A writer who can’t sleep muses on the human craving for oblivion.
In a capacious, lyrical meditation on her elusive quest for sleep, Benjamin (The Middlepause: On Life After Youth, 2017, etc.) reflects on the long nights she lies awake, watching enviously as her husband (affectionately dubbed Zzz) sleeps contentedly beside her. Her mind is alive with worry, anxiety (“anxiety is women’s work,” she observes), “looping” obsessions, and “gnawing thoughts.” Her pursuit of sleep makes her feel energized, “invigorated by the chase,” the opposite of the slow, quiet descent into unconsciousness that she desperately desires. Each morning, deprived of the restorative quality of sleep, she feels like a zombie. She has tried all manner of remedies: valerian root, sleeping pills, meditation, Nytol, and cognitive behavioral therapy, for which she found herself in a group of fellow insomniacs, meeting in a hospital conference room, sharing their sad stories of persistent wakefulness. Drugs afford her a few hours of sleep but not the kind of rest she needs; she wakes feeling heavy and dragged out. Cognitive behavioral therapy requires strict adherence to a regimen that feels counterproductive: She must keep a sleep diary and follow proper sleep hygiene practices. Most annoyingly, she is allowed only 5.6 hours of sleep per night, a number calculated by her sleep counselors. “It is a torment to take an insomniac and deprive them of sleep,” she complains. Benjamin finds consolation and insight from a wide range of literary sources: Greek and Egyptian mythology, fairy tales (“Sleeping Beauty” and the restive princess kept awake by a pea), Proust, Daniel DeFoe, Roberto Bolaño, Oliver Sacks (who awakened patients from the locked-in, sleeplike state), poets Charles Simic and Mary Oliver, philosophers David Hume and Gaston Bachelard, psychoanalysts Freud, Jung, and Bruno Bettelheim. Nabokov, a kindred spirit, “likened insomnia to a solar flare.”
A vivid portrayal of wakefulness that will strike a chord of recognition in many readers.