Dreams have no beginning, people like to say. As if this clarifies how the dream world differs from the real one. The same could be said about life: Who remembers the beginning of his own lifetime? Who can recall the blissful hurt of that first lungful of air?
I don’t remember when I began writing an essay about sleep. For months I took notes and scribbled brief passages. I don’t know when I began accumulating dream facts, sleep trivia, snippets from blogs, and quotes from sleep doctors, all pithy, a few insightful, but leading nowhere. Unless that’s the point. “Tell me what the role of wakefulness is,” said the great sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, “and I will tell you the purpose of sleep.”
Trouble sleeping? Here’s the official advice of the National Institute for Health: “Don’t lie in bed awake.” I’m sure this advice isn’t meant to be ironic, but it makes me laugh every time. Sleep—whatever it is—either visits you or it doesn’t. My wife Raina can reach under her pillow and pull out slumber in less than a minute, a trick she performs night after night. If I go to bed at the wrong time I just lie there, waiting for a magic trick that never comes. To block out ambient noise, I use a machine that simulates a steady rainstorm. But white noise can’t block my thoughts. I think about my blood sugar. About my credit card balance. My parents and when I last called them. If I was too hard on my son or daughter. Friends I haven’t texted back. Whether God is real. The washer that needs repairing. Whether aliens are real. The Oscar-winning movies I never saw. All the carbon in the sky. The fact that I’ve left no lasting mark on life—and this is my signal to get up, do something, anything, until I’m too tired to think any longer.
In my research on sleep, and not sleeping, I learned that Charles Dickens was also an insomniac. Unable to sleep, he would walk the streets of London till dawn. Once, he walked thirty miles to his country house in Gads Hill. Unsurprisingly, he wrote about these walks, and late into the night, I read these essays, which are not his best work, but will pass the time if you can’t sleep.
In his essays, you get the sense that Dickens feels superior to mere sleepers as he wanders the gas-lit Victorian streets. I understand the sentiment. You don’t have to be a great writer to feel it. One summer night at 3 a.m., after I finished the last page of my first novel, I couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to sleep. I walked down five flights of stairs to buy Cherry Pepsi and chips at the all-night deli next door. The streets of New York were electric-lit and vacant. It felt like they belonged to me. I shared an unspoken bond with the deli clerk who took my cash. I drank the Pepsi standing on the sidewalk outside. We were sentries in a world that had gone weak and still while we persisted. Eventually, I walked back upstairs, back to my empty room and my little bundle of words.
As a junior in college, I worked the night shift as a student consultant in the school’s main computing center, a low-slung concrete building on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The “night con” job paid fifty percent more than the day-time rate, and I needed the dough. At the time, networked PCs had just become the rage, and undergrads across the campus would spend hours writing emails and talking with friends. My job was to solve computer problems—to fix the broken connections that people had just learned to depend on. Anyone on campus with a jinxed computer could call or walk into the computing center, and we’d get to work. Each night around midnight the phones would go quiet, and even the pushy business school students would pack it in. For hours and hours, it was just me and whatever I could find to read on the Internet. I loved the shift, loved the job. The world of the small hours was my jam.
In the morning, after the end of each shift, I had to go to class. A hard crash back into daily life. I’d enrolled in a cognitive psychology seminar not far from the computer lab. My friend Dave and I would always sit at the back, cracking jokes. Sleep deprived, my sense of humor was more off-kilter than usual. I was also pretty sure I was funnier than ever. Dave disagreed, but rolled with it, as friends do. As the lecture went on, I felt more and more detached from the people around me who all thought today was tomorrow—when it was clearly still yesterday. This is the unique reward for bypassing sleep. A way of looking at the world. A way to see past the norms, even if what you saw was blurry and giddy with fatigue.
A teenager named Randy Gardner set the official record for days without sleep. He remained awake for an improbable eleven days in the 1960s. Gardner was a mythical figure for me during a youth full of night owl expeditions. He made my own bad sleep habits feel like something quasi-heroic. Perhaps most impressive to me was the fact that, even after he’d been awake for over two hundred hours, he could play pinball against the adults running the study—and win. There were some down sides too. Apparently, during his eleven-day stint, he also experienced terrible hallucinations. His speech slurred after just a few days. He was perpetually quick to anger. He couldn’t focus; he had almost no short- term memory; he lost the ability to count backward. Such is the price for immortality.
If you are willing to spend time late at night trawling the Internet, if you are avoiding sleep under the pretense of writing an essay about sleep, you can find many more stories of people who claim to have gone longer than Gardener without sleep. A woman named Maureen Weston stayed awake for 449 hours during a rocking chair marathon in 1977—a claim the Guinness Book of World Records recognized in 1978, only to drop the category altogether the next year. Back in 2007, a 42-year-old man claimed to have broken Gardener’s record, too. They are like sleep alchemists, these people who push themselves to go longer and longer without sleep; their ancient art continues to obsess them, even while it goes unrewarded, unnoticed. And what for? What are they—what are we after, when we are skirting sleep?
During my last year at Northwestern, after I quit the night shift, I’d gather often with a small group of friends at Nevin’s, one of just two bars in our otherwise dry college town. We’d drain pints of Guinness or Bass ale till the final call when the lights went up and the music was turned off. We’d walk home in a small group, laughing and strolling past dark store fronts, down mostly empty streets, past a bakery already hissing out smoke that smelled of tomorrow’s bread. Dylan and Felise would peel off at their apartment above the pizzeria near the Metra station; Dave would veer off afterward for the long walk north to his place; Matt would part at the alley before my building; Shannon said goodbye at the courtyard steps. At last, I’d push open the door to my bedroom, dimly lit from outside by courtyard lamps—my rented room with its standing wardrobe and desk and trunk, and a bed, always a bed waiting, green sheeted and smug in the knowledge that, no matter how far I drew out the night, eventually, I’d have to come home.
Sleep is one of life’s great despots. Roughly one third of the day for most people is spent in a state of sleep. Only the involuntary actions of the body occupy more time. The heart beats with a famous monomania. The lungs rise and fall endlessly as the sea. We cannot stop or start those activities at will. But sleep? Sleep is within our control. Or at least it seems that way. Until you can’t sleep. Then you realize just how little control you have. When he was four years old, my son insisted that he did not sleep. Not just at nap time. He insisted that he was awake all night. He would deny ever closing his eyes. He would get angry when we’d laugh and tell him that couldn’t be true. Eventually, we sorted out that he never wanted to sleep because he did not want to dream; he was terrified of the bad dreams that all kids experience from time to time.
Most dreams happen during the REM phase of sleep. Infants experience this kind of sleep fifty percent of the time; ten years later, the dream phase of sleep is less than twenty-five percent. There’s just less chance to have bad dreams after you grow up. It’s easy for us to tell my son that a bad dream is not a big deal, that he should just go lie down in his bed at night, that nothing will happen. But when he lies alone in his bedroom, he’s experiencing something very different from an adult.
According to one child therapist, whose name I forgot to record in all my sleepless research sessions on sleep, a child alone in the dark “feels the silence of his bedroom as rumbling.” A sleeping body is defenseless by definition. A child knows this. Most adults forget it because they are so accustomed to being safe. The self, the individual being, the me—all of it is gone when you are sleeping.
Sure enough, as an adult I rarely remember dreams. Even if I am awakened in the middle of the night. This happens more than I would like, often because Raina has shaken me awake. She does this when I’m in the middle of a night terror. A night terror is a sleep disorder characterized by what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes as “panicked screams, little or no recall of dream imagery, and amnesia for the episode.” It’s as delightful as it sounds, believe me.
During a night terror, the chemical system in the sleeping brain makes an error of judgment and the dreamer’s panic button gets pushed—triggering the same hormonal response that happens when you see a skyscraper collapse in a billowing cloud of black smoke. Except you’re asleep. And when the body is asleep, the brain secretes two neurotransmitters that lock up your muscles. This is a great way to prevent a sleeper from acting out his dreams. It’s not so great when you’re sure you need to run but you can’t move.
Raina can detect when night terrors are coming. She says there are half-mumbled noises that I make before the situation escalates. If she wakes up in time, if she can sense what’s happening before I get too far along, she will grab me, repeat my name, repeat her name, and tell me it’s just a dream. And this works. For some reason, this always works. Because the real world is my balm. The life that I have in the place of the sun is always better and brighter than whatever it is that lives in the other place where sleep is kept and where dreams (both good and bad) are forged.
Sometimes, in the morning, she tells me that I had a night terror, and I’ll say, “Are you sure?” I don’t remember a thing. “Maybe you were dreaming,” I tell her. I know that the brain blocks the formation of memories during night terrors. Yet, I question her every time to make sure what she remembers is real.
In an effort to give real shape to all these notes on sleep, one afternoon I spent hours in Butler Library at Columbia, looking up poetry collections, hand-written memoirs, story collections, all about sleep somehow; the best material that I found was a quote from Charles Simić stating that his weirdest poetry would not have been possible if he hadn’t had trouble sleeping. I went home empty-handed, tired, cranky, and discouraged. I lay in bed and fell asleep for fifteen minutes. I woke up feeling refreshed, optimistic. I never struggle when it comes to napping. Napping comes easily. So easily that sometimes I think naps are not a form of sleep.
Sometime later, I decided to go full-on academic. I switched to medical and neuroscientific texts on sleep. There are symphonies of hormones, I learned, involved in getting the body to settle into sleep. There are neurons and brain structures involved in all the different phases of sleep. And the side effects of not sleeping are legion: mood disorders, alcoholism, diabetes, social problems.
I took ample notes. I filled up pages and pages. But then I tried to use the material, but it was all wrong. This was the classification of sleep— the layering of concepts and ideas and models—and in the end even a most impressive dance of words won’t get you any closer to sleep itself.
Finally, I gave up. I had abandoned essays before. But then I laid in bed at night and the idea of the essay about sleep would come back and laugh at me like an ex-lover who cheated on you, and you only found out long after the time when you had any real right to feel anger. The feeling won’t go away. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t force it out. You must submit to it, as one must eventually relent to sleep. It’s fine, I tell myself. There are so many better topics.
Until one night, as usual while lying in bed trying to sleep, thinking about the essay on sleep as a failure, thinking about myself as a failure, or at least as less than I had hoped to be, suddenly, I realized with a start that I was living my own version of Geoff Dyer’s great non-fiction book, Out of Sheer Rage. Dyer’s book is about writing a biography of D. H. Lawrence. Except, he never wrote the biography. He just writes about trying and failing to write about D. H. Lawrence. I once saw Dyer speak at a conference. He was erudite on the topic of not pushing too hard when things like writing—or sleep—won’t come. One must just let the object of study reveal itself in whatever form it chooses. Sometimes the best way to write about a thing is to write about what it is not. The harder you try to sleep, the harder it is to sleep. Eventually, I had to get out of bed and write all this down. Otherwise, I would end up lying in bed all night long waiting for the chance to get up and write this all down. I did not sleep much that night, but it was the best kind of sleeplessness.
At some point, not sleeping feels like a walk through a maze of mirrors; and while it’s never hard to know which person you are, when you are tired but cannot sleep, it can be very difficult, at times, to know the right way to go, or even where you’ve been. You keep fumbling till something works.
Here’s what I know for certain: Sleep is a dark hole that we all go down at some point, and then we come back up hours later. The rest is a mystery. Scientists, sleep therapists, artists, dream interpreters, Freudians, Jungians, painters, bad novelists—they can all describe various parts of sleep, they can identify the utility of a singular element, but none of them can explain the whole. What is sleep for? What happens to our spirits while our bodies slumber? So many questions. No good answers.
Perhaps this is one of those problems that can’t be solved. Perhaps inscrutability is a crucial part of the nature of this thing called sleep. Like the liar’s paradox, for example, which can be read and understood but cannot be classified as simply true or false: “This statement is false,” says the man who always lies. Is he really lying? How can he not be?
Sleep is an elemental portion of being; and while we can contemplate the nature of our existence endlessly, there are, as in every contemplation of the self, limits to what can be clarified. Sometimes what we are trying to reach with words and concepts is a place pitched in silence, where all the world is still, and it’s a better play to be observant and to wait. Because if sleep is anything, it’s a thing that cannot be seized, cannot be demanded, cannot be owned. It—like life—can only be received.
BRYAN VANDYKE is a previous contributor to the Southeast Review. His essays have also appeared in The Millions, Pacific Standard, and the New Delta Review. His meditation on the nature of illness and recovery, Only the Trying, was published in 2015. He is the curator for a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia and Northwestern University. He lives in Harlem with his wife and two children. He tweets irregularly as @Literotaur.