Sorry, Walt. In reality, lots of us aren’t sleeping.
Unless you’ve nodded off, you know we’re deep in an epidemic of sleeplessness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third of us aren’t getting the recommended seven hours of unconsciousness. Like Wordsworth, we lurch up each morning lamenting that we “could not win thee, Sleep! by any stealth.” A story in The Washington Post noted that a growing number of scientists are calling our lack of sleep “an escalating public health crisis.”
But these doctors and “sleep specialists” are only now catching up with what so many have endured for years. The evidence of our nightly torment is tucked between the sheets of countless books. If that’s not a comfort, at least it’s company.
F. Scott Fitzgerald called it “sleep-conscious”: a state of heightened anxiety about sleep that keeps us from getting enough sleep. In “The Crack-Up,” that self-pitying collection of essays published after his death, Fitzgerald wrote, “The problem of whether or not sleep was specified began to haunt me long before bedtime.”
We are a people constantly doing the math, computing how many hours of shut-eye we got, how many hours we missed, how many hours the weekend might offer. In her slim, thoughtful book “Insomnia,” Marina Benjamin suggests that “the collective noun that fits us best is a calculation of insomniacs.”
I’ve tried all the usual solutions: yoga, warm milk, melatonin, lavender sachets — nothing works. Four years ago, I even subjected myself to a formal sleep study at the Sibley Hospital Sleep Center in Washington. That ordeal involved spending the night in what looked like an aggressively bland hotel room — the kind of nursing-home setting in which a wealthy octogenarian might peacefully pass away. The room included a mammoth reclining chair covered in preemptive plastic and a large-screen TV that could only show “The Sibley Hospital Sleep Center Introduction Video,” starring a sluggish, middle-aged man who couldn’t sleep well until he’d completed his treatment at the Sibley Hospital Sleep Center. I was covered with electrodes — about two dozen wires glued to my scalp and face; some running down my legs; two stuck up my nose. I was the Borg Queen ready for bed. Resistance is futile!
But alas, that little adventure produced no revelations. My symptoms were judged too minor to treat with any dramatic measures. No Darth Vader mask for me. My wakeful nights have continued, putting me in exhausted sympathy with a yawning number of Americans.
Naturally, a cottage industry of self-help books has grown up in response to this problem. And because no social crisis would be complete without a multimillionaire telling us how to live, Arianna Huffington wrote a book titled “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.” She’s hardly alone. There are dozens of similar books resting on the shelves. They’re designed to appeal to the curious (“Why We Sleep”), the proactive (“The Sleep Solution”) and the ambitious (“Sleep Smarter”). Readers who like it rough might enjoy “I Can Make You Sleep.”
Like sheep jumping over the fence, the recommendations are strikingly similar:
● Avoid alcohol and caffeine at night.
● Get some exercise.
● Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
Every expert also recommends avoiding electronic screens before bed. I know this because I’ve read it in bed on my iPhone at least a dozen times.
The heavy shelf of nonfiction books on sleep is to be expected in a self-help era like ours, but it’s curious to see that same obsession has long run through works of fiction, too.
Remember, we’re raised on tales of sleep dysfunction: “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” both revolve around characters who can’t be awakened. Washington Irving transformed a classic folk tale into one of America’s first stories, “Rip Van Winkle,” about a young man who falls asleep for 20 years. Decades later in our own lives we realize just how prophetic “The Princess and the Pea” is.
Given the horror of insomnia, it’s not surprising that sleeping too much or too little is a recurring motif in our favorite macabre tales. Stripped of their bloodlust, what, after all, are vampires and zombies but insomniacs with bad taste? Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is haunted by sleeplessness. Nobody — not even the dead — can sleep in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” The sleepless heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” goes mad.
Modern-day horror-meister Stephen King flips that terror in “Sleeping Beauties,” written with his son Owen King. In this reworking of fairy-tale myths, any woman who falls asleep gets covered in a sticky white cocoon. Insomnia is their only hope. Earlier this year, Karen Thompson Walker’s “The Dreamers” considered a spreading sleeping sickness in a slightly more realistic setting. Jasper Fforde brought his usual madcap wit to a reflection on sleep in last year’s “Early Riser,” about a culture in which most people hibernate through the winter — the ultimate fantasy!
How telling that the latest novel from banned Chinese writer Yan Lianke, “The Day the Sun Died,” portrays his country’s overcharged economy as a night of exhausting sleepwalking: “the great somnambulism [that] blotted out the sky and blanketed the earth, leaving everything in a state of chaos.” Apparently, we have successfully exported our economic anxiety and our peculiar liberty: Freedom from sleep!
That same pressure to meet impossible standards propels the female executive in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s fantastic new novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” By the end, sleeplessness has effectively shredded her mind.
Of course, modern characters know we have a full spectrum of sleep medications at our disposal — along with all the unnerving side effects. And the very marketplace that has disrupted our rest is eager to sell us sleep apps, monitoring bracelets, mouth guards, weirdly shaped pillows, white-noise machines, blue night lights, nap pods, breathable sheets — on and on, luring us ever further from the natural tranquility we crave.
In the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” a doctor tells a painter that she needs to figure out why she’s not sleeping.
“What’s to figure out?” the painter replies. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish — me first, or the world.”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.