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By Bill Hayes
I wake and think of sleep. I've done it: That's my first thought. Having hit the snooze button, my few final minutes of bed warmth are made more marvelous by this sense of accomplishment. Dream images tease memory as my brain waves shift into full alpha; eyes shut, I permit myself to count the hours: Fell asleep about midnight, subtract thirty minutes for the 3 a.m. pee and some back-in-bed restlessness. Okay, that's six solid hours. Good job. I turn off the alarm. But as I shuffle into the kitchen to make coffee, I begin thinking about the moment eighteen hours from now when I'll turn the alarm on and the reading light off. Pride and relief are drained and replaced by a fresh thought: Can I do it again?
This obsessive daily dose of self-doubt may be the single characteristic that separates natural-born insomniacs from all others. Even when we've slept well, we suspect it may be the last such episode. Every night's a new story. We're like mountain gorillas whose days are spent in search of another leafy tree to eat from, a sheltered clearing to nest in, safe from predators. At dawn we cover our tracks and set out to find a way to get back to sleep come nightfall.
I would love to see how gorillas do it; observe them in the wild. An inability to sleep outdoors, however, immediately disqualifies me. I couldn't even fall asleep in my own backyard when I was a boy. Some nights, though, I do camp out in front of the TV. I long for the magic remote that would let me skip through the decades, not just the channels. In 1955, there was a live TV show for insomniacs called Count Sheep that aired nightly in the New York area right after NBC's Tonight show. Featuring a pretty, twenty-nine-year-old model, Nancy Berg, dressed in a long, frilly nightgown, it followed her through a soothing bedtime routine of cuddling a cocker spaniel, reading aloud in bed, then saying good-night with a yawn and a stretch. The half-hour show closed with a graphic of fence-jumping sheep, recalls Berg, who's now retired and living in New York City. "At that time I knew little about sleep," she told me with a gust of laughter, "since I was taking amphetamines in an effort to be model-thin. I didn't sleep for about ten years."
Though it sounds as if it was designed for straight male viewers, I'd kill to see reruns of Count Sheep at 1 a.m. At that hour, most TV shows, and especially the commercials, are too loud and frenetic to be relaxing. I'm a sucker for those dull, plodding educational programs about wild animals. Not the juiced-up ones featuring celebrities -- The Elephants of India with Goldie Hawn -- but the real deal, where the animals have far more personality than the zoologists and primatologists, the program is scored with corny music, and the off-camera commentator seems to be the same deep-voiced man who narrated public school films in the late sixties. Thank God for cable TV. I can find one of these shows on at almost any time of the night. With their slow pace and long stretches of complete silence -- a wide shot of the veld, say, as vultures rip apart a gazelle carcass -- they have a soporific quality that makes them transfixing to insomniacs.
Of course, they are not without drama. Few things are more thrilling than watching an enormous and powerful animal subdued by humans -- an elephant saved from ivory poachers, for example, by sedating and transporting it to a game preserve. The park rangers are positioned right in front of the cameraman, whispering their strategy, tranquilizer rifles hoisted: Okay, now we'll aim for the back left flank. Won't feel a thing. Poing! The dart finds its target, blooms, and in seconds, a five-ton elephant stumbles to the ground.
I would like to be that elephant, I think some nights -- knocked out cold. What's in those tranquilizers? Write me a prescription, Jack Hanna. Maybe I could boil it down, chop it up, and put it into capsules. Or I could buy a tranquilizer rifle for my partner Steve -- one with a silencer. He'd aim for the birthmark on my ass and shoot me as I go to take a pee after lying awake for three hours. Ah, bliss: felled right on the bathroom rug.
Instead, I turn off the TV, go to the kitchen, and rummage for the bottle of Ambien in the pill cabinet. Ambien is the brand name for zolpidem tartrate, a short-acting "hypnotic" (as sleeping pills are called). At present, it's the most widely prescribed sleeping pill in the world. I've been using Ambien on bad nights, two or three times a month, for a couple of years, and it works well, yet I still feel as if I'm doing something dishonest. I am, technically: my prescription expired long ago, so I steal from Steve's. (I usually confess the next morning.) He keeps it at the back of the pill shelf in the corner, where it belongs, I believe -- there being a moral hierarchy for prescription drugs. All of Steve's meds are stationed right up front -- the ones he takes daily. Vitamins, herbs, and aspirin occupy the middle ground, a neutral zone in advance of the sleeping pills, antacids, antinausea pills, and decongestants. It's not that sleeping pills are bad per se, but there is something disreputable about them. I wouldn't want the Ambien bottle to accidentally fall out of the cabinet in front of the pest-control man. Nor should it be very easy to reach. One should always have to find a sleeping pill, go to a little trouble. The decision to take one should not be taken lightly. Its rewards are too valuable.
An ex-junkie once told me that the sight of a syringe -- even a photograph -- still gave him an intense physical craving to shoot up. I know, in part, what he means: sometimes just holding the amber-colored bottle of Ambien in my hand is enough to make me drowsy. I'm always surprised by how large the container is for so few pills -- just thirty per prescription, and Steve has broken them all in half for an even lighter dose. I pour them onto my palm. With their craggy edges and polished white surfaces, the Ambiens look like a small pile of tooth fragments. Not human teeth but an ocean creature's, such as the Indus dolphin of the Arabian Sea, which actually sleeps seven hours a day while swimming. From the mouth of a dolphin, I imagine, to my own: I pick out a big chip and put it on my tongue. I let it dissolve for a moment -- believing this will speed up the effect -- taste its bitterness, and swallow.
Bill Hayes studied writing at Santa Clara University and has worked for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Library Foundation, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. His work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Details, and Salon.com. He lives in Pacific Heights with his partner, Steve.
This essay is an excerpt from Hayes' new book, Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir, published by Washington Square Press/Pocket Books. The excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright q2001 by Bill Hayes.
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