I’ve had night terrors most of my life.
Depending on anxiety, fatigue and hormone levels, my personal experiences with a wide range of sleep demons have been extensive. I was, until recently, most familiar with classic running-dream scenarios. Pursued by a scaled, razor-clawed demon with reptilian eyes and fangs, I would run in slow motion with heart pounding just beyond the fiend’s reach. I’d wake in a cold sweat and reassure myself that dreams rarely have floors and ceilings.
This particular demon disappeared from my nocturnal dance macabre one night when the monster seemed so close I could feel its breath on my neck. I awoke to find my lover at my shoulder hoping that my sleepy muttering might be some sort of troubled confession. I did not see the demon or that lover again.
So it was with great personal anticipation that I turned to Bill Hayes’ Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir. But this turns out to be not as much a book about insomnia as much as it is a memoir of a gay man who happens to be an insomniac. Hayes indulges in a self-imposed therapy—“part autobiography, part pseudo-research”—on sleep disorders. The autobiographical material is loosely woven with scientific history, creating a somewhat contrived tapestry of mysterious connections.
Hayes has no interest in dream content, ignoring the explorations of depth psychologists like Carl Jung and James Hillman. Instead, the book’s scientific treatise is limited to a tediously selective tour of turn-of-the-century (19th century) sleep theories that devolve into an obsessive homage to Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, a pioneer in the field whose early research was funded by the makers of Ovaltine, whose greatest claim-to-fame is the fact that his protégé, Eugene Aserinsky, discovered REM sleep in 1953.
Still, Sleep Demons threads through a few fairly intriguing details. For example: Did you know that researchers have found that “full penile erections” and “clitoral engorgement” are characteristic of REM sleep and completely independent of erotic activity. “No matter how habitually a person may over- or underuse it while awake, the penis or clitoris still becomes erect about every ninety minutes during sleep.” Hmmm.
Although this eclectic collection of scientific detail and loosely related personal history offers no clear resolution to garden variety insomniacs, there is little mystery as to why Hayes, a child raised on Coca-Cola in a repressive Catholic family, who discovers his homosexuality, dabbles in drugs and experiences the first-hand horror of the AIDS epidemic, can’t sleep.
Like Hayes, I have discussed my sleep issues with experts on occasion and have come to understand the way the specter of insomnia itself can lead to sleeplessness. I recognize a twisted pride and exaggeration of my own inability to sleep—characteristics that I had not considered before reading Sleep Demons. Unlike Hayes though, the experts I encountered consider medication a last resort, offering instead a myriad of behavioral remedies for what is commonly considered the “classic American sleep disorder”—complex psychological and cultural concerns, fast-track lifestyles and chemical consumption (sugar and caffeine, hold the cocaine).
For those who share my classic predisposition for letting things get to the point where it is difficult to unwind, I’d like to share my grandma’s best advice: Do nothing for at least one hour before you go to bed; establish regular “sleep” hours; watch your stress and chemical levels … and you’ll sleep like a babe.