All-Nighters is an exploration of insomnia, sleep and the nocturnal life.
You know you’ve scaled the ranks of the sleepless elite when your editor notices the berserker late night time-stamps on your Facebook posts and asks you to contribute to a forum on insomnia. How flattering! How alarming! Isn’t it remarkable that, despite how isolated and alone we feel in our wakefulness, our numbers are so great we warrant our own special exploration? Fellow night owls, we have arrived. Three hoots for the weary.
I come by my insomniac bona fides honestly. My earliest memory is of sleeplessness: I’m a toddler, still in the crib, hearing first the routine evening siren from the firehouse in our suburban town, then much later another blast, signaling danger. Awake and aching between both sirens, I rocked myself back and forth against the midnight blue lonelies.
My mother was at a loss as to how to help her insomniac child. She’d try back-scratching. Then singing. Then back-scratching while singing. Warm milk? Ha. Maybe if it were laced with knock-out drops.
Facebook, I’ve found, is the Promised Land for the awake and alone.
In frustration, we’d wait it out together. I had afternoon nursery school and noon-start kindergarten, so my mom would let me stay up well past a reasonable bedtime. As the youngest of five kids, I was pleased to have Mom to myself for a spell — the first silver lining of sleeplessness. We’d watch “The Tonight Show,” sometimes even Tom Snyder. Even now, I can’t hear the opening strains of the Letterman theme without feeling a strong maternal tug.
When Mrs. Land, my bossy-boots kindergarten teacher, asked the noon-class students “What time do you go to bed?” I wasn’t about to rat out my own mother by saying, “Oh, between midnight and 1 a.m.,” so I made up something fast. Um … Seven o’ clock! (My guess did not impress Mrs. Land. To her, the ideal kindergartner’s lights-out was 8 p.m.)
I struggled with sleep until my adolescence, then, sometime around freshman year of high school, I flipped the script: If I were doomed to fail at sleeping, then I would excel at being awake. My circadian rhythms shaped my life as a Jersey wannabe libertine: Midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the mall; being waved past the velvet ropes at a local gay dance club that was sympathetic to wayward kids; all-night diners on Route 3. I was an ace at greeting the dawn during slumber parties. Between punk, Goth and gay culture, I found a nourishing nocturnal life full of happy social misfits.
Adulthood intruded, as it must, and that meant finding work that accommodated my late-night habits. The road to my current freelance status had a couple embarrassing detours, including a few jobs that ensure I’ll never be able to run for public office, and a brief turn in a windowed junior executive office at HBO, where, in a case of life imitating “Seinfeld,” I napped under my desk.
Now I’m married to a man who keeps a soldier’s schedule — up with little effort at dawn and asleep by 11. Each night, I turn on “Family Guy,” get in bed with my husband and watch TV with him until he falls asleep. Then I wait out my insomnia alone, until I collapse between 2 and 6 a.m.
I wish I could tell you I still had a wild-child’s fun to go with the hours — that I replicate my glory days, dancing around the walk-in closet, listening to vintage techno, drinking bourbon, trying on wigs. Party of one! But no. In the here and now, I’m constrained to the Wild, Wild Web.
Once my husband’s out, I go to the kitchen to microwave some popcorn, then retreat to the spare bedroom to log hours and hours on Facebook. Facebook, I’ve found, is the Promised Land for the homebound awake and alone. I have a core group with whom I consort. Mostly women, mostly moms. One by one, we come forth to curse our uncreased pillows.
The tone is light and conversational, but cut through with melancholy: What are you up to right now? What’s keeping you awake tonight? What’s your favorite sleep aid? What’s your favorite midnight snack? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done on Ambien? I want to know it all. I’m fascinated by the dazzling variety of ways we occupy the span before sleep: Baking. Crafting. Online financial planning. Google stalking. Fretting. Writing. Jamming. It seems the hours are equally divided between creation, organization, entertaining miscellaneous anxieties and just killing time.
Squinting in the screen-glow, posting back and forth with my fellow insomniacs, I still have fantasies of easy slumber, of slipping effortlessly into a place called Sleepland that’s forever soothing, where the air smells of lemon verbena and lavender, and feels like a quilted hug. I don’t know that I’ll ever visit, but I have some hope that I might. But that would mean leaving my wee-hours friends behind, and I would miss them.
We live in different time zones and hail from differing backgrounds, but what unites us is the alienation of living counter to the conventional rhythm. We’re all nighttime overachievers in a sunny-day world. It’s lonely stuff and when you find other people who suffer — or luxuriate — the way you do, the tonic effect is profound. The silver lining that I discovered as a small child is that, with some luck and effort, sleeplessness begets togetherness. In isolation and frustration, one can find community.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently a chronicle of her life as a misfit military wife, “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles.”
Sleep is over thought. I get so much done when the rest of Hawaii is sleeping.