by ELIZABETH GUMPORT
It is impossible to describe insomnia to people who are sound sleepers. These are the people who trust that getting in bed will be followed by falling asleep, as surely as night follows day; these are the fearless people. Sleepless people are a very different breed. They know what insomnia really is: not just the failure to fall asleep, but the fear of that failure. For an insomniac, there is no such thing as a good night. Every evening – even if it eventually, mercifully comes to an end – is shredded by anxiety. To reach sleep the insomniac must first pass through terror.
The fearless person also fails to understand how easy it is to become one of the sleepless people. All it takes is one bad night. That bad night begets others: once you know you might not be able to sleep, you can't. Recognizing that staying awake all night is a very real possibility, something that could actually happen, is no different than realizing that your boyfriend might no longer be interested in you, or that the friendship you thought was indestructible is, in fact, as vulnerable as anything else, or that you could very well not succeed at doing the work you so badly want to do. When you imagine such scenarios, you seem almost to will them into existence. To see the abyss is to take the first step towards it. What made F. Scott Fitzgerald “sleep-conscious,” as he called it, was a mosquito: the bug bothered him all night, and after that he had trouble sleeping for years.
And while you can always find a new boyfriend, there is no substitute for sleep. Anyone who has ever had trouble sleeping knows that all treatments for insomnia are in some way inadequate. Melatonin stops working when you take it too regularly, and alcohol only postpones the problem. If you have a glass of wine, or two, or three, you will start awake in the middle of the night feeling feverish and fretful and maybe a little fat. Ambien works, but only if you can set aside eight or nine hours for sleep. Any fewer and you wake up thick-headed and heavy-eyed.
A cure that leaves you groggy or hungover is no cure at all. The point of sleep, after all, is that it is supposed to restore energy, and hope. It makes you alert enough to do things, and optimistic enough to believe they are worth doing. If you wake up feeling otherwise, what's the use?
The sleepless become superstitious. Once she has tried the standard solutions and found them wanting, the insomniac devises her own treatments, her own odd rituals. In order to exhaust themselves, Emily and Charlotte Brontë walked in circles around their dining room table. Teddy Roosevelt took a shot of cognac in a glass of milk, and W.C. Fields found he could only fall asleep if stretched out in a barber’s chair or on a pool table. If rest still remains elusive, you can at least force others to suffer with you: Tallulah Bankhead hired “caddies,” young gay men who would chat with her and hold her hand until she finally drifted off to sleep. Groucho Marx would pick up the phone, dial the first number that popped into his head, and insult whoever answered his call.
If pills and drinks and caddies don't work, all you can do is wait. When morning comes – when, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade,” the rest of the “the uncaring / intricate rented world begins to rouse” – some insomniacs are relieved. Now, at least, they can stop trying to get some sleep; now they have a reason for being awake. “Work,” Larkin wrote, “has to be done.” Others remain in bed. In one diary entry, William Wordsworth's sister noted that, as of ten o'clock in the morning, the poet was still in bed, hoping to fall asleep. Insomnia infects your whole life. It renders meaningless the distinction between day and night: if you cannot sleep, and you have nowhere to go, you will be as oppressed when the sun is up as when the sun is down.
Another option available to the insomniac is acceptance. This requires a slight rearrangement of attitudes, the editing of various terms: it's not that you “can't sleep.” You're simply “resting” or “cleaning” or “working late.” Vladimir Nabokov called sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world” and claimed that he often wrote better during periods of insomnia.
If you can't write, or clean, or even rest, you can always do something else: “an ideal insomnia,” Joyce Carol Oates once said, “allows for a lot of reading.” The best books to read late at night are ones full of facts. Facts act as a kind of anesthetic: they numb you to yourself, the subject to which your thoughts would otherwise turn. The gratitude you will feel for these books, and their authors, will surpass your usual appreciation for a good book. It will be deeper, more personal, and more possessive. I have had more than a few long, bad nights, and more than a few good companions. Two of the best were Joan Didion's Miami and Eula Biss's Notes From No Man's Land, and I recommend both to anyone in need of a shot of novocaine.
Once accommodated, insomnia can provide certain pleasures. You are privy to the other, secret world, the one that begins when everyone else goes to bed. Being awake during these long, hidden hours is like taking the subway during the middle of the day or walking around Manhattan after a blizzard. All is private, silent, and still; for once the world is polite, and for once it belongs to you. Light, and its absence, command your attention: in Central Park, the shadows of the branches look like black bones in the snow. In your room, the movement of the moon shows itself on your wall, a patch of light that creeps from corner to corner as the hours pass. All night a streetlight shines into your window.
If you live in a city, other people's apartments are a matter of much concern. The lights in the building across the street go out, one after another, but in one window a television flickers, its invisible owner keeping you company late into the night. He is your first mate, your loyal fellow officer: together you sail into the vast night. Then, without warning, he jumps ship. The television turns off. You cruise on alone. The night is as deep and endless as the ocean.
This is when the bad feelings find you; this is when reading is something you do not just to keep busy but to blunt the pain. After a certain hour, even the best natures start to go bad. Once, while visiting a friend, Mark Twain threw his pillow at the window in a fit of frustration. The pane shattered, letting in the “fresh air” Twain needed for his rest, and he fell asleep. In the morning, he discovered what he had broken was not a window but a glass-enclosed bookcase. (Everyone knows time passes oddly in the insomniac’s bedroom, but space can shift, too.)
Acceptance might work occasionally, but a series of sleepless nights – and the hot sheets and aching hips that accompany them – will exhaust anyone's patience. In many poems, the ever-joyful Wordsworth manages to remain humble and hopeful, trying to coax the “blessed barrier” between days into existence. But eventually even he got angry: "Shall I alone, / surely not a man ungently made, / Call thee worst Tyrant by which Flesh is crost?" In another poem, sleep is personified as withholding lover whom Wordsworth must beseech: “Do not use me so but once and deeply let me be beguiled.”
Wordsworth was not alone in imagining sleep as someone who would not join him in bed. It's a common image, perhaps because when you can't sleep your thoughts often turn to those people who have refused your company, or forsaken it after many shared nights. One of Elizabeth Bishop's most famous poems concludes with the following lines: “So wrap up care in a cobweb / and drop it down the well / into that world inverted / where left is always right, / where the shadows are really the body, / where we stay awake all night, / where the heavens are shallow as the sea / is now deep, and you love me.” The title of the poem is “Insomnia.”
Bishop is describing second-stage insomnia, which takes over after the first thrill of inhabiting a secret, hidden city wears off. In the second stage, you mourn for the people who left you behind, the people who no longer love you, the people who did you wrong. If you are sharing a bed with someone else, this is the time to leave the room. Staying will only make you resent him: the silence of sleep will begin to sound like indifference.
What comes next is worse. What comes next is a catalogue of everyone you did wrong, everyone you betrayed, everyone you loved less, or worse, than you should have. This is third-stage insomnia, and if at this point you don't take another Ambien what follows is even more brutal. Why stop at listing everyone you've ever hurt? Why not see if you can think of every single thing you've ever done wrong in your whole entire life?
If you stay awake late enough, eventually you remember everything. All your usual defenses dissolve. Your mind is weary, and there is nothing in your white, silent room to distract it. Your exhausted brain can no longer apply the pressure needed to repress your memories, and they all come back, all of them, every one, and especially the ones that prove you are the worst version of yourself: the lies, the evasions, the unreturned emails, the shoplifted packs of gum. And, of course, every single ungenerous thing you have ever thought, no matter how fleetingly or how long ago, about the people you love most. Anxiety cascades: just when you’ve drained one disaster from your mind, another breaks the dam. The panic and shame that overcome you when you find a really old to-do list and realize you haven’t done a single item on it? Multiply that feeling by the number of minutes left until sunrise. You can tell yourself to be reasonable, to count your blessings, to get it together, but such reassurances will ring hollow. As Fitzgerald put it, at three o'clock in the morning a forgotten package feels as tragic as a death sentence.
There is a point after which it is no longer possible to be productive, a point after which you are too harassed by regret or simply too tired and brainless to work. Not being able to work compounds the agony of not being able to sleep: you feel useless, ashamed, fraudulent. Fitzgerald described his own sleepless nights as encounters with “horror and waste,” with “waste and horror – what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable.” Perhaps, he wrote, the restless night prefigures “the night after death. . . No choice, no road, no hope – only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass it and return to it. I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.”
Like Fitzgerald, Larkin heard death approach in the empty, abandoned hours of early morning. “Aubade” is one of the best descriptions of the final stage of insomnia, which, once you've experienced it, renders the other, earlier stages even more painful, because you know what's coming: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. / In time the curtain-edges will grow light. / Till then I see what's really always there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / and where and when I shall myself die.” In the middle of the night, the insomniac weighs her remembered mistakes and finds what makes shouldering their burden so painful is the knowledge that some day she will have it, that burden, taken from her. How much better would it be to regret everything forever! “This,” Larkin observed, “is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.”
Sleep can't always undo insomnia's ill-effects: Fitzgerald's struggle with insomnia heralded his breakdown. “In a real dark night of the soul,” he wrote, “it is always three o'clock in the morning.” The bad things you think alone in your room sometimes turn out to be true. And, as with insomnia itself, sometimes it seems like they turned out to be true precisely because you thought of them: if you had been asleep you wouldn’t have felt like a failure, and if you hadn’t felt like a failure you wouldn't be a failure. Despair is a stowaway, hopping into our soul in the middle of the night and smuggling itself into our days.
Sleep is not like death. It is insomnia that is the first taste of death: dead, you will never sleep again. There will be no more soft beds, no more clean sheets; never again will you pile pillows around yourself, never again will you find contentment beneath a warm blanket on a cold night. In “Sad Steps” – which, like “Aubade,” unfolds at four o'clock in the morning – Larkin described the longing that overcomes the insomniac when she looks out her window, the desire she feels that is deeper than other desires, because it absorbs them all. In the middle of the night, the moon's “white stare / is a reminder of the strength and pain / of being young; that it can't come again, / But is for others undiminished somewhere.” You will never again be the person who made all those mistakes; you will never again be the person you once were, as foolish as she was, or even the wretched, sleepless person you are now. The only thing left to do is get older. And to sleep, if you can.
Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can read more of her work here and here. She last wrote in these pages about the life of J.D. Salinger. The photographs of Yasmine Chatila can be seen here and here.