The Living Dead of the Night

The Living Dead of the Night

Being a collection of notes on the art and science of sleeplessness, with a helpful sidebar on the commercial attractions of the night.

It is 3:20 a.m. at the intersection of Hiawatha and Lake in Minneapolis, and there he is, stumbling around in a pair of '70s vintage moon boots, one of the classic characters of the urban night: the Karate Kicker. After, say, two in the morning in every city in the Western world there is always a guy all alone on a street corner somewhere, howling and karate kicking at some private antagonist. I pull up to the stop light--the first red light I've run into since Lake and Hennepin--and roll down the passenger-side window.

"I've got everything," it sounds like the guy is muttering, in between the grunts and yowls.

Or perhaps it is this: "I'll get everything." I've seen this character all over the world--in Oslo, Omaha, Paris, Boston, and even in the morning streets of my hometown in Minnesota. In the shitty neighborhood where I once lived for a short time in Orlando, Florida, it seemed every corner and every 7-11 parking lot had its own Karate Kicker, shit-faced, sleepless, and fiercely vigilant.

Despite the screwy language of time, the sleepless understand that it is never truly morning until the sun rises and the newspaper comes up the sidewalk. The hours after midnight are always, unmistakably, night, and the night crawls along in a muddled and surreal procession of moments, each of them accompanied by the folding numbers of the clock on the bedstand: 2:37, 3:12, 3:48, 4:19, 4:40, 5:04. The night becomes an extended variation on the theme of turning over: thoughts, memories, images, the tossing physical agony of sleeplessness. Insomnia progresses along the lines of serious drinking. You get better and better at it, and then, gradually, you get worse and worse, until you'd give anything for a few large, slow brain waves, for a few hours of hard-charging REM sleep, for a few dirty dreams, but there isn't anything you can give. You can't sleep, and--like the spiny anteater, the duck-billed platypus, and very, very few other mammals--you can't dream.

Chronic insomnia reduces the mind to the body's Vegas (and Vegas, incidentally, is a place I steadfastly refuse to visit), a place where consciousness is literally incessant. Your mind becomes a whirlpool roiling with odd words, phrases, or images, circling wildly and then disappearing below the surface. One recent night the phrase "too melon tasting" kept pacing back and forth in my head, aggravated by the fact that I couldn't quite place it. Then--voilà: Around Christmas I had seen an elderly couple tasting free samples in a liquor store. "Too melon tasting," had been the old gal's assessment of a particular drink.

Jerome Bruner, in his introduction to A.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist, speaks of characters "symbolically dispossessed of the power to find meaning in the world." In the weird, wee hours, when the insomniac is losing the battle to conserve and control, and struggling, exhausted, to get a few thoughts to land, that feeling of dispossession is all too familiar. Given the disjointed nature of what happens in the brain between 3 and 6 a.m., consciousness becomes like trying to reconstruct an entire civilization from nothing but pottery fragments and a belt buckle.

This is the static mind--static absolutely, in the electrical sense of the word--observed, alternately confused and amused by itself, and ultimately defeated. The inexhaustible is always exhausting. Toward dawn the random thoughts move slowly across your brain in a creaking wheel barrow. Night after night you find yourself camped in the hypnogogic foothills of sleep, stuck at a permanent and groggy base camp far below the summit. You've given up on the summit. You've become a circadian anomaly, saddled with one of the last great biological mysteries.

The gist of what the experts can tell you is this: 1) you're living wrong; and 2) insomnia can wreck your life, but it can't kill you. Thirty percent of the adult population reports experiencing insomnia more often than he or she would like. Mostly it's women and old people who don't sleep, and people with much better reasons than mine. There are today more than 2,000 sleep disorder clinics in North America. Since the invention in the 1930s of techniques for measuring electrical activity in the brain, neuroscientists have made remarkable progress in the understanding of the biochemical and chronobiological mysteries of sleep, but sleeplessness is still a subject about which there is little consensus.

Sleep studies--in which the sleeper is wired with electrodes that allow researchers to monitor electrical activity in the brain, eyes, and muscles, as well as changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood--are effective in ferreting out organic disorders such as apnea, narcolepsy, and parasomnias (sleep-walking, night terror, bed-wetting, teeth grinding, etc.), but virtually useless in cases of primary insomnia. In other words, if you really cannot sleep, sleep studies can accomplish very little, because chances are pretty good that you aren't going to sleep when you're in a strange room and a strange bed, wired with electrodes and being watched over by researchers and video cameras.

Insurance companies, in fact, will generally not pay for treatment of insomnias where no organic cause is suspected. "We very rarely do sleep studies for insomnia," says Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center in Minneapolis. "Insomnia is regarded as a constitutional symptom and not a disorder in and of itself. Insomnia has always been part of the human condition, and it has long been assumed that it is due to psychological or physical factors. There's no question that there is a direct statistical relation between insomnia and psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, but my question would be, 'Which comes first?' Imagine what your psychological profile or inventory would look like if I subjected you to five years of chronic insomnia."

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