Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Insomnia—Oh, Sleep, One Day, I Will Find You and Make You Mine. Or Maybe Not.

I once read a magazine questionnaire where the interviewer asked random celebrities how they sleep. Some answered with what they wear to bed — the fluffy flannels and sexy nothings and bedazzled eye masks and whatnot. Others shared their rituals pre-sleep — yoga, meditation, Bible-reading, drinking a full glass of water (really?) and so on. My favorite answer, though, came from Tom Ford, who said that he lays in his bed, awake for six hours, and then gets up. Now, I love Tom Ford for a number of reasons (as the creative director for Gucci, he made the brand awesome again; he’s got a brilliant line of his own now; he’s ridiculously easy to ogle). But his response made me like him even more because I was so acutely able to identify with his answer. So much so, in fact, that I would’ve become a fan of his had I not already been, based on that one quality alone.

On average, I sleep about three hours a night. Often, I sleep less. A lot less. And when the moon goes blue or when Hell’s temperature dips a degree, I sleep more (I couldn’t tell you the last time I slept a full eight hours). That’s not to say that I’m up and about and putting words to my Work-In-Progress or drafting brilliant legal briefs or even catching up on this blog. No, I’m in bed in the pitch dark, letting my mind spin. Day job, family, the WIP, TV shows, current events, what I’m going to wear tomorrow, what we need for the house, the inexplicable popularity of Rachael Ray and overextension of Ryan Secrest, the Supreme Court Justices, in descending order of judicial conservativeness…

Absurd, isn’t it? My husband often asks why I can’t just shut it down for the night and think about things tomorrow in the shower or at work or on the toilet like a normal human bean. Why I can’t focus on sleep with the same intensity as I have for the thousand goals I tend to during the day. Frankly, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s stress or worry or simply the fact that I come from a family of non-sleepers. Maybe it’s a curse that afflicts some of us the same way that diabetes or hypertension or male pattern baldness smites others.

What I do know is that the effects of lack of sleep aren’t that far off from those of drunkenness. That my reflexes are too slow when they shouldn’t be; that they overcompensate and accelerate when a situation requires a steady hand. I know that my emotional antennae perk into overdrive, causing a moderately humorous situation to feel like hilarity on crank, or a nominally disappointing moment to feel like hopeless despondency. I know that unexpected kindness breaks my heart as violently as an unkind word does, that frustration might as well be the same thing as anger, and anger jealousy.

Or my senses shut down altogether, slow time and space so that I feel lethargic and apathetic. So that I feel like a spectator in this game of life, given a front seat to the happenings around me, even as they involve me. If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, maybe you know what I’m talking about, this detachment that allows you to see everything, but not permit you to react or respond. This notion that you’ll tuck everything away and ponder them at three a.m. with a bit more clarity, only to find that you can’t make sense of it then. That you’re too busy wondering if you’re starting to go insane.

It’s horrible, this inability to sleep. One for which I’ve not yet found a remedy (believe me, I’ve tried. Tylenol PM. Benadryl. NyQuil. Chamomile. Valerian. Tryptopham. A little bit of bourbon. A lot of bit of bourbon. First Chronicles. Second Chronicles. Combos of all of the above. For reasons I won’t go into, I really don’t want to try prescription drugs).

But here’s the kicker. For all the crap that is insomnia — and it would be a huge disservice to ever discount its nefariousness — I don’t really mind it. I’ve gotten used to it, I suppose. Or maybe I’m eternally optimistic, a perpetual ball of Sonshine as a lot of my friends call me, able to see the positive aspects of it. I appreciate the visceral nature of hypersensitivity. The tools that it provides to feed the emotions of my novels, the words and scenes that paint in detail exactly what my characters are going through. The empathy necessary to give a character depth and substance and a real emotive quality. And in the same vein of that sunny optimism, I find that for every one negative, overly dramatic event I experience, I find at least twenty-five silly things to delight and bask and revel in. Maybe it’s why I’m constantly laughing. And why my writing, which often deals with serious subjects, has a whole hell of a lot of funny in it.

Which leads me to my final point. And perhaps the most important one. Sleep deprivation imparts a strange freedom, the “I’m so tired, I don’t give a shit” kind of attitude that allows me to write as if no one is watching. As if no one is judging. I can let my story go the way it was meant to, on instinct and intuition and the gut impression I had from the start. For me, there’s something dissatisfying about a novel that is too careful, too formulaic, too afraid to offend, one that an author might have drafted with her editors and publishers and audience in mind. Not that I’m immune to these, of course. And I certainly don’t mean that I’m uninterested in my audience. But there’s an authenticity inherent in abject honesty, and with authenticity comes the natural ability to identify with the writing, with the characters and their situations. It’s that connection, I think, that causes me to remember books years after I've read them, to recall how a particular made-up person felt so real. How a figment of an author’s imagination was able to transform my perspective, and perhaps my life.

Hell, to be able to do that — yeah, I’ll take a sleepless night or two. I'll even take ten thousand.


Serena said...

You have been away from the blogging world far too long. I hear you about the insomnia and how helpful it can be but at the same time detrimental.

I think the question is how does one shut down the mind, exhaust it so it wants to sleep and be done with the day? You do need to recharge after all.

If you find an answer, I would love to know what it is.

Walt Mussell said...

I know what you mean, My wie thinks I get too little sleep.

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