Joy Magazine

In the Wee Hours of the Night

The Upside of Insomnia

It's 3 o'clock in the morning. Again. Your eyes are as wide as a lemur's. Again.

But it's not just everyday anxiety keeping you up. Thanks to all those "helpful" magazine articles about the perils of insomnia, you find yourself lying awake — worried about lying awake.

Don't they know you've already got enough to worry about? Bills not just unpaid, but unpayable. Your teenager's grades, grooming and dubious future. A "to-do" list so long it snakes out of sight. Not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, there's no end to the tunnel.

The last thing you need as you thrash and twitch is to contemplate what insomnia is doing to your body.

The longer the night, the shorter our lives, they tell us. Immune cells drop dead with every tick of the clock. Blood pressure climbs. Heart disease and diabetes rub their greedy, little hands together with anticipatory glee. At this very moment, fight-or-flight cortisol is dispatching a battalion of fat cells to form a perimeter around your abdomen. Pork Chop Hill, they call it.

And come to find out, it's your own darn fault. You've been neglecting your sleep hygiene. No wonder no one will sit next to you in the office lunchroom.

You've broken every cardinal rule. Been exercising before bedtime again, hmmm? Couldn't resist a quick jog through the crumb-strewn house with the vacuum cleaner, could you? Did you use an electronic device within an hour of bedtime? Pay bills online or at least perform triage?

Admit it: You checked email, finished that report for work, rewrote your son's college-admission essay — just "tweaked it up a notch" from "i lik skool. it be phun."

You haven't transformed your bedroom into a sex-and-sleep-only oasis; removed debris, pet droppings, piles of laundry, luminous clocks; installed white-noise machines and blackout curtains left over from the London Blitz.

You didn't remember to pop a valerian supplement. But it's all-natural, you know, which explains that essence of used gym socks.

If you didn't know it before, you know it now: You've been doing everything wrong, wrong, wrong.

Wake up! Oh, wait, you already did. Those anti-insomnia articles are missing the point. Have you ever stopped to consider how lucky you are to be awake? Where would we be as a species without insomnia?

Creative people incubate their most fertile ideas in the wee hours of the night. Writers like Kafka, Twain, Dickens, Dumas. Ernest Hemingway claimed he saw every sunrise of his life. Granted, his prose might have been a little less terse with a little more sleep, but who's to say? Charlotte Bronte once wrote, "A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow." When do you think she came up with that gem?

How many great scientists had their "Eureka!" moments in beds, not bathtubs. Poor Isaac Newton: Insomnia weighed as heavily on him as, well, gravity. And why do you suppose Edison invented the light bulb? So he could get up and read at 3 a.m.

Comedian Groucho Marx came up with his best material by making prank phone calls in the middle of the night, back in the era before caller ID. (Or as spurned lovers call it: "the good, old days.")

Consider your long, dark nights of the soul "inspirational insomnia." That bleary-eyed but opportune hour — or two or three — is quality time with yourself. Think your best thoughts. Work out solutions. Write the great American novel (if only in your head). Indulge in a fantasy or two (or three).

Remember this motto: Genius never sleeps. Memorize this equation: E(a) = L(s) — exceptional achievement equals lack of sleep.

In a 2006 study, doctors found that highly creative children were significantly more likely to experience sleep disturbances. Which explains a lot about those comatose dunderheads in the bedrooms down the hall — and the one snoring loudly beside you.

Bing Crosby once crooned, "Count your blessings instead of sheep." Well, count insomnia among your blessings. You're awake, you're alive and you're thinking like mad. Work it!

As Margaret Thatcher famously said, "Sleep is for wimps."

Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford. She can be reached at katehannon17@yahoo.com.


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