Nocturnal Omissions
by Stevan Alburty

From the Winter 1998 issue of Literal Latte

Honorable Mention
Roy. T. Ames Memorial Essay Award
judged by Phillip Lopate

1998 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




I was issued from the factory with the standard-option package of jealousies. The list of Things I Covet is, for the most part, tediously conventional: other people's vacation homes, their sport utility vehicles, whatever the couple at the next table ordered which now makes my plate look pitiful.

There is also a rather broad category of Significant Envies which I verbally shorthand as "looks." This includes objective classifications like weight, skeletal structure and muscle-tone, as well as more subjective attributes like their ability to mingle with other humans before noon, their ambivalence to their own mortality - even something so simple as their laughter. (I don't chuckle, chortle, or even guffaw. I snort.)

But I deviate from the customary inventory of grudges in that I also resent most people for a talent they universally possess, a feat they execute on a daily basis with such effortless dexterity they would hardly itemize it on a resume of their own abilities. Unlike most people, I simply cannot fall asleep.

Not ever, of course. Total sleep deprivation leads ultimately to death. Denied the restorative power of sleep, the human body will eventually shut itself down like a factory run entirely by one exhausted employee who refuses to put in more overtime. If I were unable to sleep at all, I would have been unable to write this piece, death being the penultimate Writer's Block.

No, my ailment is somewhat less lethal, although there have been nights when I would have gladly called Death up on the phone and invited him over. Once or twice a week, my body goads me by giving me a solid eight hours, complete with drool and dreams. (I so rarely dream, I have a tendency to interact with anyone I happen to meet in them, even aliens and bullies from my childhood, as if I'm just so darn glad to see all of them.)

I may have been an insomniac since childhood. I don't know. I'm too tired to devote the mental energy to remember when it all began. All I know is that for the last several decades, four or five nights a week find me lying in bed, wide-eyed, until the wee smalls. (Seen from the ass-end of an all-nighter, Dawn contains none of Coleridge's "golden exhalations," but resembles instead some sort of combustive effluence from the heating system in Hell.)

Science assures us that we all have a "Circadian rhythm." Having been politely asked on several occasions to remove myself from dance floors, I was initially skeptical of possessing any innate sense of tempo. But I found out later that the term merely means that there is an invisible, internal clock, probably located on the nightstand just to left of our medula oblongata, which tells us when it's time to go to sleep and when it's time to wake up. This device has stopped functioning in my body, no doubt the result of my soul trying to save a few cents by buying the bargain batteries.

All of the clocks not inside my brain work far too well, from the digital timer on the VCR to the grinning cartoon cow on the kitchen wall, whose hooves rotate in a perpetual, bovine Charleston. As their menacing faces all count down towards bedtime, I can feel a surge of anxiety welling up. I know what's coming, or, to be exact, what's not coming. I am condemned to spending the next few hours in bed tossing and turning awaiting the sweet release of sleep. As I trudge towards my bedroom, my imagination supplies the distant wail of a harmonica; a voice rumbly from tobacco murmurs "Dead man walkin'."

If I weren't so exhausted, I'd raise a finger here and point out that there is a distinction between being tired and being sleepy. "Tired" is about absence. It is a simple state of energy depletion. Tired is for amateurs. "Sleepy" implies a readiness for or inclination towards sleep. The need for a philosophical rigor is clear.

I have a friend who could fall asleep while strapped to the hood of a semi hurtling down the turnpike. I've seen her fix a cup of coffee just before going to bed. I view this as an essentially hostile act, for the mere sight of watching someone else ingest caffeine is guaranteed to keep me up all night. She can fall asleep reading a book. She doesn't even bother to set the book down. Her eyelids droop, her mouth does a fairly authentic guppy imitation, and she sits there bolt upright, catching a few z's without even having the decency to let the author come to the end of the paragraph. If she really wants to aggravate me, she will do all of this while gripping a coffee cup in her hand. She clearly does not understand that sleep requires work; it is only truly valuable when achieved as the result of a long process of martyrdom.

In Greek mythology, Zeus asked Endymion, the king of Elis, what he wanted more than anything else in the world. He chose perpetual sleep, on the presumption that he would therefore remain youthful forever. He retired to a cave, where Selene, the goddess of the moon, visited him every night while he slept. Turns out that while Endymion was sawing wood, he was also sawing Selene, as she somehow managed to conceive fifty children by Endymion while he was out like a light. I was feeling sufficiently inadequate about not being able to sleep. Now it turns out I'm supposed to be able to have sex at the same time.

Despite years of inquiry, Science is still confused as to why we sleep and, more importantly, why some of us don't sleep. (The churlish might suggest that Science spends far too much time on superfluous feats of experimental exhibitionism, such as replicating sheep, a task for which sheep have not traditionally required assistance. The only possible benefit of cloning sheep is that it provides insomniacs with a limitless and more predictable rate of production of little lambs for counting purposes.)

The cause of insomnia is quite simple: it is the fear that one is going to have insomnia. Students of hermeneutic circles will admire the whole recursive gestalt of this dilemma. A psychologist once challenged a group of volunteers to not think about a white bear for fifteen minutes. Of course, the subjects of the experiment could now think of nothing but a white bear for fifteen minutes. Sleep is an act of intent, a willing suspension of consciousness. The paradox is that it can only be achieved by sneaking up on it.

One of my sourest theories is that people who have no difficulty falling asleep simply have (how can I say this politely?) less complex brains than insomniacs. It's so much easier to clean up a room if it isn't messy to begin with. When I am lying in my bed, thoughts tumble around in my brain like laundry in a dryer: recriminations from the past, worries about the future, and the various mathematical permutations of Things I (x) Said, with (x) equalling, at random times, "should have," "could have," "would have."

A friend of mine who is also a chronic insomniac has developed the Commodity Theory of Sleep, which states that there is only so much sleep to be had and if I sleep too much, I'm stealing it from her. The advantage of this theory is that it neatly provides the one element every problem in America now requires - somebody else to blame.

There's only one benefit to having insomnia: you have plenty of time on your hands with which to seek relief. Insomniacs will try anything to get a good night's sleep: meditation, music, massage, aromatherapy, full-spectrum light, vitamin supplements, changes in diet, things that are hot (milk, herb tea, baths, sex), and, of course, that good old standby, chemicals.

When you go to the drugstore, you can easily identify the chronic insomniacs. We're the ones with our noses pressed against the glass of the pharmacist's counter like a kid in a Norman Rockwell painting eyeing sweets. We can recite the pharmacology of insomnia like a catechism: diphenhydrmine, estazolam, ethchlorvynal, flurazepam, glutethimide, quazepam, phenobarbital, secobarbital, temazepam, triazolam, zolpidem - and my personal favorite, lorazepam, which sounds like something you use to frost cookies.

But physicians are reluctant to prescribe medications for other than transient use because the long-term effect of drugs which alter the brain's neurotransmissions are unknown. Given the choice, the average insomniac would be perfectly willing to take something that turned their cerebral cortex into custard as long as it let them sleep.

Sometimes at night I start thinking about all the problems facing this planet - poverty, AIDS, Bosnia, all those children on the side of milk cartons, the long-term viability of Amtrak, the overpopulation of deer in many Northeastern suburbs - and I realize that I am just not comfortable with the concept of letting the world go unsupervised for eight hours. My insomnia is my gift to a world in which so many things need my attention.

It's not a medical problem, it's an act of philanthropy.