I used to be such a good sleeper. I'd go to bed when I was tired and sleep straight through until morning. I woke up at the same time each day, looking like a fully formed member of the Homo Sapien species. No more. Once I turned fifty, I lost the ability to sleep through the night. As a result, waking is an insult. I limp out of bed, peering through swollen eyes; as often as not, I recoil as I pass by the mirror. In the mornings I have no features. I look like a carved candle left too long in a sunny window.
Last night we went to a dinner party and I must have heard the sentence four times in four hours. "I can't sleep." Some of my friends accepted not sleeping. Not me.
My doctor suggested I try Melatonin, so I went to the drug store and bought a jug of ten milligram capsules, the largest dose available. Each pill is the size of a grape. That night my husband watched in awe as I considered the giant capsule, cup of water in hand. He asked politely: "Do you want me to rub your throat as you swallow, like we do when we give the dog a pill?" I gulped it down and took to my bed. And I slept. But I can't say it was restful: I had frenetic dreams involving the death and demise of my children who were dangling from a bridge, trapped in a crashed helicopter, tranquilized and awaiting cannibalization by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and lying side-by-side on army cots in a Ghanian clinic, dying from Ebola.
"I take Ambien every night," a friend told me. "It causes a little amnesia, but that seems a small price to pay." As the daughter of a demented parent, I can't take that risk. Plus, look what happened to Tom Brokaw after an appearance on Morning Joe.
Recently I was unable to recall the name of a book I'd just read. "It will come to me during the night," I said. "That will give me something to do when I wake up at 2am."
"You can call me at 2am," a friend blurted out, popping an olive into her mouth. "I am always up."
I was worrying about the health implications of not sleeping a full eight hours (weight gain, poor cognition, depression) when I read an article in The New York Times called Rethinking Sleep, by David Randall, that explained something called the "split sleep schedule."
Subjects "looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity."
This sounded very good indeed, especially the amorous activity part. I decided, therefore, to embrace the new split sleep schedule. As my husband was not enthused, I would use the time for creative exploration. I began, not surprisingly, with a misstep: I went to the kitchen and made tea, eager to warm my imagination. The tea tasted thin, so I opened a package of cookies. Later, a glass of milk seemed prudent if only to rinse my teeth. To my delight, "The Daily Show" was being re-aired, so I settled onto the couch to watch. That was where my husband found me in the morning, dead asleep with cookie crumbs on my chin and the remote control gripped in my hand. Hey, at least I slept.
From then on, I stayed in bed. I bought a Light Writer pen and jotted ideas on a notebook at my bedside. I would write a whole book, thanks to the split sleep schedule! Unfortunately, my nocturnal notes were as interesting as someone else's dreams and I soon released them into the muddled stream of disappointment where they joined all my other mal-spawned, failed intentions such as learning ragtime piano, cleaning out storage closet and reading Nicholas Nickelby.
I think I'll reconsider the split sleep schedule. I'm not creating anything or solving anything. Worse, I'm not just tired any more. I'm also disappointed. Instead, I believe I'll try an age-old technique known as the nap. I think I can be good at that.