Wide-eyed as a marigold, this sleepless reporter reviews various remedies and a new 5-week program that helped her.
“Early to bed, and you’ll wish you were dead. Bed before eleven, nuts before seven.” If you are old enough to complain of insomnia, you are old enough to have heard of Dorothy Parker, the priestess of the Algonquin Round Table. I read “The Little Hours,” Parker’s pungent portrait of a sleepless night, as a worshipful adolescent, when it was already more than 20 years old. I had nothing in common then with the middle-aged heroine lying in bed “wide-eyed as a marigold” at 4:20 a.m. and thinking evil thoughts about her slumbering friends, but the story has lingered with me ever since. And with age, I’ve come to feel her pain.
Today, even Parker might be surprised to know that somewhere between 32 and 70 million Americans claim to suffer from insomnia. These reported difficulties support a $23.7-billion-a-year industry, comprising not only anti-insomnia drugs but sleep clinics, apnea respirators, earplugs, sound-conditioning machines, eye masks, books on sleep, and, of course, mattresses and pillows.
Insomnia, according to medical definitions, comes in three flavors: difficulty falling asleep at night, difficulty staying asleep during the night, and waking up too early in the morning, and to qualify as a diagnosis it must result in problems in functioning the next day. But data on what characterizes normal sleep and how many people don’t have it are surprisingly varied and inconclusive, especially when apportioned by age and gender. While more women than men have sleep problems, most sleep research has been done on men.
In general, it is considered unhealthy to sleep habitually less than six or more than nine hours a night. But a research plan laid out on the National Institutes of Health website, outlining what questions need better answers from researchers, is sobering. We don’t seem to know very much.
Individual sleep requirements vary, of course, as anyone who has raised two children can testify; studies cite sensitivity to noise, light, and other distractions among the differences in infants’ temperaments, and these sensitivities continue throughout life. As we get older, we require less sleep and sleep more lightly, and other conditions kick in—angina, arthritis, indigestion, reflux, ulcers, bladder problems, and hot flashes, for a few examples. When I was a college freshman I slept through a 6:30 a.m. concert by the Harvard band in my dormitory courtyard; now I’m a nocturnal jack-in-the-box.
The queen of insomnia sufferers is the writer Patricia Morrisroe, a lifelong light sleeper who set off on a three-year quest to find its causes and some solution, and described her search in a lively and thoroughly researched recent book called Wide Awake. Insomnia runs in Morrisroe’s family: Both her mother and her grandfather endured it and talked constantly about their suffering. It’s hard to tell, therefore, whether her sleep problems are genetic or cultural, and when I asked her, she said, “both.”
Morrisroe spoke to purveyors and researchers of every type of therapy, resisted buying a $21,000 mattress, flirted with hypnosis, and spent a night in a sleep lab, which every reader will want to avoid duplicating. (Her experience included wandering endlessly around the hospital looking for the sleep lab, itchy sheets, harsh lighting, undrinkable water, spending an hour getting hooked up, an intrusive technician, and tension from all of this.) What ended up working for her as she finished the book was a course in meditation and qigong at the 92nd Street Y. But Morrisroe’s Catholic upbringing made her comfortable chanting prayers in a foreign language; the thought of doing that gives a Jewish agnostic like me the giggles.