Insomnia. Once upon a time I would have laughed myself silly at the notion I would ever suffer from it. Sleep was blissful respite, a safety zone from the terrors of the day, whatever form they took: bullying classmates; bullying mother; bad boyfriends; academic anxiety; work stress; parenting.
Then came middle age. Perimenopause. Divorce. Survival. I came to know insomnia extremely well, and the meaning of the Hour of the Wolf.
Working in restaurants most of their lives, neither of my parents ever adapted to the nine-to-five of regular jobs. Too many years in the hustle and flow of 6:00 p.m. to closing time, too many cigarettes and coffee, the restaurateur’s close allies but the mortal enemies of sleep.
Between cigarettes, coffee, and the heart-taching medications prescribed to treat her chronic, debilitating asthma, Mom was doomed to an unwelcome familiarity with the wee hours (yes, she smoked, multiple packs per day; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone with a cigarette in one hand and an inhaler in the other, struggling for breath). Propped up on a stack of pillows she watched the late news, Johnny Carson, the late old movies, finally falling into a fitful sleep about the time the national anthem came on and the channel went off-air.
Dad read and ate. He read all the time, two newspapers cover to cover every day and he generally had at least two books going simultaneously. Every trip to the supermarket with him included a pass by the paperbacks where he’d pick up whatever New York Times Bestseller he hadn’t yet read, magazines, and a Mad Magazine for me. He read sprawled on the loveseat in the family room smoking one cigarette after another, ashes growing inches long when a chapter had him engrossed, until bed. Once in bed, he’d read for awhile longer, then turn out the light.
Now, despite ceaseless fretting and not a small amount of expense on various pieces of exercise equipment in an effort to keep his waistline from its slow but steady increase, an hour later he’d thump out of bed and tread heavily down the stairs and into the kitchen, raiding the cookie jar or fridge. Maybe a piece of fruit or, to our dog’s delight, a bowl of ice cream (my dad gave the dog his own bowl), a piece of cheese. Then he’d stump back up the stairs, chewing, to look for sleep again. This cycle was repeated an average of three times a night. Between cleanings, the carpet up the stairs grew a trail stained up the middle from his nocturnal noshes.
As in so much of their married life, my parents’ individual approaches to their insomnia differed greatly; however, they were absolutely united in their shared optimism it could be vanquished by the latest newfangled pillow. They tried them all: donut-shaped to support the neck whilst cradling the head; wedges of foam to support head, neck and shoulders; body-pillows; the infamous water-pillow, a giant bladder one filled with water and which sloshed and blooped and did everything but promote sleep; foam pillows, cotton-stuffed pillows and feather pillows; pillows of every shape and size, in every imaginable combination. Every few weeks a new form of pillow came into the house bringing hope, but leaving only disappointment. Each inevitably joined all its failed predecessors, consigned to the pillow-gulag of the linen closet after a week-long trial period, having brought not blessed slumber but rather bloodshot, sleepless eyes blinking at an unforgiving dawn.
Neither lived long enough to learn the things I have: avoid sugar and caffeine late in the day; regular exercise; the blessings of Valerian root supplements, Benadryl, or Tylenol P.M. And something told me this morning when, pedaling away on my exercise bike I saw an ad for MyPillow.com, they wouldn’t have believed me anyway. Made in the USA, Better Business Bureau certified, the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation, and with a two-for-one special if you call RIGHT NOW, all my advice on diet, exercise, and herbal supplements would have fallen on deaf ears. They would have been on the phone ordering pillows, confident this time they were on their way to a decent night’s sleep.
And something in me recognizes for the first time a crazy sort of optimism in both which I can’t help admiring.