Not too long ago, I went through a strange period when two of my molars abscessed in quick succession and had to be «devitalized»—an alarming term, but the official dental euphemism for killing a tooth by performing a root canal. It was pretty disturbing. And painful!
I remember the dentist saying that our teeth are peculiar body parts because basically, they’re supposed to do their job unnoticed and we resent anything different.
Mine were clamouring for attention (and payed for it!).
Sleep is like that too. It’s effortless and predictable and restorative…until it isn’t. And then it has our attention.
My son Jeremy and his wife Anne are in that predicament. Sleep—or the lack of it—is devitalizing them. They’re the parents of two young children.
The block of battery-recharging time they once called sleep has morphed into a hit and miss latticework of nightly «naplets». The golden standard of 8 or 9 hours of peaceful rest hovers out there like a promise and a torment.
But things should eventually sort themselves out. After all, the causes of their sleep deprivation are external. If my grandchildren can just cooperate, their parents will soon rediscover what it means to lay your head down on a pillow, close your eyes and gently drift off for hours and hours…
What do you do when the causes of sleep deprivation are internal?
That’s where I’m at.
I can’t say with precision when things started to go awry. It must have been incremental.
I’m not an insomniac and haven’t yet asked my physician for a sleep aid, though there are times when I feel like banging down his office door in desperation (usually at 2 in the morning).
Poor sleep, like anemia or migraines or bad knees, is something you learn to live with until you can no longer remember what it was like to feel great.
All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. – Plutarch
I wonder if there are as many understandings of sleep as there are people.
For my husband, sleep is escape. He discovered this when he was just a small child, running to his bed and falling asleep under the covers—no matter the time of day— when something had gone wrong or he had misbehaved. And as long as I’ve known him, he’s been able to cat nap several times during a lazy day or even a stressful one, and relishes the thought of bedtime at day’s end, when the comforter (really, that word says it all, doesn’t it?) is like some sort of thick curtain he can pull up over his head to shut out the worrying world.
A couple of friends and family members, who are on anti-depressants, have told me that the medication has turned their sleep into an unpredictable ride through a dreamscape that sometimes borrows from Lovecraft, sometimes from Tarantino—or both—with flashes of Lars Von Trier occasionally thrown into the mix. They tell me that everyday life looks great after such hallucinations.
In the writers’ workshop that I belonged to a decade or so ago, I remember a few enthusiasts who had programmed themselves to awaken from their dreams so that they could record them in a special notebook. At the time, it seemed as futile as trying to catch a cloud; today, it seems more like intentional sleep deprivation.
But maybe that’s because I’ve never set much store in dreams. Besides, the only ones I can remember are the bad ones.
Every dream that anyone ever has is theirs alone and they never manage to share it. And they never manage to remember it either. Not truly or accurately. Not as it was. Our memories and our vocabularies aren’t up to the job. ~Alex Garland
I fall asleep easily. It’s staying asleep that’s so difficult. Every now and then, I sleep like I used to, and wake up feeling so good! But my sleep has become crepe paper thin, and every little sound and movement wakes me up me now. On the worst nights, my eyes spring open and stare, in the dark, at the digital display on the alarm clock: 1:15…2:23…3:10…4:07…
It’s a relief when it finally shows 5:00, because it means that I can slip out of bed and into the shower which, God-bless-it, brings me to life. Though I’ll never again take a good night’s sleep for granted, I’ve also made my peace with my interrupted nights.
I’ve left behind the quickened pulse, agitation and anxious thoughts swirling in the dark. Instead, I’ve learned to lie quietly, breathe deeply and let my thoughts wander beyond the night sweats, to good things. It’s often in the dark of night that writing ideas—like this one—come to me. Sometimes, I replay in my mind moments or events that gave me joy, until I slip back into fragile sleep.
“The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4am knows all my secrets.”
― Poppy Z. Brite
What I’ve discovered most of all is the quiet solitude of early mornings—those few hours before sunrise (especially in winter). The life I live before dawn is separate from everything that follows. It’s as though the whole house is mine. I go to the dining room table, where I do most of my work, make a cup of tea or coffee and turn on the computer.
It’s a time of gathering my thoughts, and it’s my favourite time to write. Once everyone else gets going, the bubble bursts and daily life comes flooding in. But until then, I live in the space left behind by fleeing sleep.
I’ve read that insomnia is associated with weight gain, depression and a shortened life span; I hope that my subpar 5-6 hour attempts at sleep won’t cost me that much.
There’s a thread that runs through literature which links sleep with death. Edgar Allen Poe lamented: “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”
And in the late 20th century, J.M. Coetzee wrote: « “Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.”
People who have experienced deep, restful sleep often say I was dead to the world.
And then there’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”
I’ve never perceived sleep this way, but I know, from having experienced it twice, that being put under a general anaesthetic is a rehearsal for death. One moment you are, and the next, you are not. I’ve made my peace with that.
Rather, as most of it is experienced in the dark, our sleep connects us to our most primitive, essential selves. Our cave dwelling ancestors sought the safety of cover, and of each other, before closing their eyes to sleep. Young children, who still rely on this instinct, resist our attempts to leave them alone and isolated in their impeccably decorated bedrooms. I was lucky, I always shared a room with my older sister.
When all is said and done, at day’s end, laying down to sleep is an act of faith and trust in the world and in each other. When we close our eyes, it’s with the belief that no harm will come to us, and that tomorrow will always be…another day.
“Sometimes at night I would sleep open-eyed underneath a sky dripping with stars. I was alive then.”
― Albert Camus