It’s 5 am and I’m sitting upright in the fetal position in bed, and in the three hours since going to bed I haven’t had a minute of relief. Tomorrow afternoon I am supposed to go see my dealer. Sorry, “doctor.” A kind, prescribing nurse at the V.A. whose hair reminds me of my grandmother because they both dyed it a bright red. (My grandmother was 90, post-stroke and wheelchair-bound. “Redheads have more fun.” She’d said.) I’ve been taking Ambien as prescribed for thirty days, but tonight I skipped it. I wanted to be able to have a frank discussion with her about my possible dependency on it, while also showing my will power. That’s to say, to show her she doesn’t need to cut me off, just in case.
I tried the “magic” asleep-in-thirty-seconds 4-7-8 breathing techniques you find on homeopathy sites. Inhale for four, hold for seven, exhale for eight. They probably say to visualize a balloon, too, but they’re full of shit. Show me a person that can will-themselves to sleep in under a minute. Oh! Well, there’s a caveat: you have to mine coal. As in, people who are up late at night surfing the web for sleep techniques probably weren’t swinging an ax all day and didn’t turn their computers off two hours before bed. That’s called camping.
I remember when I used to “mine coal,” but even in the field as a Marine, I never slept. Throughout my whole life, unless it’s the sixty seconds after an exhausting fuck, there’s no way I’m going to bed without tossing and turning for two hours.
After the Marines, I sleep like a feather, too. When things go bump in the night, so does my heart. The greatest torture is when I can just feel myself drifting off and something misfires in my brain. I’m laying there in silence and suddenly a helicopter buzzes overhead or maybe a gunshot goes off right in my ear. The women who have endured the waking me can attest that the sleeping me gets no rest.
One time I came across my V.A. medical file and saw handwritten notes from a doctor in 2007. “Patient says his heart beats so hard he’s afraid it will wake up his girlfriend.” That part’s true. When she would fall asleep with her head on my chest, I could see it bounce up and down. How did I ever manage to shoot a rifle? They teach you to fire only when you’ve exhaled, so as to keep a consistent aim, but I’m sure my best shots came in between heartbeats.
When I’m in bed, I don’t think consistent thoughts. It’s a constant stream of ideas and mental face-palming as I relive embarrassing moments. Sometime around 3am I realized that the reason I must like writing so much is that you can edit it afterwards. Nothing can save you from the stupid shit you actually say, though. Once it leaves your lips, it’s final copy. The only solace being that nobody was recording it for posterity. But you remember. And the audience remembers. I’m thinking of that semester I spent debating fellow students on the efficacy and necessity of torture. As I say when I wrote about it years later, “please don’t remember me that way.” It’s bad enough that I have to.
So sometime around 4:50am, I concede. Three hours of laying still with a mask and earplugs counts as a valiant effort. I decide to write it all down. I grab my phone and invert the colors so I’m typing on a black screen. If I don’t piss off my eyeballs, maybe they won’t shoo away sleep if it chances to pay a visit. Moreover, the typing speed-limit of using just thumbs forces me to filter out a lot of the static in my head. (Thumbs do it better. Ask any asshole.)
I think this month has been hard on my sleep for environmental reasons. I’m still traveling, and am just a guest in my own place since I sublet the closet I used to sleep. $750 a month. That’s what it costs to be centrally located in Manhattan: $750 for a closet. The roommate in question will tell you he sleeps like a log in the closet.
On a mat in the living room, I’ve been sleeping with my face to the wall, but here that’s on the right. In my various sarcophagi that I keep around the country, I face to the left. I know this sounds like some Derek Zoolander “I can’t turn left” male-model shit, but it’s real. I can’t sleep on my back, and I always face to the left. Even when filled with IV tubes awaiting an appendectomy, I slept on my stomach, arms at my side, right side of my face mashed into whatever is beneath me. The nurse said it was cute, but I’m convinced it’s going to gradually stretch my skin, and by the time I’m 60, everyone’s going to assume I had a stroke.
For the last month I’ve taken Ambien every night, but when commenting about chemical addiction, my roommate dismissed the idea: if you don’t double up, and you don’t take it when you’re not supposed to, then you’re not addicted.
I often refuse the prescription because I have so many stashed up and this year since I started smoking weed before bed, with much more fun results. Here in New York, the only stuff I have is a brain-wiring sativa, so after I realized that was doing the opposite of what I needed, I stopped. While I was reassured that I’m not addicted to weed, I’ve started to wonder about the Ambien.
But it’s so nice. You take one, and in ten to thirty minutes, you’re asleep, and you stay that way the whole night.
Is this what normal sleep is like for normal people? I couldn’t tell you, I’ve never had it and never been one.