The Roots of Insomnia

I had proceeded thus far, when I found I had been lying awake so long that the very dead began to wake too, and to crowd into my thoughts most sorrowfully. Therefore, I resolved to lie awake no more, but to get up and go out for a night walk – which resolution was an acceptable relief to me, as I dare say it may prove now to a great many more. — Charles Dickens, “Lying Awake”

In 1885, Henry Munson Lyman reported that one doctor’s cure for insomnia involved placing tourniquets around certain parts of the body to increase blood circulation to the brain. But if I had the choice between constricting my blood flow and going on one of Dickens’s predawn walks, I’d certainly choose the latter. Yet presently, as I face another one of these damn bouts, walking seems like too much effort. For does this not take you further from the bed? And is not the purpose of the pursuit lost?

In 2009, the dead do not rise in New York. They are doing just fine being ignored, even as they scream like frightening banshees clinging to bars inside express trains momentarily hitting local stops during the construction period. The normal rules of sleep do not apply. The regular laws of the universe do not apply. You wouldn’t ask the dead to go for a walk during the day. Because you don’t want to see them. You’d rather tie tourniquets to prop them up on the subway where they can deliver their frequently fabricated stories announcing their names and situations to mostly deaf and bankrupt travelers. But if they were permitted to walk and they were allowed Dickens’s privilege, then I suspect the world might learn a few things, unsettling though these truths may be.

In 1999, I was in San Francisco jumping from one glum galleon to another that promised to utilize my apparent killick-slinging skills. I was a dead man who had to walk. Dickens noted that Ben Franklin made the idea of procuring pleasant dreams sound so easy. No amount of pillow-beating could cause me to fall asleep. But I did jump. And a few leaped with me.

In 1984, the Reagan presidential campaign insisted that it was morning again in America. Twenty-six years later, the video is creepy and excessively sedate and phony. Who wants to stay awake when so many white people have been told precisely how to be happy? What happened to the 6,500 young men and women who were married then? Can they say that they experienced confidence in the last twenty-six years? Did their marriages last? (Hal Riney, the man who wrote and narrated the ad, died last year. He lived in San Francisco. When I took a voiceover class five years after I knew I could sling a killick, I was given a lot of Riney’s ad copy to speak before a microphone. My voice appeared briefly on a local radio commercial. This disturbed me.)

In 2009, Hal Riney does not rise in San Francisco. San Francisco itself is not dead, but it was never really allowed to stay awake. Between the hours of 2AM and 6AM, there is very little to do other than hole up in houses and seedy motels and 24-hour diners. There you may find acceptable relief, which is not spelled with the seven letters provided by Madison Avenue. There you may walk the streets if you can’t sleep and sleepwalk in the morning.

In 1880, an insomniac named Joshua Norton passed away. He was replaced by Frank Chu 120 years later. But in New York, they do not often let the insomniacs take the dais. If they do, they are heavily supervised or ignored.

In 1904, Henry Munson Lyman died in Evanston, Illinois at the age of sixty-eight. He had been ill for four years. He had started off in Hawaii and spent most of his professional career in Chicago — located 1,863 miles from San Francisco and 714 miles from New York. Whether Dr. Lyman felt any closer to the dead in New York who now do not rise remains open for scholarly debate. But if he suffered poor health for four years, presumably he suffered acceptable relief upon his death. There is certainly an acceptable relief in discovering him 105 years after he stopped gracing the world with his presence.