Last night at 1:00am I was still reading Vladimir Nabokov's "Speak, Memory." A typical night of insomnia, for a lot of reasons.
Reading Nabokov's vivid memories of his childhood, I couldn't help falling into my own memories and reflections. Before I knew it I was composing my own "Speak, Muffy" blog entry about sleeplessness and dreams and exhausting mental exercises. I was too afraid to start writing it then -- for reasons that I'll get into eventually -- and even now I'm a little worried about starting it, partly because "Speak, Muffy" can't be one tenth as good as "Speak, Memory," partly because I didn't have any colourful governesses to make fun of. But I'll write it down anyway.
First blog entry: childhood sleeping. I don't remember many childhood details but I DO remember my first nightmare, which probably came after I saw a Disney movie: elephants were dancing in a circle and they were boiling me in a pot. I also remember a recurring dream about falling down a groundhog hole which would jerk me suddenly awake.
I don't remember being afraid of the dark but I must have been because I couldn't sleep without a nightlight burning. This nightlight was a fake brass lantern -- made out of some cheap gold-coloured metal -- that hung over my bed.
I was always convinced that a monster would crawl onto my bed while I slept so I developed an early-warning system: lying flat on my back I'd spread my stuffed animals in a line just below my neck, with their tails tightly gripped in my hand. When the monster came, I figured, the stuffed animals would see it first...then I could quickly push myself under the covers and drag the stuffed animals after me. I was most worried that my plush vanguard would fall victim to the monster meant for me, hence the grip on their tails.
I was sympathetic towards inanimate objects. I believed they were lonely. At night sometimes I'd notice an object -- a pencil maybe -- left lying unprotected and exposed on the bedside table. Too afraid to save it (which would mean letting go of all the tails and leaving my upper body vulnerable), I'd shut my eyes and imagine a secret door that would open up and swallow the pencil, dropping it down to some safe place under the covers with me.
The monster would no doubt come out of an attic trap door in the hallway ceiling, just outside my bedroom door, though when we moved to New Hamburg the monster was definitely in the closet, very tall and folded up.
My basic problem, though, was a constant stream of mental words that never seemed to stop. Sentences would pop into my head and repeat themselves, gradually evolving into curious phrases and ideas that I could never quite get a grasp on. I'd worry endlessly about anything that might happen tomorrow: maybe some kid would get angry at me and hit me, or I might get hit by a car. Likewise I might find lots of money, and what would I buy with that money? I'd imagine every branching possibility, I'd make sentences out of the things I imagined, I'd think about the letters in the sentences and what sort of punctuation they'd end with. I'd repeat the letters to myself and make new sentences out of them. Two hours later I'd still be awake, thinking nonsense.
I went through a terrible phase when I was convinced that fungus would grow on me while I slept. It seems like a weird phobia to have, but show "Creepshow" to a small child, then follow it up with "The Seeds of Doom," and you'll end up with a very scared kid. Anyway, I'd lie awake imagining how I'd feel as I was slowly transformed into some kind of child-sized walking fungus. My sleeping problem became so bad that my parents finally noticed it, and my father -- who I bet has the same difficulty sleeping -- told me that the human mind is like a monkey, sometimes it needs to be caged up to keep it from wandering around and destroying things.
So I got the idea of visualizing things...imagining a literal monkey and building a cage around it. Sometimes I'd count sheep, straining to visualize them as vividly as possible. I came up with the idea of writing numbers on a mental chalkboard, from 99 to 1, imagining each action of picking up the chalk, drawing a loop and a tail for one nine, doing the same for the other, putting the chalk down, picking up the eraser. Then I started constructing hotels, beaches, underground sanctuaries in my head, forcing myself to dwell on every tiny detail. My idea was to discipline the constant flow of words that went through my head, and also to exhaust myself by spending an hour on mental gymnastics.
Usually it worked, but as I've gotten older I've tried to look more closely at how these mental games work and why I have so much trouble sleeping in the first place...