Sunday reading; or, Vila 1, Insomnia 0
November 18, 2007 § 8 Comments
An excellent feature in this week’s New York Times Magazine about a subject I happen to be exceptionally well versed in: insomnia. The article is particularly noteworthy because I actually read it in the morning, having recently emerged from a debilitating and months-long bout with the condition.
Insomnia is, as the author notes, a form of performance anxiety, much like stagefright, writer’s block, or the one that Pfizer has made countless millions rescuing porn-addled men from. It is also a distinctly post-industrial ailment, one that strives for an ideal state of sleep that likely never existed. My favourite excerpt from the article offers the requisite historical perspective:
[A. Roger] Ekirch’s 2005 book, “At Day’s Close,” described just how frenetic night in preindustrial times was. People slept, or tried to, in poorly insulated buildings that let in the weather and noise. Livestock huffed and mewled and stank just outside – if not inside. Generally, you slept beside a chamber pot of your own excrement, staggering across the room every few hours to keep your fire alive. With physical health comparatively poor, night was when people simmered most acutely in their discomfort. In 1750, one writer described London between the hours of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. as a ghastly encampment of “sick and lame people meditating and languishing on their several disorders, and praying for daylight.”
Well, so much for the good old days.
The article goes on to question the efficacy of sleeping pills, whose hypnotic properties have recently become a subject of intense debate. I suspect that this is because the latest generation of pills, known as “Z-drugs,” have been marketed as an entirely new class of pharmaceutical when in fact they function in exactly the same way your mother’s (or grandmother’s) benzodiazepines did: that is, they don’t act directly on the mechanics of sleep, but indirectly on the anxiety that conspires to prevent it. Essentially, they’re downers, except without the cool cultural references and the bad rep. (Rock and Roll Doctor, you’re on the air! C’mon, anyone?)
In any case, I’m pleased to confess that they worked a charm on me.
I’ve long held the view that there are two kinds of humans: upper-people and downer-people. Upper-people respond to coffee, Coke, coke, and speed, while downer-people have a penchant for Valium, hashish, alcohol, and opiates. As always, there are exceptions that prove the rule: nicotine, for example, which is a stimulant that is experienced by the user as a depressant. Generally speaking, though, people seem to need either to be sped up or slowed down, and I fall squarely into the latter camp.
Drugs aside, I am now trying to learn how to live life as a recovering insomniac, which is infinitely harder than it looks. For starters, when are you supposed to write? In the absence of late nights there is evening, which isn’t nearly the same, and these bright daylight hours that still feel foreign and strange. I haven’t found my daily rhythm yet, as my recent blogging output shows, but even so life feels a thousand times better than it did just a few weeks ago, when it transpired almost entirely in the dark. Not good, and especially not on the cusp of a long, Montreal winter that will be spent huffing the quiet and still air of delightful studies.
(Snorts.) I bet Milton slept like a fucking baby.