I can’t sleep in a moving vehicle. Trains, planes, and automobiles all force me into a nether-world. I’ve been on countless insomniatic car trips and bus rides this way. A twenty-six hour bus ride to the mountains of Colorado, a plane to the Tube to the Southeastern line, a bus ride from Indiana to New York. I swallowed each awful trip with glee as a chance to encounter the twilight zone. I could never fall asleep, only nod along to the rhythm of whatever vehicle I happened to find myself in. Sleeping in normal times is challenging, much less under the stress of travel. On a normal night I brush my teeth as insomnia stands behind me waiting to steal yet another dreamless night.
Nabokov recorded his dreams. He relished them, turning them into something during his fits of insomnia. He famously hated Freud and wouldn’t go in for Freudian readings of his life or work. On this we differ; I love to analyze biography. I’ll take a Freudian analysis any day. Of myself, of a famous writer, of a friend, of a dream. To Nabokov, dreams were prophetic; he was connecting with some more primal magic than psychology.
I had never, I realized, examined my insomnia. Not psychologically, not socially, not psychically. I decided to talk about it more openly.
“I’m writing about insomnia,” I tell my friends.
“I didn’t know you had insomnia,” they reply. “Every night?” They all ask diligently, hoping to solve my decades-long problem.
“Yes, pretty much.”
“Have you tried…?”
And then we’re off. Valerian root, chamomile tea, less screen time, more screen time, Ambien, Doxepin, Benadryl, counting sheep, sleep meditations, yoga nidras, ASMR, and for God’s sake don’t look at clocks. I know the lore well; I’ve tried it all.
In the suburbs, sleepless nights were for driving around the woods or watching mindless sitcoms. Insomnia was the norm. Sometimes I briefly fell asleep and woke up halfway through a Thelonius Monk record. Sometimes sleep paralysis struck. I would wake up and see a demon standing in the corner of my room. For the record, demons look like giant fly-men in business suits; it has always been unclear to me why goats have become the popular avatar for the Satanic. Ghost stories are a source of cheap amusement for most people, the opposite of fairy tales, but growing up as a believer they always made me cry. They still do. Tell a girl a ghost story and she will cry because she has spiritual trauma.
As far as I can remember my twilight vigils never drove me to write. If I was in bed, even sleeplessly so, my brain was cloudy. Stringing together a sentence seemed hopeless. Instead I committed impulsive acts: long walks, bingeing obscure television shows, reading now-defunct websites. Every so often a book would transport me. I was one of those girls who read The Great Gatsby under her covers after being told to go to bed.
For some writers, this nebulous zone of sleep and insomnia, waking and dreaming, locks and keys is creativity incarnate. But if creativity is spurred on by an intolerance for slumber, some of us are screwed. Similar to how Jenny Diski’s daughter said Diski never wrote when depressed, I just can’t write in a fever dream. Curling up with a book is just so much more comforting than tackling the page. I need my wits about me to carve.
Not being able to fall asleep is terrifying. A primal need is escaping you. Every doctor I’ve ever seen has told me about the importance of sleep for our overall well-being. You need REM sleep to restore your body. You need to dream to be whole.
I don’t remember my dreams with any regularity. Of the dreams I do remember, many involve my exes appearing inside my childhood home to humiliate me. A few months ago, my ex came to me in a dream. She read a short story I wrote aloud and deemed it clichéd. More recently, I dreamt a goose bit me.
There are moments in our lives that feel like dreams. Moments in the middle of waking life that, reminiscent of déjà vu, linger in us for years to come. A few days before Halloween, I looked out the windowpane of a subway car into the twisting black trees. Somewhere in Queens a surf and turf joint glowed red underneath the station. Halloween decorations were propped up in yards. I was listening to ghost stories, a bad habit leftover from insomniatic nights spent pacing and listening. May as well get my steps in before Judgment Day. I looked at the book under my arm, Nabokov’s Ada, a labyrinthian book famous for its convoluted takes on time and dreams. Why do steely women like him so much? His little puzzle-boxes, full of characters traveling through memories, like an endless haunted house.
The deep places of night spill out of windows. The J train rattles a few blocks away. The dreamscapes of suburban lakes dissolve. The bus drives towards Colorado forever. The night can offer a landscape into all the sleepless places we’ve gone before. I can’t sleep in a bed, but oh the places I’ll go.