By Gordon England
Elton John says Saturday night is all right for fighting, but for me, Saturday night is a dark night of misery; for that is when I face a lifelong demon of sleeplessness. I am not alone, 55% of all adults share my affliction. Insomnia runs in my family, with both my parents and daughter sharing the crushing odyssey of nighttime wanderings. Hyperactivity runs in our genes, leading us to highly productive lives, working way beyond the 8 to 5 routine most people follow. The price for this success is that we can’t turn off our minds and bodies at normal bedtimes to receive a needed recharge of deep sleep necessary to keep up our frantic pace of life.
After years of lost sleep, morning exhaustion, poor work performance, and a surly temper that antagonized coworkers and family, I finally accepted the fact that I have the insomnia disease. The consequences of insomnia have been high blood pressure from running on empty and poor health from a weak immune system. To gain back desperately needed sleep, I turned to sleeping pills. Other sleeping pills left me hung over the next morning, but not Ambien. Thirty minutes after the tiny white pill slides down my throat, I drop into peaceful Level 5 REM sleep for six to seven hours. I awake feeling fresh and rested, needing just one cup of coffee to get me going in the morning. Unfortunately, I develop a tolerance to Ambien’s effects after a couple of weeks and a higher dose of chemical sleep is needed. To offset the addiction spiral, I maintain a schedule of using Ambien on Sunday through Thursday nights during the work week, while cleaning my system out with no sleeping pills on Friday and Saturday nights. The tradeoff for sleep during the week is tortured weekend nights.
A Friday night proceeds something like this.
Pumpkin time for my lucky wife, Annie. She retires to bed for a few minutes of reading before drifting off to sleep. I dutifully join her to enjoy a few minutes of peace and calm together after a long day of juggling many phone calls and working diligently on my latest project as an engineering consultant in Florida. Due to recent tax cuts and declining sales tax revenues, a small community hired me to advise them on how to increase their stormwater taxes to balance their budget. This delicate issue has significant impacts on political careers and citizen pocketbooks. I have gone back and forth with budget projections all day long and the numbers dance in my head. Ambien is calling. Just say no. I try to close that door and escape into a mindless spy novel, knowing full well the futility of shutting down my mind this early in the night.
It is with resignation, rather than fear or anger, that I begin the hopeless ritual of trying to squeeze a few precious hours of restless sleep from the long dark night.
The lights go out as Annie drifts off in the arms of Morpheus. I make myself comfortable with foolish hopes of falling asleep quickly. Little bedtime rituals proceed out of habit. Pain from numerous injuries is normally overcome by Ambien, but tonight is out in full force. A couple of Tylenol help, but not enough to sleep. Two pillows, one for my head and another between the legs are a must. Lying on my back or left side is the only way to position the legs and arms in just the right position where they don’t hurt. No touching Annie’s body. With a little bit of luck, I fade away by 11:00.
Hello. Up and at ‘em after 30 minutes of light sleep. I can set my watch by it. Annie and the cat, Luci Belle, gently snore beside me. Just say no. I’m not going to move a muscle, but my mind races. Should I raise more taxes on the condominiums and less on mobile homes? Retirees in mobile homes are on fixed incomes and will make a most convincing argument against any form of tax increases. Better leave them alone and increase taxes on businesses, again. What about the struggling farmers? No, they have been known to bring tractors to Commission meetings to protest any new taxes.
Ouch! My back aches. I stand up and stagger through the dark halls to the thick, soft, couch in the living room where I lay on my left side with a pillow between bent knees. Not moving for 30 minutes. Period. I read more of the novel. Then I straighten out my aching left leg. Do I break down for half and Ambien? Not yet. I fade in and out.
Up for round three. I walk out to my home office to innocuously file papers and read personal emails. I’ve learned not to send emails at night; they are often incoherent or insulting. If I respond, I’ve trained myself to save them as drafts and reread them the next morning before sending them out. But sometimes in my stupor, I forget and mail a late-night blooper. I try to perform spreadsheet budget projections, but I’m too foggy to make it work. This can get me in trouble because sometimes I accidentally erase files late in the night. I know, I’ll read some more. I take the novel back to the couch and read for another 30 minutes. Lucy Belle wanders out to lay near me on the couch. Maybe a different sleeping pill? No.
It’s so cold. Annie turns the AC down to 73° so that she can sleep under heavy blankets while I freeze. I turn the thermostat up to 74°. Deep exhaustion sets in. Maybe I can sleep now. I drift into light Stage 2 non-REM sleep and start a recurring nightmare where I am on the ground. A bad guy attacks me, but I am completely helpless. My arms and legs are immovable. He moves closer and closer. I struggle with all my power to push him away, but my hands don’t respond. Wait, I know this is a dream. I must wake up. I can’t wake up. I call out to Annie, “Wake me up! Wake me up!” But she can’t hear me. If I roll over, maybe I’ll wake up. I can’t roll over. I am paralyzed. “Help me!” I scream silently. Suddenly I wake up. I can move, thank God. But wait, I’m not awake. I only dreamed I woke up. It’s a dream within a dream. I hate these. Will this nightmare never end?
I jolt awake by my legs kicking violently. Restless leg syndrome again! Every 30 seconds, my right leg kicks, no matter how hard I try not to. This is when Annie usually pushes me out of bed. Oh yeah, I forgot to do my leg exercises before bedtime. I stumble to the guest bedroom for a few minutes of toe raises and leg extensions on the weight bench until my legs ache. A muscle relaxing pill also helps. I wonder what they’ll find wrong with my car? I put it in the shop today with transmission problems. Whatever the problem is, it will be expensive. Maybe I could take ½ an Ambien? Hmmmm. NO! Back to the guest bed where I practice not moving a muscle like I’m hunting turkey.
I wander out to the porch to listen to soothing sounds of waves breaking on the beach across the street. Sometimes droning waves lull me to sleep; but not tonight. Where should we go on vacation this summer? It sure is dark out here. Should I go fishing tomorrow? I put on a pair of shorts and wander down three flights of stairs to my boat in the parking lot. I climb up the ladder, open the cabin, and lay on the bunk, looking up at stars through the hatch. It sure is quiet and peaceful this time of night. Water splashes as tarpon slap bait fish in the channel behind the boat. I watch a meteor shower in God’s vast heavens above.
Though I haven’t moved a muscle for half an hour, my mind is a ping pong ball. I work out a way to balance the budget with equitable tax increases for all property owners. One of my research associates and I have been trying to invent a way to increase the dissolved oxygen content of stormwater runoff by building a cascading stair inside of a stormwater inlet. Maybe I should design steps six inches apart instead of four inches so that splashing and oxygenation will be maximized. I give a class for a stormwater conference next week, so I rehearse lines about new regulations.
Snack time. I lock up the boat and somehow climb four flights of stairs to my condo. I love crackers with cheese and milk, especially at night. I leave a trail of crumbs all over the counter and out to the couch. Let’s try TV a while. There are good Chuck Norris movies this time of night that Annie won’t watch. Annie wanders out and turns the AC down again, so I wrap myself in a blanket as I watch TV. I’m so cold, that only my face and the hand with the remote control are out of the blanket. That hand is freezing, so I put a glove on it. I drift away for a few minutes.
I awake to the sound of an empty TV screen with pink noise. Now I’m desperate. I don’t want to go all night without sleep. I turn the AC back up and head to the liquor cabinet to take a couple of slugs of that sweet nectar, Cuervo Gold Tequila. If I do this earlier, it will keep me in shallow sleep, but this late into exhaustion, it sometimes allows me to drop into deep REM sleep. My shoulder hurts, so I rub lotion on it and wander back to the couch. I wonder how my daughter is doing in college. She has a big diving meet this weekend and hopefully she’ll do well. I should be hearing back soon from a new client on a proposal I submitted this week. Snort! When I hear myself snore, I know sleep is approaching. The end is near. I don’t dare move or the spell will break. Oh yeah. Here it comes. I finally fade away from another night of twisted adventure. With any luck, I’ll get a few hours of sleep before the sun wakes me on the couch with a stiff back.
And repeat my journey on Saturday night.