread artificial light, people apparently engaged in “segmented sleep,” meaning that they would go to sleep when it got dark, sleep for a few hours, wake up in the middle of the night and talk or even perform chores, and then sleep for another few hours until dawn. This behavior has been documented in modern societies in which there is little to no artificial light, for instance, villages in certain parts of Africa.

A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech, has ably documented humankind’s preindustrial sleep patterns. If you’re interested in a thorough examination of our relationship with night (not just sleep) through the eighteenth century, consider reading Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch discusses not only premodern sleeping patterns, but also the discomforts from which people suffered, as well as the real and perceived dangers of nighttime. Be warned: At Day’s Close is a work of academic history and may be more comprehensive than the average reader would like. (I found it readable, if a bit dull in spots.) You can always read just the chapter on sleep, though, or, if you have access to a library, you can download the article on which the chapter was based, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” American Historical Review, CV, no.2 (April 2001), 343-387. Ekirch’s paper will tell you everything you want to know about segmented sleep.

At Day's Close.

At Day’s Close.

I found Ekirch’s work via a 2007 article published in The New York Times: “The Sleep-Industrial Complex” by Jon Mooallem. I can’t recommend Mooallem’s article highly enough. You’ll read about the interest corporations have in selling you the notion of eight hours of untroubled sleep, from pharmaceuticals to mattress companies. Mooallem’s piece can also serve as a primer to Ekirch’s work if you’d rather skip the academic scene.

Books about sleep as a socially constructed phenomenon have lately begun appearing on the scene. (Now you can read about why you can’t sleep while you can’t sleep!) For instance, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, by David K. Randall, was published in 2012. I haven’t read Randall’s book, but I intend to; it received generally positive reviews. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, was published just a month after Randall’s book. Again, I haven’t read this Wolf-Meyer’s book, but I mean to. Based on its title, methinks I detect a wee hint of bias. YOU CAN’T SLEEP BECAUSE OF CORPORATE CAPITALISM, IDIOT.



I appreciate works such as Ekrich’s, Randall’s and Wolf-Meyer’s because they question the common wisdom. Am I sometimes skeptical of their claims? Yes. But my skepticism, especially of things psychological, has been refined since reading Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Watters demonstrates the cultural influence on emotion and mood disorders. Consider the case of depression. Watters documents the ways in which American pharmaceutical companies essentially marketed the disease to the Japanese. Japan has a tradition of respecting depression; those who are depressed are perceived as noble. When the Japanese market opened up to American SSRIs, though, the pharmaceuticals plastered Japanese public transportation with advertisements that listed the symptoms of depression (as determined by the ways Americans experience it). Japanese patients showed up in doctors’ offices with ads ripped from magazines. American companies taught the Japanese how to experience depression the ways Americans do. Other chapters cover schizophrenia, anorexia and PTSD, and they are all equally fascinating. All of this opened up for me the sociology of mental illness, which is off topic and another post entirely.

In any case, whether you’re reading this at 3am or 3pm (and nodding off due to boredom or low blood sugar), I hope you found something useful here. It’s time for me to get some shut eye. So, you know.


2 thoughts on “On Not Sleeping

  1. fromcouchtomoon

    Wow, the Watters book sounds intriguing. People seem to forget that sadness is a valid emotional experience. We live in a society that wants to be happy and comfortable all the time.

    The bedroom rule is a good one. I’ve learned that I can’t even read in bed, or it upsets my ability to fall asleep. Instead, I get ready for bed, then read on the couch until I start nodding off, then go to bed. So sorry you’re stuck with the dreaded insomnia, but it makes for good blogging 🙂


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