My brother sent this email to me: “My bed is a magical place where I can suddenly remember everything I was supposed to do.”
I’ve always been a rotten sleeper. My brother also used to be a rotten sleeper but now he says he just waits until 1 a.m. before lying down. Such tricks don’t work for me: As soon as I shut my eyes, I’m met with an elaborate display constructed by the Freudian Fireworks Company spelling out the word “Failure.”
The moment I put my head on the pillow, I picture myself standing in front of a judge holding an impressive ledger inscribed with every task I’ve left undone as well as everything I might’ve done better.
The last time I remember doing everything right was on the occasion of my first communion. That was in 1963, which was the year ZIP codes were introduced. It’s been a while since I haven’t worried about messing up.
Nightly fear of failure and anxiety usually start with ordinary self-nagging. Do I have enough cat food to get through the week without making a trip to PetSmart? Then I feel bad for rescue animals. Instantly I veer straight into the lane of on-coming orphans, refugees and the homeless, excoriating myself for not doing more about global hunger and shelter.
After that, I’m awake for a month.
A person can’t even watch television before bed anymore. I’m not talking about watching panel discussions on cable stations where people from opposing viewpoints face each other in a cage match. I’m talking about watching broadcasters on local stations.
I used to love listening to the weather report before going to sleep. It was soothing. Not anymore. I keep a notebook and pen near the bed (because sleep experts insist that having a laptop in the bedroom is as disruptive as having a ferret in your pillow) so I can tell you exactly what I heard before switching off the TV last night: “After the break, we’ll talk about what kind of impacts this storm system will have on the morning commute because of the severe rains that are coming in tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.”
I’m no meteorologist, but the “impact” of rain is that you’re going to get wet. I don’t think that’s something you need to sit through a Subaru ad to discover. It’s going to be a rainy day, it’s gonna take you longer to get to work, you could end up damp and you’ll probably be in a bad mood when you arrive.
Because we want to blame the inability to sleep on something other than ourselves, we now blame the beds. Mattresses have become our enemy. You can now buy beds that lift you up, making your ankles higher than your thorax, or ones guaranteeing your shoulders are warmer than your buttocks. You could have a bed that makes you into a balloon animal. It’s like joining the Cirque du Soleil every night.
Can I tell you a secret? If you can’t sleep, it’s not because of the bed. People used to sleep on mattresses made by stuffing corn husks into a sack — and those were the aristocrats. Most people slept on the ground for that nice firm feeling and so they could run when an animal started chasing them. Basically they were pretty tired from herding goats. They slept well because they were physically exhausted. Their anxieties were also more immediate than ours. (“Honey, do you think we’ll get beaten to death by the Visigoths tonight?” “Nah. I heard it’s going to rain. They don’t like the rain.”)
I’ve known few truly talented sleepers. I had a roommate back in college who could’ve been on the Olympic sleep team. She was world-class. But even she now wanders through her house like a wraith after midnight trying to figure out whether it’d be easier to fall asleep in the armchair or on the couch.
During these turbulent times, I bet we’re losing even moderately good sleepers to insomnia on a nightly basis. We’re fraught and overwrought.
We not only need sleep, we need rest. We need to take some lightheartedness, herd our worst thoughts like goats into a pen and speak again in the morning.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.
This article was first published in the Hartford Courant