I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

My insomnia is so bad I’m terrified that not even death will be able to knock me out

At night, when I curl up in bed next to The Husband and turn out the light, I hope that this will be the night when I get lucky. The special night I've been dreaming of. The night when I fall asleep before he starts snoring.

It never happens.

The late rocker Warren Zevon famously quipped, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." Though, as far as I know, Zevon, who died in 2003, hasn't sent back word from the Other Side, my insomnia is so bad I'm terrified that not even death will be able to knock me out.

Every night, it's the same scenario: The Husband and I get into bed sometime between 10:30 and 11. He reads half a page in his 1,276-page book (I'm not kidding — he's been reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" practically since we got married 30 years ago). Then the tome drops from his hands onto the floor with a great thud, and he's snoring by the time it lands.

Meanwhile, over on my side of the bed, I'm reading too. Usually I go for the most arcane article in the latest issue of The New Yorker, on the theory that boring and/or hard to follow is the best sleep medicine — definitely better than the drugs I too often (OK, pretty much every night) resort to. And, mirabile dictu, it is! After maybe ten minutes, my eyelids grow heavy and start to flutter, and the magazine drops to the floor. Nearly asleep, I turn off my bedside light and …

Boing! I'm wide awake! My bodymind seems to have its own agenda. My heart quickens and pings around in my chest, while the mind is off to the races with its never-ending To-Do and To-Don't lists: check Google maps for directions to that restaurant where we have reservations three weeks from now and don't forget to call the termite people to schedule the annual inspection due in two months — you know, the really important stuff.

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Here are some things I've tried to help me fall asleep: hot baths, sleep masks, white noise machines, Reiki, soothing spiritual tapes, herbs, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, massage therapy, blackout shades, hypnosis and the occasional aura reading.

Sometimes, I try counting backwards by seven, which I read once is a good trick for quieting the sleep-resistant mind. Only, I've gotten so good at it that it doesn't work anymore, even when I start at 500. I used to get up and go downstairs and make myself a nice piece of toast — my preferred non-pharmacological soporific. But that's no fun since I've gone gluten-free and the only bread available to me tastes like sawdust soaked in Elmer's glue. I also try talking myself down, like a wise parent to her fearful child: "You're safe. I've got you. There's nothing to be afraid of. Just let go, your body knows how to sleep."


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Eventually, I pop the pill I worry is rotting my brain. While I wait for it to work its magic (and, honestly, it does seem like magic) I find myself wondering which is worse: the pill or not sleeping? The Dalai Lama has said, "Sleep is the best meditation," but then I've never been all that good at meditating, with my busy, busy mind.

I know that my insomnia is just free-floating existential anxiety that, like a heat-seeking missile, lands on whatever targets are within range: termite inspections, restaurant directions. Really, the fear of sleep is a fear of death. Deep down, I know this. It's as if the restless anxious mind believes it can stave off the inevitable.

In "Motherless Brooklyn," author Jonathan Lethem brilliantly describes this strategy: "The insomniac brain is a sort of conspiracy theorist as well, believing too much in its own paranoiac importance — as though if it were to blink, then doze, the world might be overrun by some encroaching calamity, which its obsessive musings are somehow fending off."

I take some solace from the fact that I'm not alone; the numbers are pretty staggering. Between 40-60% of Americans over age 60 experience insomnia, with women twice as likely as men to suffer from it. (Before she died at 95, my mother claimed not to have slept for 40 years.) Not only that, more than half of all Americans lose sleep due to stress and anxiety. Interesting fact, but not all that calming during 1 a.m. flopsweats.

Still, though I believe I've tried every sleep-inducing method known to humankind and then some, there is one technique I've yet to sample — so far, I have not attempted to read "The Count of Monte Cristo."

I think I just better buy my own copy.

Tags: aging