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An Insomniac Learns to Let Go

“Because it’s the universal symbol for sleep,” I tell the tattooist, explaining the moon design he’s about to put into my skin. The needles shine like the moment after an eclipse. “That’s what the people who love me wish the most for me — that I get a good night’s sleep.” 

Once upon a time, I slept with astonishing soundness. When I was in high school, a repairman fell off the roof of my house, the ambulance screamed up, and I slept through it all.

But somewhere along the line, sleep went away.
Of course, I’ve tried all the cures — everything the sleep experts suggest — but the advice has failed. And I’ve tried a fairly impressive range of sleeping pills, all of which have left me twiddling my thumbs and watching infomercials. 

The pages of the Sleep Sutra, brightening in another sunrise for which I’d hoped not to be awake, suggest, “When you sleep, put your head to the south, your feet to the north, and lie on your right side. Place your right hand under your right cheek and your left hand on your left side.”

Yeah, that doesn’t work, either. And the Bible’s advice — “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” — is useless, because I cannot make that leap into feeling safe.

Is that the real issue? Maybe none of the cures has worked for me for the simple reason that none of the cures address what really keeps me awake. I can go to bed in a dark room at a regular hour; I can avoid caffeine and the vagaries of my own body chemistry. But what I can’t avoid is taking my own mind into the bedroom with me.

“Sleep is, by definition, a letting go of self,” says Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a psychologist and meditation teacher who battled insomnia herself for 20 years before overcoming the endless night. “But we are fiercely self-defined.”

So here’s the first issue: I define myself as someone with sleep issues. Of course, decades of tossing and turning help, but in that definition itself lies the interruption. I don’t sleep because I’m too busy waking up to sleep.

During healthy sleep, we roll through 90- to 120-minute cycles in five stages that range from falling asleep, through deep sleep, and on to the dreaming moments of the REM cycle; then it repeats. I don’t remember dreams because I don’t sleep through enough of my cycle to have them. Once I do finally fall asleep, I wake every hour or so, horrified again to discover that the night is not even close to being over.

Which means I wake unrested and tense.

Which cycles my brain into more tension, amping up as the day wears on to the point of almost dreading that moment I turn out the light and begin staring into the night.

Pity I can’t just take my brain out and leave it in a jar in the living room before I go to bed.

Dr. Fraser points out that “we evolved on days of regulated cycles that allowed our ancestors to wind their bodies down.” We listened to stories and watched the fire burn low in the cave.

But now, instead of pulling away from input, too many people keep it coming right up until the glow of the TV fades over the bed. Basic physiology: bombard the central nervous system with light, input, motion that comes ever faster, and when you finally do snap off the light, your entire body is buzzing.

Cranked like a tabby on catnip, I hear each creak of the floor, the rattled hum of the fridge, the rustled feathers of the bald eagles nesting outside as they dream of fish. My closest friend doesn’t sleep because she realized quite young that everything interesting happened after her parents made her go to bed. For me, it’s almost a kind of magic fear: if I’m awake and attentive, nothing bad can happen to the people I love, no matter where they are, because I’m on guard duty.

According to Dr. Fraser, it all comes down to “a kind of existential angst that people fill up with mindless consumerism, whether of stuff or information.” I consume worry. Have you ever wondered why so many TV channels turn to shopping in the wee hours of the morning or why the only real programs on are news shows? This is the standard cure for angst: new shiny things and the desperate hope they’ll bring calm, or more information to shore up the dikes of insecurity.
“Who can we ever turn to,” wrote Rilke in the Duino Elegies, “in our need? Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.”

At last, exhausted from trying to interpret the world, I drift into sleep. And all too soon, I wake, utterly terrified, with no idea at all where I am. “Night terrors,” says Dr. Fraser, “are when you wake up with that pulverizing annihilation terror, a nonself consciousness that deep meditators find. But when you wake up like that, you can’t find your self to wrap around you like a Snoopy blanket.”

But I have begun trying something new, and I again am hopeful of sleep — not of wrapping myself around myself like that Snoopy blanket but of allowing sleep to carry me off, like the final trace of perfume in a room.

Each night, I stand outside, letting the dark come down around me, as the bats flit past for their dinner. This is my ritual. I remove the day, breath by breath. I try — some nights more successfully than others — to trust the care of my loved ones to the universe. And I remove the stimuli of the day, watching the bats flit until I do not see them anymore . . . do not see anything but the moon, calling me to sleep.

Edward Readicker-Henderson is a frequent contributor to S&H. He also writes for National Geographic Traveler, Sierra, and Arts & Antiques. A recipient of the Northern Lights Award for best magazine travel story on Canada, he is working on a book about the search for quiet.


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