This Essay Cannot Sleep

Jamie Iredell


It’s 2:37 in the morning as I write this and I’ve been awake since 10:00 AM yesterday, after having finally fallen asleep at 7:40 earlier that morning, prior to another sleepless night. If the times in that sentence are hard to figure out, forgive me. Though they seem to make sense to me, I am likely as confused as you. I can’t make time of my sleeplessness. Even the utterance of that word, like a hiss, a deflating air mattress, a string of zzzzzzzzzs in a vacuum, no medium or tempo. No time. No sleep.

In our medicine cabinet: a bottle of Melatonin, packages of Alka Seltzer Plus Night Cold Formula. In our bedroom closet: a twice-used relaxing sound-generating machine, and some machine called the Nightwave that produces a flashing blue light to which one matches his breathing to relax the body till he drifts off. All failed attempts at drugs or gadgetry to ease my body and mind to sleep.

Some of the books that I have read, some in single sittings when I could not sleep:

Blood Meridian

The Second Sex


Child of God

Light Boxes

Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia

The Gay Science

I’ve had sleep problems since I was a boy. This, in part, made me a reader, as I lay awake nights, a flashlight in one hand, book in the other. Stories unraveled, pages turned. When I did not or could not read my mind turned over stories of its own. From what I remember, most of these were fantasies involving girls. Mostly, these weren’t sexual. I remember first being attracted to girls around the first grade, and I’d wish that I and whatever little girl I had a crush on would live some life together that mostly consisted of snuggling in my bed, or on the couch in front of the television. Usually these stories followed the pattern of me doing something heroic to help this little girl out, like rescuing her from a burning building, or defending her when other kids at school made fun of her. Then she’d be attached to me, and we held hands all the time.

Once, my family took a two-week-long road trip around the western United States and Canada, and at one point we camped outside of Elko, Nevada on a warm summer night. My father had purchased this Coleman pop-up trailer from a family friend for something like a hundred bucks. To this day my dad’s eyes get wistful as he says what a good deal that camper was. We towed this thing that looked like an oversized suitcase when it was collapsed behind our station wagon. When it was popped up, what we slept in was some cross between a tent and a mobile home. At each new campsite, dad enlisted me as we unhitched the camper, lowered the stabilizing legs, and cranked her up. Despite the above-mentioned “stabilizing legs” this trailer shook around like you were in an earthquake whenever anyone rolled over in bed, or got up, or did just about anything. You can imagine what two weeks on the road with your kids might do to your love life if you’re said kids’ parents. I’d never told Mom and Dad that I had trouble sleeping because I didn’t know there was anything weird about it. So I lay there when Mom and Dad started giggling and whispering and the trailer started shaking around like mad. It was plain pointless to continue to lie there. I knew what was going on and I felt uncomfortable. The thought of what my parents were doing made me sick to my stomach. So I got up to leave, which made my parents freeze and Mom asked if everything was okay, and I told her that I needed to use the bathroom, but really I just sat at our campsite’s picnic table and stared at the stars over the desert for an hour or so, or at least till the trailer stopped shaking.

More books I’ve read during sleepless nights:

Fast Machine


Notes from Underground

No Country for Old Men

About a Mountain

The Collected Plays by Wole Soyinka

I remember one Christmas Eve when I still believed in Santa Claus: the excitement, the anticipation! No way I was going to sleep that night. My father put me down in his and Mom’s bed, probably knowing that I would not sleep. He said, “Just stay here, and look out the window. You might see Santa and his sleigh.” My parents’ bed sat below the long narrow window that looked out on the backyard and, from my lying-down position, the sky, clear of fog on this Xmas Eve night. I watched the stars twinkling. I thought about what I’d asked for from Santa (Who knows that year? GI Joes, Transformers, a bicycle?) and how I’d find them beneath the tree in the morning. I lay there thinking and staring at the sky until it grayed, then I leapt from the bed and rushed to our living room. I suppose that my parents slept on the hide-a-bed in the family room’s couch but I don’t remember. I remember the tree lit up in the dark of the living room, shining on mine and my brother’s and sister’s toys, those that required assembly already put together, as if Santa had actually built them in his workshop with his elves. I was supposed to wait until everyone was awake until I could open any presents or play with my new toys, and I sat on the steps that led down into our living room for a minute, gazing at the magic of this scene. Then I ran to wake up my brother and sister and the three of us rustled up our groggy parents who promptly put on a pot of strong coffee.

Sometime after the cat I had as a boy died (my dad accidentally running over her in the driveway) I lay awake in bed thinking about the fact that my parents one day, too, would die, and I was terrified at the prospect of this inevitability. I walked down the hall and found my father reading the newspaper at our dining room table and I was crying and I told him what I was thinking about. Dad said, “Son, calm down. That’s many many years from now.” I think of this this morning when I lay awake in bed unable to sleep, a couple years after Dad suffered the stroke that has brought him clearly—from my point of view, at least—into old age.

It must’ve been terribly frustrating for my parents and grandparents that I had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t sleep at my grandparents’ home one night and went to their bedroom and inadvertently interrupted—well. Let’s just say that while I’m not scarred or anything, it’s best not to have to see your grandparents naked—ever.

Books that I am writing/have written and on which I have made great headway because I could not sleep:

This one

The Book of Freaks

The Fat Kid

Prose. Poems. a Novel.

Our Lady of Refuge

Last Mass

The Lake

Metal Penelope

Recently the “video,” “8 Hours - Shower Relaxing Water Running Ambient Sounds ducha Dusche duş душ,” on Youtube is my currently-working sleep aid. We’ll see how long that lasts. Whenever I try something new in an attempt to sleep it works for about one month. I guess that I get used to the sleep aid, like my brain figures out a way to work around it.

In high school I started smoking weed, but I also started hanging out with my friends at odd hours of the night, hours during which I’d already have been awake anyway. But now I was stoned. When I rolled in to my parents’ house, through the garage door so as not to wake anyone else, all of them snuggled in their beds, I crept to the room I shared with my brother and gloriously fell fast asleep.

It’s 5:04 AM as I write this. I woke and had to pee. If I’m lucky, my daughter won’t be up for another two hours. But I can tell already that I won’t be falling back to sleep. I can tell how long I’ve slept from the eight-hour “Sound of Shower” Youtube video: four hours and forty-four minutes. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that my average number of hours of sleep per night is somewhere around four.

Things I think about when I’m trying to sleep but I cannot: This arm that I injured won’t heal up and it’s sore when I lie on my right side but I want to lie on my right side goddamn it. Oh shit, I have that meeting about the poetry contest I’m judging. Did I miss that? I should check my phone. Oh good, that’s not till Thursday. Sex. What was that sound? Neighbors? Yeah, probably the neighbors. Tomorrow I have to buy plane tickets, send a transcript and a resume, work on edits and revisions, try to do other writing, go jogging. I need to stop eating such shitty food. If I just stopped eating shitty food I might actually lose some weight. Sex.

Alka Seltzer Plus Cold Night Formula contains Doxylamine succinate, an antihistamine that by itself or in combination with codeine, is often used as a sedative. This is the chemical that would sometimes make me drowsy and lull me to sleep when I actually was sick, and an aid I have used when I was not suffering a cold. I try not to rely on such measures, though.

I once read that Napoleon Bonaparte was an insomniac, that he slept in fifteen-minute naps every few hours, which helped with his brilliant military strategy, but his years of insomnia—for all we know—also could’ve compounded, the effects contributing to his failures at Waterloo.

According to Wikipedia, lights-out baseball refers to “A pitcher who so dominates the hitters that the game is effectively over once he takes the mound—so they can turn out the lights and go home. The pitcher retires the batters in order without allowing a single run.” And some baseball announcers have been known to say “Good morning, good afternoon and good night” when describing a batter’s hitless 1-2-3-pitch at-bat: the final strike the pitch that puts the batter to bed.

I’ve never told a doctor about my sleep trouble for fear that he would put me on some sleep aid that might be habit-forming, which is ridiculous, I know, because in college I found the best habit-forming sleep aid ever: alcohol. (Though some of what I just said is not true, as alcohol is a very ineffective sedative, causing one to have to use the bathroom, and causing sleep disruptions and other disorders.) I drank but a little in high school, some Zimas here and there, Keystone Lights. In my freshman year in college I refused to drink, instead toking up my joints, blunts, and bong rips. But by sophomore year I was drinking like everyone else, and the sedative-like effect of that hypnotic—ethanol—lulled me to dreamless and snoring sleep.

It’s 1:42 AM as I write this, and I believe my “sound of shower” video has run its course. For the last two hours I lay in bed, those soothing sounds dripping in my ears from ear buds, and nothing. Instead I have an itch on my back, just beneath the shoulder blade. Then my calf itches, then my ankle. Now the itch has migrated to my temple and my neck. I think my curriculum vitae looks pretty good now. The Tables in Microsoft Word are the stupidest thing ever. I’ll read these poems by Mike Young. I should probably be reading instead of being on the Internet. That is, reading a real book. There’s the girl who friended me on Facebook who’s obsessed with body image and is always posting about how fat she is, and how hard she’s trying to not be fat. She’s changed her last name, or something. She says she’s now an atheist. Good for her.

Sometimes it seems like my body and brain do not want me to sleep. I’ve gone to bed at a normal time, lights out, darkness, the soothing sounds of my wife’s deep breathing next to me, and I start drifting off, only for my muscles to tense, my whole body jerking, and I’m suddenly awake—wide awake—as if an intruder had burst into our bedroom and my body instinctively reacted to get me up and moving, reacting to the danger. But there’s no danger. This process has occurred in some cases no fewer than three or four times in a row: dozing away then snap! awake! At some point when this happens I resign myself to not sleeping and leave the bedroom to read in the living room.

People who claimed to never sleep: Albert Herpin, who had no bed or other furnishings in his home conducive to sleepy time, other than a rocking chair in which he claimed to read the newspaper through the night, “resting,” until work began the following day; Thai Ngoc, who claimed to have gone sleepless for thirty-three years after he suffered a fever that irrevocably changed him; and Paul Kern, a WWI soldier shot in the head, which caused the removal of his brain’s frontal lobe. He lived another 40-odd years after this, working in the Pensions office in Budapest, without ever sleeping again.

It’s 1:26 AM and I have now drunk four beers and still I cannot sleep. I have read from Elena Pasarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat. I have watched two episodes of New Tricks. I am into my third episode of Deadwood. Still, no sleep. My baby just awakened, crying for water. I took it to her, held her, patted her back. She fell back, naturally, into sleep. It seems there’s no amount of hypnotic, sedative—whatever—that can actually work when I cannot sleep. I’m just UP.

It’s 1:54 AM Deadwood over, or at least I don’t have any more episodes to watch on the Netflix DVD that came in the mail today. That means I’m just up. Fifth beer.

2:06 AM: I’ve now had six beers today and still sleep will not come.

It’s 3:22 AM. Still no sleep. Now back at reading Let Me Clear My Throat. Will finish book tonight.

Yet more books read throughout the nights:

Swann’s Way


The Golden Mouthed

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

One of the things I do a lot when I cannot sleep is spend time on the Internet reading about not being able to sleep. I also read about serial killers, psychopathy, hypnotic drugs, and night terrors. Sometimes I’m reading about psychopaths and serial killers and I begin to worry that I might be one. This is strange, since I’ve never had the urge to kill anyone. But the impulsive decision-making, risky behavior, and tendency towards alcoholism, all that fits the bill.

The worst thing to endure is the night terrors. I lay upon our living room couch, reading. I’m not in bed so as not to disturb my wife who sleeps like a normal person. Finally, a heavy-liddedness overtakes me. It’s not quite sleepiness, and more like it’s too much to keep my eyes open. I do not get off the couch and make my way for the bedroom, or even to turn off the overhead light. To do so would snap me back to full wakefulness. I make out every distinct detail of the room: the hardwood floors with the patterned inlay that courses the edges near the walls. The map of all the continents, the other map of Lake Tahoe, the satellite image of Monterey Bay. Books and books and books. I feel another human presence. The hollow thud of feet slowly approaching on those hardwood floors. I can’t move. Can’t sit up. Can’t wave my arms about to fend the intruder off. I feel him right next to me, breathing on my almost-sleeping face. He presses a hand to my side. I shoot up to a sitting position, open-mouthed, screaming. I’ve been sweating. My heart’s beating a presto. The room is empty, except for me, my scream, my sweat. I breathe, calm down. I return to my book. Sometimes this process has repeated itself two or three times in one night.

My daughter was born at 8:36 PM. My wife had had a C-section delivery, and I went with the baby and the nurses to get her cleaned up while the doctors stitched my wife back together. By the time we’d washed her, dropped that goop in her eyes, diapered and swaddled her, and after we went to the recovery room where Kinsey promptly found Sarah’s chest and curled up, when we finally got back to our room, it must’ve been around 11:30. My wife was understandably exhausted after her thirteen hours of induced labor, and the surgery, and she fell asleep. I sat there, staring into the clear plastic basinet the cradled my daughter, and I watched her breathe and sleep, and I just hoped that she would keep on breathing.

I’d like to say that I’ve found a way to deal with my sleep issues, but I have not, other than accepting that I have them and, thankfully, they don’t plague me most of the time. These days I drink moderately. I admit that it helps calm me down after the day of writing, teaching, grading—whatever. I have not ever used a prescription sleep aid, though I’ll bet many probably think that I should. I’m not here to say I know anything about this thing or why I haven’t dealt with it in a healthier way. I know why: I’m scared. I feel about doctors the same way that I do about salespeople or auto mechanics. I’m also aware that this is completely irrational. It’s as crazy as my fear of sharks, or heights, or lightning. But I’m a fan of the definition of “essay” as “an attempt.” So I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I might be looking for answers, it’s okay if I don’t find any. What matters is that I tried to..

The longest stretch of poor sleep I’ve endured is, I think, a time about two years ago, when I slept a total of about six hours in a week. At first I had the general nausea that comes from sleep deprivation. Fatigue. I don’t think I jogged at all during that week. After about the fifth day I started seeing things. I’d be walking to the grocery store down the street from my apartment and I kept seeing a lap dog, or maybe a puppy, running up to my ankles. Had you seen me walking through Midtown Atlanta, you’d see me cruising along, then jumping out of the way of nothing, spinning around, searching the sidewalk for that dog that did not exist.

I think I’m still looking for that little dog, if that dog is sleep. Sometimes I find it. In fact, to he honest, most of the time these days I do find it. It might have something to do with becoming a father. I’ve never done anything that tires me out the way being a daddy to a two-year-old girl does. Still, I have a sleepless night approximately once a week. And I worry. There’s an increased risk for heart disease associated with insomnia, and I now know that heart disease comes from both sides of my genes: my dad’s grandfather’s cause of death was heart disease, and my mother’s brother suffered through a near heart attack, after which the docs put a stent in one of his coronary arteries. And now there’s the possibility of more stents to keep the blood flowing, to keep him alive. Then there’s my mother’s heart defect: hydrotrophic cardiomyopathy. This causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken, and can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Awesome.

It’s 3:49 as I write this. Often when I cannot sleep I look in on my daughter. Sometimes she falls asleep with her legs sticking out through the bars of her crib, her arms thrown back behind her head, fingers still grazing the open book splayed out on her mattress. Her stuffed animals and baby dolls heaped in piles to listen to her tell them the story. It would seem that sleep sneak-attacked her. It came up and there was nothing she could do to stop it.