There’s no doubt that my life would be more in sync with the way the world generally runs, if I had what are usually viewed as normal sleep patterns.
However, it is possible, even probable, that my seemingly abnormal sleep patterns are normal for me.
Truthfully, these days I even dislike the word “insomnia”; it’s a disease-word, a word that makes something outside-the-norm (and, yes, admittedly, sometimes difficult), not just difficult but wrong. An illness. To be fixed, or treated, unacceptable. In short, it pathologizes the neutral fact: I just sleep differently , and thus work on a different schedule, than most people ( or, as the poet e e cummings put it “mostpeople”).
Acceptance of this has been a long time coming.
LULLABIES FOR A BABY OWL
According to family lore, even when I was an infant and had been to bed for hours, when my parents would come in to check on me before they went to bed, here’s what they would find, night after night: me, wide awake.
Not crying. Not unhappy. Just – awake.(This photograph would seem to back them up.)
When I was old enough to stand up, they used to tell me, I’d often be standing in the crib, holding on to the bars, just gazing out into the dark. Presumably thinking or just taking it all in.
But, my parents were concerned about this. It was the 50’s (I was born in ’52). It was the post-Hiroshima age, where anxiety and prosperity walked hand in hand, and we as a culture enshrined stability and conformity. And, it was the beginning of default medicalization for deviation from these presumed norms, even for children, a practice which is now almost more common than not in Ritalined America.
I was about 4 or 5 when the first pathologizing of my sleep patterns took place. Dr. Billow, the pediatrician, prescribed phenobarbital.
DRUGS AND THE FIFTIES
Phenobarbital is a barbiturate, a pretty serious drug. But again, bear in mind it was the 50’s.
It took a lot of drugs to maintain the illusion of normalcy, especially in the face of the nuclear bomb, and the widespread repression of women, certainly white middle women (so Rosie-the-Riveter independent fierce during the war, they were now expected to stay within the tight physical and psychological confines of being wives and mothers) .
Pretty much everyone in certain sets of class and race smoked, drank, and took drugs without thinking anything much about it (see Mad Men).
Drugs certainly weren’t considered “recreational” as such, nor was there any sense that they might be dangerous; their usage was almost in the category of brushing your teeth and taking your vitamins and eating out of the five basic food groups.
In my own family, they were taken, and this was not unusual, at least three times a day.
My parents took benzedrine, an amphetamine, as a matter of course with their morning coffee and orange juice (freshly squeezed by my father, who also ground the coffee beans fresh daily, with a hand-cranked coffee mill).
It was the era of the two-or-three martini lunch, though my mother, an editor at a New York publisher who was almost always taking her authors out to lunch, tried to keep it to one-to-two, because she watched her calories.
In the late afternoon, the drug Miltown, a best-selling tranquilizer of the period (now largely replaced by the benzodiazepines like Valium) was served with the post-work cocktails, again martinis. (In the home where I grew up, these were to be only “extra dry with a twist of lemon peel,” the way, according to my father, a true martini must be made, and which I must have heard him order with great edgy precision a million times. God help the waiter who brought one with an olive instead of a twist).
Cheese (Camembert, usually) and crackers (Ry-Krisps, Triscuits) were always served with the drinks. I am not making it up when I tell you the Miltown was almost in that category. It’s a drug you don’t hear about much now, but for awhile it was so popular that until I was about ten or eleven, I thought it was something like aspirin. In fact, I remember once an adult friend of my parents, visiting, complained of a headache. I offered — helpfully and politely (for I was taught by my Southern-bred mother to be helpful and polite and offer guests whatever they might need), “Would you like a Miltown?” I was offended and perplexed when the grown-ups roared with laughter.
At their bedtimes, my parents had their own barbituates: Seconals (which my father, many years later, in recovery, would sometimes call by their street name, Red Devils). These accompanied their nightcaps; Johnny Walker Red for my father, Wild Turkey for my mother. This was no doubt part of the reason their morning uppers were required.
“So there’s the insomnia itself. I’ve always had it, now I’m an adult and I still have it. So a lot of times, I’m lying in bed, I’m wide awake and I know I have to get up and give a talk the next morning. And there’s the big honkin’ digital clock casting its red or green light and it says , ‘3:14 a.m.’ And I start counting off on my fingers: ‘Okay, 3:14, 4:14, 5:14, 6:14… if I go to sleep RIGHT NOW I could still get FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP, and…’ This is the way I think when I’m on the road. At home, if I don’t have to be somewhere early, it changes slightly: “You know, if I was a GOOD person, a SPIRITUAL person, a DISCIPLINED person, a NON-NEUROTIC person, I wouldn’t have this problem! I could go to sleep every night by 11:45 at the latest, and get up at 6:00, and do yoga, and meditate, and eat a healthy breakfast, and I’d be writing by 9:00 and …’
“But after awhile, we’re talking years here, we’re talking about finally starting to grow up, I begin to get that there are actually two things going on. One is the insomnia, the other is, freaking out over the insomnia. And then I slowly, slowly get: hey, the insomnia is really the minor problem here.
“And things slowly start to shift. The first thing is, when I’m at a hotel, I turn the clock to the wall. This is a revelation! This is a marvel! It takes the freak-out intensity way down. So I start making other physical adjustments. A lot of times, there are these annoying cracks where the curtains don’t quite close and these big razors of light come in, a good reason to be wakeful. So I start to pack big diaper-pin size safety pins, and I start pinning the curtain gaps shut. Or if there’s light coming through the bottom of the door, I roll up a towel and put it down and block the light. Easy! And there’s often ambient noise, so I start bringing ear-plugs. I begin, to the extent possible, to alter the environment and my physical self so things are a little more sleep-friendly. I get one of those eye-masks. In fact, I get two: the seed-bag kind which is great as long as you stay on your back, and the elastic band kind, which works even when you roll over.
“But even though the freaking element is less, I still have unusual sleep patterns. Most of the time, I begin gradually turning down the volume on ‘I suck because I don’t sleep like everyone else.’ And on a practical level, when I’m at home, I work at getting that it’s cool, I’m not lazy or a bad person, I’m actually self-employed and highly productive, just at my own hours. But it remains troublesome when dealing with the so-called real world. Where the plumber wants to come at 7:30, or I have to give a talk at 10:00 a.m. at a college that’s two hours drive away, or I want to get to the 8:00 a.m. yoga class.
“So I gradually begin this little routine, talking to myself in bed. Calming myself down. It goes something like, ‘Okay, I’m not sleeping, and I have to get up in the morning and give a talk. I’ve given plenty of talks on two hours sleep and, yeah, I felt wiped out but going into it I did just fine! I can probably get a nap in afterwards, before I have to leave for the airport; if not I can sleep on the plane. It’s not a big deal. So I’m just going to lie here and relax, whether I go to sleep or not. Just relax. And if I’m not sleepy after awhile, I’ll get up in half an hour and read, or work. But right now I’m going to stretch and feel how good it is to not be moving, to just relax. If I want I can just lie here rest, without necessarily sleeping, or get up, and either way, it’s okay.’
“And you know what? Sometimes I get some actual sleep, sometimes I don’t… Sometimes I lie there and relax and just think, maybe the way I did when I was a little girl, who knows… but sometimes I do get up, and read, or work on the computer. And either way, it is okay!”
I tell my Fearless students all this because fear is part of the process. and insomnia is part of what taught me this. It’s not the thing that’s problem. The problem is freaking out over the thing. Thinking that because the thing is difficult or unpleasant or hard to go through, it’s abnormal. Where we really go crazy isn’t the thing, it’s trying to outrun the thing. The thing being whatever it is that we name our anxiety of the moment.
And that thing would be what, exactly, in writing? Well, here’s some of what Fearless students have articulated in class over the years (there aren’t that many things, just infinite variations):
I’m afraid that everything important to say has already been said by someone much more qualified or better at saying it than me.
When I write it down it comes out so trite and stilted compared to what’s in my head.
If I write it down, everyone will know what a phony I am.
If I write it down, I will know what a phony I am.
I can write passably for my job, which is technical writing, but then it’s, who do I think I am, trying to be a poet?
If I say what I really want to say, no one in my family will ever speak to me again.
I make a good start, but then I can never finish.
I say I don’t have time, and I really don’t have time, but then there’s this little niggling voice saying, that’s just an excuse, you’re never going to do it, you’re a fuck-up.
I never get to the second sentence/paragraph/chapter because I keep messing around trying to get the first sentence/paragraph/chapter perfect.
What’s the use? I’ll never finish it / publish it / start it anyway.
One of my favorites was from a student who said that whenever she tried to write, “My negative thoughts run away with me.” I asked her, “Could you define negative thoughts, please?” She paused and said, “Introspection gone ballistic.”
Here’s the thing, with writing, as with life: we want some kind of a guarantee that what we write will be good before we write it. (I don’t know quite where we get this idea, frankly, since life consistently contradicts it: maybe it’s wishful thinking gone ballistic. )
had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all
he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
When you make fear your partner, you give up having to be sure. In my view, that’s the same thing you have to do when you finally begin to grow up.
When we start to write, fear and uncertainty are more often there than not, like my unusual sleep patterns are when I get into bed. Trying to drown out these things just makes them louder: as the New Age truism goes, “What you resist, persists.” But recognition, as opposed to resistance, transforms things into a source of strength. Here’s another truism, which many people have said in many ways, but probably no one quite as beautifully as Shakespeare (“Sweet is the use of adversity,”) or as clearly as Mark Twain: “Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of fear.” (I noticed Ariana Huffington used that Twain quote recently on her post, but unattributed. Bad Ariana.)
Mastery of fear, not its absence: that means, inferring from Twain, that fear is present; it’s a given. That “Them’s is the conditions what prevails,” as the late, great Jimmy Durante said, and as my late, great father Maurice used repeat (I probably heard him quote that even more times than I heard him order an extra dry martini with a twist of lemon peel, because I knew him when as a sober guy more years than as a drunk).
(And reading this post over, and seeing how many, many people I have quoted, from so wide a range of times, places, and excellencies, I realize the knack and habit of quoting is another thing I picked up from my father, who was a walking Bartlett’s… but he always gave attribution. Listen up, Ariana!)
You’re afraid, but but so what? You go on anyway.
That simple? That simple.
When you do this, anxiety is no longer pathologized. It’s not something you have to fix any more. Instead, it takes its own true shape, an unpleasant-feeling but ultimately fantastic developmental gift. Each fear offers you the chance to take whatever is the next step in growing up, as a writer and as a person. (I say ‘step’, because God knows, or at least, I know, for certain, you never reach a point where you can rinse your hands, dry off , and say, “Okay, I’m done!”) It’s step, step, step; fear, fear, fear, resist, get over the resistance, resist, get over the resistance … work with one fear, another’ll pop up. Endless opportunities! This might sound depressing, but there are few highs greater than doing something that irrationally scares the hell out of you, and getting through it.
The outcome, in worldly terms, might or might not be what you hoped. But the outcome in creating that work which is yourself is always beneficial. (This, by the way, is in part the basic story of the Bhagavad Gita: mastering fear. When Krishna says, “In this yoga, even the abortive effort is not wasted,” well, how clear is that?)
And each time, as you see how it works, you fear less; you fear the fear itself less. That’s what I mean by “fearless writing”: not without fear but because, in understanding it, you fear less.
This is true for almost every writer; indeed, at times, for all writers, and for all people. Gradually, the fears yield, to those willing to contend with them, their strange, wondrous offerings.
And especially so for writers. For, when you give up having to be sure and the myth of perfection and the myth that other people can be made to believe that you’re perfect, you bring the whole, imperfect, neurotic, egotistical, lazy, angry, messy, doubt-filled you to the chair in front of your desk. The whole is stronger than the partial. You write better because you bring your whole self, including the parts of your self you’ve wasted a lot of time trying to ignore, avoid, or vaporize.
“The business of
the poet and the novelist
is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the
underlying the sorriest things.”
My friend, the poet Red Hawk, who teaches English at the University of Arkansas Monticello, really gets this: listen to this poem of his (by which I mean, maybe even read it aloud), from his book The Way of Power, Hohm Press, 1991:
“You Know What You Are, Buddy”
As I am pulling into the gas station
a woman roars out from behind a pump
and cuts right in front of me.
I slam on the brakes, lay on my horn
and she stops just long enough to
lean out her window and scream at me,
You know what you are, buddy.
Yeah. I do.
I am a sorry little loser who
doesn’t know his ass from a gas pump;
I am an arrogant educated skreed who
will show you everything I know for a dollar;
I am a scared tense lonely humbug
willing to sell myself to the first woman
who shows me a grain of kindness;
I am a dazed and hopeless idiot
wondering how I got here and what
I am going to do next; I am a third-rate poet,
a broken and ruined lover of God,
a spiritual derelict hooked on Dharma,
a bum for truth, a pimp
for the teachings of Masters, but
what I want to know is,
how could she tell?
Now there is someone who gets that writing to make yourself look good — to you or to anyone else — Is not where the juice is. Quite the contrary. The weaknesses, the things that you thought were holding you back, turn out to be shape-shifters, propelling you forward. In the process of bringing your whole self to the page or screen, inevitably (especially and indeed only if you keep writing, pretty much daily, no matter what), ironically you wind up losing yourself in the best possible way. The writing itself becomes fuller, more humanized, stronger, more transparent. It takes its own shape. You become the conduit for it, a conduit that can run far more power without shorting-out because it’s not busily blocking itself up saying “Oh, I’m such a lousy, unworthy, incompetent conduit.” (Or for that matter, “Oh, what a good conduit I am, congratulations to wonderful me, queen of all conduits.”)
So if I don’t know what I’m going to write, or if it holds together, or or or … what’s the big deal?
So I’m awake. What’s the big deal?
Now, knowing my take on this whole process, and the part sleep has played in it, you will perhaps appreciate the following.
I come into yoga class one morning here in Vermont (actually, right across the Connecticut River, in New Hampshire). It’s Sandy Curry’s Powerseed class, which is a pretty heavy-duty 1 3/4 hour anusura (vinyasa) class. I love going to it, but, given my sleep stuff, it’s really hard sometimes to be there, because I have to leave the house at 8:10, which means getting up at 7:00, and… well, you know the drill. (I love this picture of Vermont, taken by David, along the road to Putney last winter… it really has nothing to do with the paragraph above, except there aren’t many pictures in this post and I did mention Vermont, so…)
So I manage to get to class this particular day and it’s great, like it always is. I am so tired that at times I’m just almost hanging in the poses as if in a dream state, the fatigue is so huge it’s like my mind as shut down and I’m just moving.
I do great in Corpse Pose, the last asana, I can tell you that.
After class, I’m leaving, I hug darling Sandy and we talk a little and I yawn… She says, “Late night?” I say “Yeah. I think, 2:30, 3:00 a.m. I finally got to bed.” Sandy, who is one of those people who (besides being slim as a reed, flexible as a willow, gorgeous, in her mid-sixties, reverent and irreverent in all the right ways, smart, funny and really nice) has the NERVE to get sleepy in the evening automatically and wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning — Sandy kind of shakes her head. It’s not a judgmental shake, mind you, at least, not much; if I had to guess it’s more like wonderment , amusement, maybe a touch of sympathy… in words, something like, “What a gift are all these strange people bringing their stuff to class, and Crescent is just… too much.”
Robert, fellow student, a friend of both of ours, comes up and joins the conversation, just as I yawn again.
Sandy says to him, by way of explanation, with a slight but fond rolling of the eyes towards me, “She was up until three last night.”
Robert says, wagging a finger at me, “Why, you bad girl! Shame on you!”
I say, “Why shame on me?” (My tone is mild, and curious… I’ve been working on this one awhile and am now wholly undefended about my sleep non-habits).
He says, mock-scoldingly but with a teeny edge, “Staying up so late at night, tch-tch-tch! You know better than that! That’s why shame on you! ”
I say, “Nope, Robert, no shame. I just… sleep a little differently than a lot of people.”
And I smiled at him, and at Sandy. And I meant both the smile and every word I’d just said.
CODA ON WRITING THIS POST: (I feel, since this blog is generally about writing, that I ought to be clear about a little of the process):
I started this a couple of nights ago, and it was one of those no-sleep nights, big time. I planned to say, “I could start at the beginning, with” and tell you about my baby-life, as I more or less did in the draft you finally read.
But I was going to then say, “Or, I could start at the end,” and talk about being awake that particular night… all the things I had done, the general buzz of mental and physical activity, writing, having a piece of toast in the middle of the night, watching part of a pretty good movie called “Dopamine“, how I was still awake when the sun came up and how unspeakably gorgeous it was, with layers of orange-pink flame-colored streaky clouds licking at white edged dark clouds, and how I was STILL so awake that I went outside and gardened for an hour, then came back in and worked on the precursor of what you’re reading, and then
finally hit the wall
showered and went to bed. By then it was maybe 7:30 am: I got up at 11:00, had breakfast, meeped around, was so tired I was just not functional, went back to bed, got up again at 3:00 in the afternoon, worked, swam, ate dinner, watched the rest of the movie, then actually went to bed that night at what’s generally considered a reasonable hour. (This is what I mean by “unusual.”)
But, I wound up trashing that part of the essay. (I tell you all this, because aspiring writers often don’t
realize that because something they read sounds natural and effortless, that writing it wasn’t necessarily effortless. One of my favorite pieces of my own writing is the second part of the introduction to Passionate Vegetarian,the part about Ned’s and my life together. I think it reads conversationally and easily. It’s funny, and sad, it’s respectful and precise. But it took me eighteen drafts!) (Cover of that book, left. As I always say, “It’s amazing what twenty pounds of make-up and a professional photographer can do!” As I rarely say, but often think, ‘A cover girl at age 50? WTF?” and “Ohhhh… why couldn’t Ned have been alive and gotten to to see this?”)
So. I let what I’d written in the middle of the no-sleep night rest a day or two without looking at it. (I had, among other things, income-generating writing work to do). Then, today, after doing some income-producing writing work and coping with a major example of “the r-word” (subject for a post in the near-future), I revisited this essay. Cut, changed, did lapidary work. It’s now 9:34 PM, on Thursday; I think this go-round I’ve given it maybe two, three hours, which has passed in a flash (I was astonished when I just now looked at the time). I still need to go back in and stick in all the links and I’ll probably edit it a time or two more. I haven’t eaten dinner, I haven’t worked out (except for 5 token sun salutes when I got up). I’m tempted to just link it all on in right now and be done, but then that could add to another wholly cockamamie night of sleep.
But you know what? That’s what I’m going to do.
Not only because I want the satisfaction of completing it, but because I’m a writer with unusual sleep patterns. And because, as my daddy taught me, nothing is wasted on the writer.
(Post-adding the links in. Now 11:05 p.m.)
the singer Burl Ives… when I was five or six I always halfway
expected him to burst out into “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”). And for little baby Ellen (me, for these were pre-Crescent days), Dr.
Goodnight. In whatever form it takes for both of us!