Luc Tuymans, Insomnia, 1988

Sleep by Numbers

Most people fall asleep soon after they lie down, and if they do awake in the middle of the night, fall back to sleep quite quickly. I don’t fall, I crawl into sleep, especially if I awake in the night, which I almost always do. I then need to inch my way back to unconsciousness. I am a snail encumbered with the heavy weight of a body that refuses to surrender. The whole idea of falling, the sense of relinquishment, the suddenness of it all, is foreign to me

I don’t sleep well, and haven’t for the last three or four years. I wake up after three or four hours of sleep. Everyone wakes up in the course of their sleep, but sound sleepers don’t remember it. But I really wake up. I feel as if I could put on my running shoes and do a brisk 10K run.

I don’t get back to sleep easily. Instead I lay adrift in a sea that is neither wakefulness nor sleep. I am on a raft that floats in a muted grayish fluid, an interstitial space that is vulnerable to the slightest disruption.

The painter Luc Tuymans arrestingly captured this no-man’s land in his appropriately entitled work, Insomnia. He said that the painting represented“the idea of a state in which the body has lost its feeling, in which all material loses its normal concreteness, and floats in space, as if weightless.”

I float. I lie on a raft hoping I will go under at any moment. But I bump into an outcropping of rock right before I slip into unconsciousness. Again and again.

I knew this wasn’t normal. I knew there’s something wrong.

It took me a long time to admit I had a problem. I suppose I thought it would just go away on its own, as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had come on. I was afraid that if I admitted it, if I named it, it would acquire an existence of its own. It would take shape. It would become a condition. Which, of course, it did.

People who sleep well—and even those who experience isolated bouts of insomnia—inevitably ascribe poor sleep to stress or depression or anxiety. It’s as if it’s your fault. I know, of course, that psychological factors come into play, are often at the forefront of insomnia. But if it were all psychological then why didn’t I sleep better when I was happy? I slept poorly whether I was under pressure at work or on a late summer retreat to an out-of-the-way island where the most taxing decision was which beach to go to. I slept poorly in the rush of early enthusiasm that marks a new boyfriend and in the still equanimity of solitude. I don’t even have all that much stress in my life.

I was convinced there was a physiological or neurochemical basis to my insomnia. Was it too much or too little exercise? A glass of wine too much? What about calcium and Vitamin D? Maybe it was the aspartame in the whey powder I used to turbo-charge my wake-up smoothie? Electrolyte loss? The hour I drank my last cup of coffee? Not enough magnesium? I had read a study, admittedly an isolated one, that claimed that magnesium supplements decreased the levels of post-exercise cortisol in athletes. And I had read that high night-time cortisol contributed to poor sleep. (aturally I took the magnesium supplements for a month. And naturally they didn’t help.

I’m a great believer in data and their potential to illuminate, too much so for my good I suppose. I thought if I could just record enough observations with enough variables a pattern would emerge that would lead to a diagnosis of my sleeplessness. Dieter says I’m a rationalist in the guise of an empiricist. By this I suppose he means my idealization of mathematics and the certainty I ascribe to the deductive potential of massive amounts of data. He may be right.

Maybe I wasn’t recording the right variables, or I didn’t have enough data points, but there was no pattern. Except Sundays. I almost always slept poorly on Sunday night (but the other nights of the other week were pretty shitty, too, so no big breakthrough there). Oh, and that I slept ok after a joint. But that was true as well with antihistamines, and no great revelation. I wasn’t eager to take up either as a remedy. I knew that drugs of any kind offered only temporary relief and eventually made it more difficult to fall or stay asleep.  I recognized I needed help and booked an appointment with a sleep doctor.

The clinic was housed off the corridor in a wing of one of the late 19th century buildings of the hospital, and had the high ceilings, massive doors and drafts of the original architecture. It comprised a suite of two rooms with hospital beds and a waiting area that doubled as the observation deck for the staff that monitored the patients’ sleep. Along one wall was a bank of PCs that were linked to the machines in other rooms, which at night were cabled to the patients’ skulls. I flashed on the plugged pods in the Matrix. It was eerie, but the idea of measurement appealed to me, and I imagined the graphs of alpha, beta and delta waves that my brain would trace along the  screen and then on a scroll of flimsy would like some hieratic papyrus finally reveal the meaning. A pattern that would explain my sleeplessness.

Behind the waiting area with these machines was a small room that could once have been a utility closet but now served as the doctor’s office, where I was now sitting being interviewed, having filled out a lengthy questionnaire about my sleep behavior. The results of which, it seemed, were piss-poor.

“I want to take a look at how you sleep. From what you’ve said and the results of the questionnaire, I believe an overnight sleep study is warranted,” the doctor said.

“But I won’t be able to sleep here,” I said.

“Oh, everyone says that but practically everyone does,” he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to fall asleep with electrodes and sensors attached to your head, nose, chest and a finger. Oh, and a leg, too.

It was wrong from the start. The skimpy pillow, the light that seeped into my room from the adjacent waiting room, the persistent tugging at my scalp from the electrode paste that was drying out. Something didn’t fit properly, I think it was the oximeter on my finger; it triggered an alarm to notify the technician, who would have to come in and readjust the sensor.

I gave up after five hours and asked to leave. I was apparently one of those few people who do not sleep during a sleep study, though the doctor said I did have a few episodes of stage 1 non-REM sleep. He booked me for another session, but told me not to sleep for more than two or three hours the night before. Which I did, and slept enough in the next session to generate data to rule out a slew of conditions including apnea and restless leg syndrome and to leave me as clueless as I was before I consulted the sleep specialist, with the exception of a sheet of tips he had given me on sleep hygiene, which I began gradually to implement.

I put a shade over the glass insert on my bedroom door. I didn’t turn on the lights if I had to get up to go to the bathroom.  Other rules, like not reading in bed or foregoing a glass or two of wine at night, proved harder to put into practice. And ever the incorrigible data collector, I still squint at the alarm clock to read the time when I wake up in the middle of the night.

I found an iPhone app for guided relaxation. It featured the voice of a Scotsman named Andrew Johnson. After guiding me into relaxing my muscles and breathing more deeply, he tells me that I am at the top of a flight of white marble stairs that looks out on a favorite place of mine. I think of the row of apple trees that stood at the edge of a bluff at my grandfather’s place in the country. The low-limbed trees were easy to climb, and I remember spending late afternoons nestled in one of those trees looking out over the rye fields below, pretending I was a soldier keeping vigil in a castle turret. The voice invites me to imagine this place as fully as I can. I do. I can almost detect the faintly sour, cider-like smell of the apples in the fall. The voice asks me to descend the stairs ever so slowly, and counts off the steps. One, two, three… There are ten of them. I know because I always make it to the bottom. Without falling asleep.

I will go back to collecting and plotting my data. I will observe more variables. I will measure my mood. If I could do blood tests at home, I would record the results of these as well. But how much do I need to collect? What if I missing a key variable? The only way to be sure is to record everything.

Then I think of the map in Borges’ story, On Exactitude in Science. The one-paragraph story tells of a map of an empire that its cartographers had drawn on a scale of 1:1. Its size was exactly that of the empire itself and represented it, point for point. But this vast map proved to be useless, as later generations soon discovered, and “not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.”

But I am still far from such exactitude.


Image: Luc Tuymans, Insomnia, 1988



One response to “Sleep by Numbers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s