Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Couldn't Sleep Then...

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...

5 comments:

VanillaJ said...

I don't know that most people can retrieve your vivid recollections of their childhood mental gymnastics at bedtime. Mostly, people say "I was afraid of monsters", or some predictable storyline, but very few can recognize the early implementation of ritual, the budding ability to pacify yourself, the imaginative means to get all those neurons in the brain stretching and firing as part of our early cognative development.

How insightful of your dad! Another way to put it, is: Don't let your kids watch "The Exorcist", dumbass!

Anonymous said...

Insomnia is characterized by an inability to sleep and/or to be incapable of remaining asleep for a reasonable period. Insomniacs typically complain of being unable to close their eyes or "rest their mind" for more than a few minutes at a time. Both organic and nonorganic insomnia constitute a sleep disorder[1][2]. It is often caused by fear, stress, anxiety, medications, herbs or caffeine. An overactive mind or physical pain may also be causes. Finding the underlying cause of insomnia is usually necessary to cure it.

Anonymous said...

In the Buddhist tradition, people suffering from insomnia or nightmares may be advised to meditate on "loving-kindness", or metta. This practice of generating a feeling of love and goodwill is claimed to have a soothing and calming effect on the mind and body[4]. This is claimed to stem partly from the creation of relaxing positive thoughts and feelings, and partly from the pacification of negative ones. In the Mettā Sutta, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, tells the gathered monks that easeful sleep is one benefit of this form of meditation.

There are a number of alternative cures for this disorder that are currently marketed. Often, a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes is claimed to be the most helpful approach. However, it should be noted the reason they are considered "alternative" medical treatments is the lack of empirical evidence to back up such claims. There are always studies going on to either confirm or deny the effectiveness of such medicine, but in many cases even if no effect is shown to exist in a treatment, proponents will still believe in their effectiveness.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I guess I'm still developing, because my neurons still keep firing! I'll offer up some sleeping tips for insomniacs soon.

In the meantime, yes, don't let your kids watch "Videodrome" until they're old enough to know that Debbie Harry is just kiddin'.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Somebody once told me that a particular way of nose-breathing would help me sleep, but instead I just got a dry nose.