Monday, October 15, 2007

Who Needs Sleep

Listen to this post:

When I was in high school, the charmingly named Barenaked Ladies came out with a peppy little song about insomnia, called "Who Needs Sleep?" If you're curious, you can find the complete lyrics here:

At 16, I took it as a sort of anthem. I've never been sure why people look back on high school as the finest years of their lives. For me, it was a Nascar whiplash experience, a sprint from event to event. On any given morning, I would wake up before dawn, shower, eat some oatmeal, finish writing a paper, then off to class at 7:30 am. I usually parked about half a mile away fifteen minutes before that first bell, and I learned that I could speedwalk exactly that distance in heels with a 20-lb backpack and not be late for roll call. Then came the 7-period marathon, on a campus so generously proportioned that, if the lecture ran long, I arrived at the next period considerably out of breath. I almost never paid attention in class, but usually because I was doing homework for the next period, knowing that I could make up the material out of the textbook later. And so went the day . . . an English paper written during Spanish, a chemistry lab completed during art, Spanish homework finished off during Algebra II. At lunch, it was off to the art room to finish a drawing, or perhaps to the library to type and print that essay. After school, I would dash to the gym to change for cross country practice, or depending on the time of year, go for a solo run before my shift at the House of Bread (My mother, with her smattering of high school French, liked to call if the House of Pain). Depending on the day of the week, next came a tri-weekly babysitting gig or a youth group triple-decker: internship + discipleship group + small group/Jr High group. At the end of all this, now hours after dark, I would drive home and drip into the kitchen to pick at some left-over crockpot meat, or perhaps some cold spaghetti. An hour of two of homework, then, saying goodnight to whoever else might still be awake, it was off for a few hours of black, dreamless sleep until the alarm recommenced its morning assault.

Sleep-deprived as I was then, I could always fall asleep when the opportunity presented itself. Once, on a missions trip to Costa Rica, I passed out cold facedown on a pine-slat bench barely a foot wide. It was in college that the insomnia hit. It's never left.

I'm never sure what makes it happen, but all at once it's 4 am, and I finally push back the covers to see if I can make something of this unwanted wakefulness.

Last Monday, right before the Nashville benefit dinner, it struck two nights in a row. The first morning, I felt the same as I always do - nauseated, disoriented, slightly inconherent. Afterwards, normalcy, followed in the afternoon by a prolonged period of furious yawning. It's the first evening that things get fun.

Around 6 o'clock, I entered a zone of hyper-alertness, as though every synapse were sparking in a mental fireworks finale. I felt quiet, but my mind raced, incisive and insightful, readily (though dizzily) recalling every detail of the day in intense, genial mushrooms of full-formed lyrical prose. And I recalled how much of my life I have lived on this precipice between performance and collapse. I am comfortable here. I trust it - far more than I ought to, probably . . . as was aptly demonstrated when I appeared at the headquarters of the Washington Post for our class tour, not just seven minutes early, as I thought, but seven days. Did I mention that I also wrote my essay on the wrong publication?

I walked on to the Johns Hopkins Dupont Circle campus, entered apologetically, and sat down to listen to the lecture. I had entered the next phase, something I like to call conscious coma. I was awake, aware of everything going on around me, but my short-term memory had short-circuited. I watched the professor's mouth move and struggled to match his utterances with meaningful words. It took an intense effort to follow simple progressions of the topic. I remember blinking a lot, and smiling too brightly, hoping to hide my dropping IQ and dropping eye-lids.

At 9, the class adjourned and I went home. As soon as I lay down in the dark, however, my brain started to rattle again, like a chimp in cage. I finally dropped off around 4 am on Wednesday morning.

It happens about once a week. The longest it's gone on is about 60 hours, but I've read of someone who, after waking from a prolonged coma, stayed awake for the next 20 years. Poor soul.