published Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Shavin: I’m still sleepless after all these years

By Dana Shavin

The other morning, the “CBS Morning Show” was talking about Virgin Galactic’s impending trip into space. In a segment that was more poetic than journalistic, the reporter observed that there are some wealthy people willing to pony up $250,000 to experience “four minutes of weightlessness, the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.”

And I thought, “Sleep. That’s what sleep is.”

Because when you are sleep deprived, everything you see and hear is a metaphor for sleep. I haven’t slept through the night since the mid-1970s and, although I handle the deficit pretty well, the problem is that sleeplessness compounds itself.

When I am overtired at bedtime, sleep paralysis sets in before I am completely asleep, at which time my body delivers the terrifying news of an inability to move to my brain. My brain then scrambles to rouse itself by screaming, whimpering or giggling. This can happen three or four times in a row. I am a nightly freak show with a soundtrack.

I blame my sleeplessness on my family. When I was a child, my mother would sometimes shut herself in her bedroom to nap, which I found deeply disturbing. Naps, with their unpredictable timing and disregard for proper sleepwear, were scary and strange. My brother, whose sleep-wake patterns defied human neurological convention, would often enter my room hours after I’d been asleep, lie down in the floor, and say, “Want to talk?” Sleep, I learned was both frightening and dispensable, after which it was scarce.

Because I never sleep through the night, I have fallen asleep in yoga class, at art shows, on road trips, during parties and at work. Many years ago, when I had to travel for my job, I found myself falling asleep at the wheel of the company car. Many an afternoon I’d be speeding down Monteagle Mountain in 30-degree weather with all four windows down, screaming, trying to keep myself awake. Which gave me a great idea: Upon my inevitable 2 a.m. awakening, I would simply visualize the interior of the Oldsmobile, thereby tricking my brain into thinking I was driving and making it sleepy.

That this was a terrible, dangerous idea did not occur to me. And it didn’t work. What happened was that I continued to fall asleep in the car during the day, and at night I found myself wide awake with my foot on the gas pedal of my thoughts.

Over time, I’ve built up an arsenal of less-dangerous tricks designed to lull me to sleep. Backward recitations is one of them. Thanks to years of unrelenting insomnia I can, when the lights are off, sing or recite: the alphabet, the Pledge of Allegiance, “Happy Birthday,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and the Sabbath blessing, in Hebrew, backwards.

A few years ago I tried to learn “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” backward, but I couldn’t parse out the individual words. This infuriated me, after which I could not go back to sleep.

Now I just wake my husband. “Want to talk?” I’ll say and, as he is the most patient and forgiving man in the world, we will, for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

“What’s on your mind?” he’ll say, and I will recite my list of worries, concerns, musings, things that have recently struck me as funny and recipe ideas.

Occasionally he will try to steer the conversation toward himself, at which time I have to remind him that this is my time, not his. And then, inevitably, because he does not have a disorder, he will fall asleep, and I will lie there listening to his breath and the dog’s breath and the house creaking and the heat cycling off and on, and I will think of a Leonard Cohen quote I heard once: “The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.”

Except what I really think is, “World sleeping the to superiority of sense a is insomniac the of refuge last the.”

Contact Dana Shavin at danalise@juno.com.

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