Thursday, July 21, 2005


Photograph by JF Poole via Flickr

Today is my father's birthday. Though he has been dead for five years, July 21st still belongs to him. The date of your birth is one of the few things that can never be taken from you. Even after you've been forced to abandon your body, your possessions, the group of particular predilections and quirks that comprise your identity, your birthday remains. On this date, at this time, you WERE.

But no, this is not going to be another post about death. This is a post about insomnia--the mind's refusal to let go of consciousness even for a few hours. The body folds itself into the position of rest and courts restoration, the lights go out,the house pulses with silence--but the mind skitters and darts like a monkey on a bicycle. While you watch the clock, desperately counting out the hours and minutes left to sleep, the monkey whizzes by, tongue protruding. "I'm not finished with you yet," he says and laughs demonically. Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick, the silence of the house becomes a roar.

I first encountered the monkey when I was still a child, waiting for my mother to come home from work, worrying excessively about school projects, or squabbles with friends. Over the years, I've gotten older, but the monkey is as young and vigorous as ever. He circles the house when I most need rest. Sometimes he is a one night stand; other times he settles in for weeks. He has been known to defy the strongest of sleeping medications.

This summer the monkey has been a nightly visitor. I turn on my right and put my pillow over my head, and he is there, his constant taunt, echoing in my ear. Think! Think! And of course, it is thinking that is both the arch-enemy of sleep and the monkey's most potent spell. Think, damn you!

I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted by magazine articles that promise an end to my affliction, and then offer the same useless pablum about eliminating caffeine and going to bed at the same time every day. Don't they understand this is a fight to the death duel between my exhausted body and a mind that refuses to obey the STOP sign?

Then the other night, after weeks of dealing with the monkey, I remembered the advice my father had given me many years ago when I was still a novice insomniac:

"Can't sleep? Lie down and forget you're alive; you'll be asleep in minutes," he said one night when he was annoyed by my night prowling. Then he slammed the door to my room. Not a suggestion, but a command. I don't think it worked that night. Maybe I was too young to understand the implications of his words. But the other night, and for several nights that followed, the command mesmerized the monkey like a hypnotist's watch. Within minutes of the remembered order, I was asleep.

Have I whipped insomnia for good? Probably not. As I said, the monkey has prevailed even over powerful narcotics. Undoubtedly, he will return with a counter spell. But at least for now, I've relearned the skill that babies and animals practice so effortlessly and often. Sleep.

Thanks, Dad. And one more thing, it's July 21st and I still remember.


rdl said...

Oh my I think I am going to cry. Sweet dreams.

Melly said...

Luckily for me I can count my sleepless nights on one hand, but I do know a few people who simply can't sleep. I always wondered what makes people so different one another.

But it's good to carry and remember the advice of people no longer with us. It always makes me smile, alleviating the melancholy somewhat...

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

I love the addition of graphics and especially photographs to your blog. And this piece, too. Because I lost my father a while ago AND suffer insomnia. Keep trucking.

gulnaz said...

the nights i most need sleep, it eludes me and its very frustrating. its worse when you have strong reason to be up early...looking refreshed.

Jay said...

Thanks much for this post. I tend to suffer more from generalized anxiety and panic than I do insomnia, but what you had to say resonated strongly, felt very familiar.

Perfect Virgo said...

This reminds me of the year I quit drinking. There is an entire vast story there but it is only incidental. No applause or sympathy needed - in September it will be 12 years. Deprived of my customary bucket-loaded anaesthetic I sat propped angrily in bed staring at the walls and defying sleep to come. At times I thought so hard, I even thought about thinking!

Eventually sheer exhaustion took over but the sleep that brought was not therapeutic, merely functional. Many months passed before real sleep came to bring natural relief to a tired body.

No help at all Patry but at least know that another periodic insomniac understands.

Patry Francis said...

Leora: nice to see you visiting this space, as you were one of its first friends.

gulnaz: you are so right. The more you NEED to sleep, the less you can. quite a conundrum.

Jay: the monkey on the bicycle has many tricks; insomnia is only one of them.

Virgo: thinking about thinking is the worst, most advanced form of insomnia, I think. (Oh no, there's that word again.)

Patry Francis said...

again-author: thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. You are so right. Simply wait...the original name of this blog is all about what you're saying.

Vickie said...

June 21st becomes his birth anniversary. It will never change. I'm enjoying this site very much.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Vickie.