I’ve been off the Ambien for a couple of months now and what sleep I get does feel a little less artificial. With the help of a prescription sleeping aid, it did seem as though the nights were restful, or at least those parts that I remembered the next morning. The problem with Ambien is that it’s more of a memory eraser than it is a good crack on the skull, so your unconsciousness might come with the unanticipated side effect of a drive to Maryland.
I’ve watched my cats slip into slumber as effortlessly as they steal my food when I’m not looking, and they make wonderful role models for people trying to get some shut-eye. Taylor in particular can drop on a moment’s notice. He doesn’t have to put on his pajamas, or turn on his sound machine, or have the room temperature and the pillow and the covers just so. He’s rocketing off the walls with a case of the “rips” one minute, and curled into a spherical, comatose mass the next.
Scientists claim to know very little about what makes us sleep, and it’s good to hear a little humility out of those guys for a change. I’ve thought it through myself during many a restless night, and I’ve come up with my own theory. The harder you consciously try to make it happen, the harder it is to achieve. Giving up on the attempt completely can be a very effective strategy in getting to sleep.
It was during a jet-lagged trip to Asia that this revelation first came to me. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning some 35,000 feet above Iran, and as I look around the plane at my fellow passengers, I feel more like a dentist than proofreading trainer headed to South Asia. Mouths are hanging open everywhere as people lose themselves in dreamland. Meanwhile, I’m watching half the remaining subcontinent dance furiously on the tiny TV screen in front of me, stirring futilely as Akshay sings of his undying love for Devi and for frantic, high-pitched violins.
A few days later, I’ve arrived at my destination and am still struggling to get into a pattern that gives me a nightly rest. I call up room service on my third night in Sri Lanka and order a piece of cake to soothe my frustration. If I can’t get to sleep, I figure I may as well have dessert. I lie in bed with the dish on my chest, and the next thing I know it’s about ten hours later and I’m coming out of the best slumber I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I’m covered in frosting, and will have to suffer the suspicious glances of my maid for the next three weeks for what I’ve done to the sheets. But I finally got a good night’s sleep, all because I gave up trying.
Either that, or the Tamil Tigers had poisoned me.
Once back in the U.S., I was ready to try out my new strategy. If I didn’t make such an effort out of the nightly routine, if instead I prepared for bed by preparing to do something else entirely, perhaps I could trick my subconscious into letting me surrender to Morpheus.
The first night of the experiment, I simply left my socks on. Normally, I prefer to sleep barefoot so as to enjoy the sensation of cool sheets wrapped around my ankles (this is what passes for “pleasure” as we sail through middle age). If I tricked my mind into thinking that clothed feet meant no rest was expected, maybe the reverse psychology would kick in and I’d doze off.
It worked pretty well although, not unlike prescription medicines, it required increased doses on subsequent nights for its efficacy to continue. When the effect of the socks wore off after several evenings, I graduated next to placing the TV remote on my belly. Again, I fell quickly asleep, though my wife complained about how I changed the channel every time I rolled over, usually just as she was becoming interested in the merits of buying cubic zirconia for only $49.95 plus shipping and handling, but only if she ordered within the next 15 minutes.
For the next attempt, I put on a pair of heavy-duty work gloves as I climbed into bed. There’d be no snuggling for me this night, of that I was certain. My brain, however, thought I was planning to install a new water heater instead of catching 40 winks, so it quickly shut me down for seven hours of nearly lifeless bliss.
When the gloves wore off, I next tried sunglasses. When the sunglasses wore off, I donned a wool cap. When the hat stopped working, I put on my favorite tie. That was almost too effective, as I awoke gasping desperately for air when the neckwear became tangled in my sheets and I nearly strangled.
Now I was riding a downward spiral that seemed destined to end badly. I pulled out the dark blue suit I got married in some 28 years ago and wore it for several nights. It was a little tight around the waist, and the shoes left some scuff marks on Beth, which she justifiably objected to. This is about the time I gave up on the wardrobe strategy, and graduated to the hard stuff.
I tried carrying a toaster with me. One night I brought a 1996 copy of Hoover’s Handbook of American Companies with me. I dug around in my son’s closet and found an old Darth Vader bank that played the Star Wars theme every time you put in a coin, though now I was concerned I’d be accused of sleeping with a dolly.
When props started failing, I turned to activities. I brought my 401k and IRA statements with me and planned to diversify my investment portfolio, which knocked me out like a left hook from Manny Pacquiao. When that wore off, I started updating my resume, including fictitious stints as a rodeo clown, mayor of Hallandale, Fla., and a former member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (the one who played autoharp). Finally, I plotted an armed insurrection against the state of South Carolina, rallying my armies in a pincer movement just south of Columbia before descending on the Five Points area and kidnapping Gov. Mark Sanford while he dined on the Big Mo platter at Maurice’s Barbecue.
At this point, I realized I had become seriously unhinged and needed professional help, and that’s when I reported to the doctor and picked up my Ambien prescription. I think that eventually I would’ve arrived at a more natural solution to my insomnia, though I feared that would involve imprisonment and mostly feigned sleep to keep my cellmate at bay.
Now I’m off the Ambien and back to the nightly struggle for rest that millions of Americans pursue. I may be dragging my haggard self through the work day, nodding off during meetings and losing focus on assorted tasks at hand. But at least I’m saving a few dollars by not having to accessorize so much.