A Hell of a Thing
An essay I wrote in 2010, a humorous and literary look at my insomnia and my inability to keep from passing on sleep anxiety to my children, was finally published four years later, by the New York Times “Motherlode” site. Alas, I had to cut the piece in half to fit a length requirement and also to focus only on the parenting aspect of the piece. You can view the Times version here, or read the original essay below.
Once, a few years ago, I woke in the middle of the night. Lying in the dark, waiting for sleep to reclaim me, I felt something wasn’t right. Something barely perceptible: an uncommon stillness in the air of the room. I turned my head to the left, and there was the source of the disturbance. My wife lay on her back, head flat on her pillow, eyes wide open. I doubt the lack of a steady rhythmic breathing beside me had woken me, but it was certainly not going to help me drop off.
In fact, there was no perceptible breathing at all. She didn’t blink. I lifted my head slightly and leaned over a bit, attempting to discern some sign of life. Closer I edged, up on an elbow, needing to make sure my spouse was alive before I could turn back to the task of finding my way back to sleep.
She gave a sign of life: suddenly aware of someone creeping up on her, she started, and almost simultaneously convulsed with a frightful gasp. I, for my part, startled by this puncture of the room’s unnerving silence, let loose with my own gasp, more of a terror-stricken yell really. Mine was louder, but I still say hers was a lot scarier.
We turned towards our own sides, took deep breaths, and before long were back in our dreams, such as they were.
The incident, of course, has become family legend. But its salient feature to me now is its ending. Back to sleep. How nice that sounds, an aural relic of halcyon days, like “ninety-nine cents a gallon” or “I’ll have a pint of Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, and a spoon.” For in recent months I have fallen victim to regular bouts of early-morning insomnia.
I generally have no problem falling asleep—the six-thirty alarm on school mornings takes care of that. But every night, sometime between 3:30 and 4:30a.m., I find myself conscious. I know that alarm is poised to cut off any relief at the other end, so I must get back to sleep, yet I can’t. I’d like to compare my insomnia to that of Nabokov, who called sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals…. No matter how great my weariness,” he wrote, “the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me. I loathe Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block…. I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.” However, I have to admit that nothing would make me happier than to betray my humanity and genius. At least there’s D. H. Lawrence, not exactly a moron, who wrote that “nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep, / dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!” Or, as Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald, “Non sleeping [sic] is a hell of a damned thing too.”
Lawrence’s choice of words strikes a chord. For although I don’t believe it is what has been waking me, eschatological anxiety, born long ago in the mind of a small child, comes back to visit as I lie waiting, paradoxically, for my oblivion. Nabokov again: “…in the course of years, with the approach of a far more thorough and still more risible disintegration, which nowanights, I confess, detracts much from the routine terrors of sleep….” Nabokov wrote these words at approximately my age, approaching the once monumental gateway of fifty, which now seems more of a mundane tollgate on the pike. Well, it’s nice for a writer to share something—even such a common dread—with Nabokov; but it doesn’t help him get to sleep.
Sometimes the shadow of the grim reaper is not required to ruin my repose. If I’m taking a long driving trip the next day, for example, or giving a talk that I need to be rested for; anytime I particularly need a good night’s rest, I know I’m not going to get one. I remember a stop on one cross-country drive, lying awake all night in a motel in Indiana thinking how it was absolutely crucial to my staying alive that I get some sleep. At five a.m. I finally got up and took off for Virginia armed with one hour of sleep, a thermos, and a jar of Maxwell House instant coffee, and somehow arrived alive. When I was learning to fly, I naturally couldn’t get to sleep the night before my first solo cross-country. I probably should have postponed, but I knew I’d have the same problem next time. Once again, I somehow made it.
My wife has been experiencing mid-night lacunas in her slumber as well, and often one’s will exacerbate the other’s, but she says she feels no anxiety during her hour or two of wakefulness—she’s not running over tomorrow’s problems in her mind or lamenting the path untaken—just puzzlement and frustration over why she’s wide awake. And of course, if that doesn’t keep you awake, nothing will.
I didn’t think she had my sleep problem, but I guess she does now. I don’t know if she thinks I gave it to her; I think she does. I may have. I know she thinks I gave it to the kids.
And so another roadblock on my path back to senselessness. A parent’s regrets are many, and the insomniac plains of the night a fertile ground for their sprouting, but no remorse is more apposite to that hour than that of having passed sleep problems on to one’s children.
There may be some genetic predisposition to this anxiety, but I’m afraid we have taught it to them as well. Friends of ours decided, when they first had children, that they would condition them to fall asleep with plenty of ambient noise. They didn’t want to have to tiptoe around at bedtime for the next twenty years, and they didn’t want their kids to be miserable when they grew up and had noisy neighbors. When they put them to bed, they always left the stereo on, or watched TV with the volume up high, and made no attempt to soften their voices in conversation. And it worked. Their offspring are now cheerful, well-rested adults who could find blissful slumber in an air-raid shelter.
We admired this strategy. We intended to implement it. But it got about as far as our plan for my wife to speak only Spanish to the boys so they would be bilingual. From the time they were babies, we were so desperate for a few hours of respite that we turned our house into a library with a nasty librarian. Or a chapel in which we silently prayed for sleep—theirs and then ours. Now they’re in middle school and thanking us also for their inheritance of abnormally large sleep requirements. And we so badly want them to be well rested for school that we continue our unspoken “sterile cockpit” policy.
I have pleasant memories of parental sounds while I lay in bed as a child. The television from down the hall, just loud enough to make out laughter and the white noise of unintelligible conversation. Or music from my father’s hi-fi in the living room, mixed with the soft rat-a-tat, like rain on a tin roof, of cards being shuffled and laid out for solitaire. For some reason I remember him playing an LP of early Moog-machine synthesized music, which I found soporific. I used to put on jazz at bedtime, hoping to create similarly fond memories for my boys, but they didn’t like it, and we quickly reverted to silence and prayer.
So now, of course, our sons will always be comfortable going to bed in an abandoned aircraft hangar, but nowhere where human life is audible. And, even worse, I have managed to make them anxious about their own sleep. Nothing much—an angry snap here when one of them persisted in calling out for Mom; the odd “You won’t be able to get up for school!” there; an occasional “Only seven and a half hours till you have to get up!”—but now they lie awake on school nights, worrying about lying awake.
They are doomed in college. Surely, every night after we tucked them in, Mileta and I should have smoked grass on the living-room floor while cranking the Dead and guffawing intermittently. You might think that Moog music might have given me something of a leg up, but the household sounds which once soothed me to sleep did little to prepare me for my sophomore-year dorm. The guys on my floor (and the girls from the floor below) were committed to having a good time, and though I got along well with them during the day, when I was trying to get some sleep before my nine a.m. physics class they were my tormentors.
They would sprawl on the hallway floor—in ostensible deference, I suppose, to some slumbering or studious roommate—beers in hand, erupting irregularly in unsuppressed laughter. I would lie in my narrow bed, miserable, knowing that I would not hear, much less process, a word from the professor’s mouth in the morning, preoccupied as I’d be with the effort of keeping one eye open. Once I ventured out to the hallway, squinting at the fluorescent lights, and asked if they’d mind relocating to the empty, underused lounge. They laughed good-naturedly at my robe, said, “Oh, sure, no problem,” and remained right where they were. After that, I’d stay in bed and stew, rather than risk a long-standing feud, and became more and more depressed as the year wore on.
And then one night it came to a crisis. Same situation: a Sunday night, midnight gone, the alarm symbol glowing on the digital clock—how early 8 a.m. seemed back then! The impromptu hallway party, the boy in bed unable to block their sounds with his pillow. The red electronic numbers metamorphosed: one o’clock, one-thirty, two. And then something happened. I had never read the aforementioned Hemingway letter:
No matter what time I go to sleep wake and hear the clock strike either one or two then lie wide awake and hear three, four and five. But since I have stopped giving a good goddamn about anything in the past it doesn’t bother much and I just lie there and keep perfectly still and rest through it and you seem to get almost as much repose as though you slept…. If you can lie still and take it easy and just consider your life and everything else as an outsider and not give a damn—it is a hell of a help.
I had never read those words, but my unconscious figured it out all the same. All of a sudden I realized I didn’t give a damn—I didn’t mind that my dormmates were keeping me up. I lay still, staring up at the ceiling, and thought about my life and what I might make of it. I watched three o’clock form with veritable good cheer. Four o’clock came swiftly and without rancor—even with a calm sense of well-being. At some point my fun-loving colleagues had vacated the hall and, presumably, were snoring away in their own rooms; I bore them no ill will. Perhaps I would join them out there sometime. Tonight I had outlasted them all. I felt at peace with my insomnia, happily embracing the enemy. No babies or middle-schoolers to worry about yet, and that “far more thorough and still more risible disintegration” so distant that surely it would never come, I contentedly awaited the first light that would angle past the blinds; and when at last it came, I slept.
And my boys, poor boys, will have to find their own epiphanies.