Sleep? In my dreams

Counting sheep is for chumps. When I can’t sleep I engage in fun activities:  tossing, turning, kicking, getting up, lying back down, pounding the pillow, cursing like a Tarantino badass. It’s almost aerobic and so I don’t feel quite as horrible that I didn’t fall asleep until 5:36 a.m.

Wrong. It’s always crummy. I’ve had so many sleepless nights, I’m ready to press a pistol to my groggy noggin. Then, then, perhaps I’ll catch a few winks. But with my luck, no.

Why is insomnia so vexing? Partly because it’s so seemingly controllable. For instance, I won’t touch caffeine after 1 p.m. and even then the sandman, that skulking rascal, that creepy home intruder, will fail me badly. 

I can yawn all day, reading and writing, taking a brisk walk, watching some Netflix, and still I’m like Linda Blair in her jumpy two-poster bed, bloodshot eyes glaring at the ceiling, arms spread Christlike, mouth a satanic rictus, steam billowing from that hideous maw. (OK, that last bit is slightly embellished.)

I am possessed, but not by the devil. I am bedeviled by churning thoughts, junk my brain can’t turn off, even when — and this is true — I’ve taken a full eight Benadryl antihistamine pills, which are famous for their soporific powers. I know people who can take half a Benadryl and sleep through the next three days. Yet the stuff won’t pierce my impervious wakefulness.

Occasionally a Clonazepam or two works wonders. That is rare. And when I do nod off, I’m haunted by uncomfortably vivid dreams quivering with cameos by my late parents, old co-workers, deadlines, writing, weird travel, ex-girlfriends and a random monstrosity, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. I can’t remember the last time I had a truly pleasant dream. In that case, maybe sleep-deprivation is a blessing, not a pillow-punching curse.

Nope. I’d trade a long night of exasperating insomnia — which entails a full bleary-eyed day of feeling like the cranky undead — for a good snooze with bad dreams. Insomnia, after all, is a waking nightmare.

What am I on about? I’ve been sleeping pretty soundly lately, though the other night required pills and pejoratives to achieve a solid snooze. At one point, I kicked the comforter off the bed, bolted up and tried to read, fuming. It was well past 3 a.m. I read two pages, doused the lights, tossed, turned, eventually falling asleep around 6:30. I was a positive joy to be around that day. 

I can’t sleep on trains or planes, a bad look for this inveterate traveler. Once upon a time, equipped with an eye mask, ear plugs and the occasional jacket thrown over my head, I could zonk out on a red-eye flight. No more. For reasons unknown, I’m now Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” eyelids cranked open with medieval clamps.

It’s all so tiresome, literally. I’d prefer eyes wide shut, to name-check another Kubrick film. For now it’s a battle, a nightly crap-shoot, will I snooze or lose? Let me sleep on it. Please.

You are getting sleepy. Not.

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I took a dog sedative. 

That will do it, I thought. That will put me down like a tranquilized caribou. The Benadryl isn’t working, the Xanax has flopped. It’s 3 a.m. and time for the big guns, even though the dog, Cubby, weighs about as much as a couple of gallons of milk.

So how much doggie dope to take? I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t want a measly Cubby dose. Well, this chunky pill looks about right for an adult human. Gulp.

And it worked. A little before 4 a.m., the tossing, turning and cursing ceased. I was out, and it was good. I woke up with paws and a tail, but it was worth it.

My accursed insomnia comes in waves. I’ll have a few months of it, then it clears up and I sleep like a normal person, six to eight hours if I’m lucky. But those sleepless stretches are agony. So I medicate, with reckless abandon. 

And it rarely works. I’ve tried Ambien, melatonin, Benadryl, booze, Xanax and Clonazepam, sometimes all at once. Maybe they’re cancelling each other out.

Everyone sings the drowsy praises of Benadryl, a common over the counter antihistamine. I know people who can’t even wake up the next day if they take one and a half pills. That’s insane. I’ve taken up to eight Benadryl in one night and got zero winks. I think I need a shot of sodium Pentothal.

I don’t like how many drugs I ingest, everything from Pristiq and Benadryl, to Zyrtec and Xanax, to Clonazepam and Advil. My blood must be a sludgy brown, or a nuclear green. It can’t be good.

In college, the pharmacist at the student health center told me he puts nothing in his body medicinally, not even aspirin. I mulled if that was even humanly possible. I wonder where he is now. Probably a heroin addict. 

Last summer was especially slumber-free. When insomnia strikes, the mind reeling in futile spin cycles, I typically get up and try to make myself tired by doing stuff. I write, read, plan trips, watch videos, get a head start on the day’s online news. Once I went ahead and shaved in the middle of the night, an existential triumph of baby-soft smoothosity. And I rarely neglect my journal, like this bit from August:

“2:40 a.m. I cannot sleep and I’ve taken two Clonazepam, a Xanax, three Benadryl and three more just now, making that six Benadryl. I am tense and restless, bored. Went downstairs at 1 a.m. to read and sip a splash of rosé and still nothing. I’m so damn antsy. … 5 a.m. Cannot get to sleep. Two more Benadryl and whole body cramping and restless. No sleep whatsoever. Zonked in the head yet my body wants to run a 5K.”

Those are the tedious musings of a fatally bored, somewhat drugged individual. Where’s the dog pill when I need it?

About that pill: Turns out the sedative given Cubby to calm him before vet visits is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication for humans, so it’s not like I was eating dog food or committing a creepy interspecies caper. The pill is Trazodone, which in 2017 was the 30th most commonly prescribed medication in America. So I’m in good company.

Sleep shouldn’t be so elusive. While it’s a precious and pleasant commodity — cuddling, dreaming, flipping the pillow over to the cold side, snoring with roof-rattling gusto — snoozing is also mandatory. I for one become a deep-fried ogre without sleep. Just as scary: some reports say up to 50 percent of adults suffer chronic insomnia.

That’s a rotten figure, yet one that makes you think. Those hours swiped of sleep, when you’re desperately, hopelessly awake, can be surprisingly fertile. I can’t tell you how much world-travel mapping I’ve accomplished in the wee morning gloom of sleep deprivation.

Sure, I’d rather be unconscious and under the covers, but maybe some good can be wrung from the midnight malady. Maybe in the restless hush books can be read, letters written and Tokyo hotels booked. Maybe we can commune with ourselves with a kind of meditative calm and aloneness. Maybe, after all, sleep is for suckers.