By about ten I can tell if I’m going to get a good night’s sleep. It’s hard to describe but it feels like warm water being poured over my neck and upper back–an untying of the gordian knot between my shoulder blades, like detuning a bass guitar until the strings are a low loose unmelodic rattle. I carry the weight of my day across my shoulders, like a suspension bridge twisting in heavy weather.
Lately, there has been a golf-ball sized twist of muscle at the nape of my neck. I can feel the night just rachet around it, the bass strings constricting chords, pulling hard against the weight of hours most of us spend relaxing. Each quarter turn into the muscle is a stressor of unanswered questions or some unchecked anxiety. They roll up my neck, accumulate like packing on a snowball. Suddenly it’s after midnight and I’m wide awake–like a cup of espresso directly to my brain stem. It’s almost manic, if the engine behind it weren’t so physically tired. Pending on the number of days it’s been since a good night sleep, it almost feels like an out of body tired–a third person zombie where I go through motions almost in absentia.
If you’re lucky, the functional tired means you can at least read or write–be productive–but it’s a catch 22. Usually, the more I write, the deeper the knot digs in, the more I want to write, the deeper the hole I dig. Sometimes, it’s the compulsion to write which puts me here in the first place–that fear that I’m going to miss something. Come to think of it, the fear of missing out was probably what started me on my lack of sleep trip years ago. I remember going to sleepovers and having the parents all but threaten me with bodily harm if I didn’t go to sleep. Yeah, I was that kid. It was so far and few between invitations, I was always afraid that all the cool things would happen when I was asleep–as if the invite was just a cruel trick by the party host to ensure maximum outsider impact when I finally hit the hay. Well, no one said I didn’t come by my neurosis honestly.
I think there’s a flawed romanticism to insomnia, and I know that I subscribe to it. This whole concept of chasing the night by streetlights sounds like poetry. There is something isolated and solitary about staying up all night–it’s conducive to writing. I can’t count the nights where it’s been me and the glow of a laptop screen being the only light on in the house. It feels right and honest–like a secret room is being unlocked just for me in those lean and dark hours.
I think about my first real artist hero, Roy Orbison, and how I discovered his music late at night which led me to an afterhours world of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Morphine, and Nick Cave. Somewhere under the cover of moonlight or starless skies I would be able to speak to those parts of me and you I so clumsily fumbled in the stark light of day. When I couldn’t speak, I offered up dreamer hours to discover the how and why of open hearts in lines and verse. As awkward as I was with eyes and lips during the day, I could speak to their second face in the dark. The night was perfect for someone as shy as me, so I bought into the night shift–hook, line, and sinker.
When I discovered the graveyard shift world of black coffee dinners, late night movies, and all night jazz radio from WRTI out of Temple University, it was fuel for me. The problem is that somewhere in chasing all these outlets, I forgot about sleep. It wasn’t like I was a daysleeper, I just didn’t sleep at all. I’m not sure if one led to the other or if this was just a chicken and egg scenario–I sought out these late night avenues because I couldn’t sleep or I couldn’t sleep because I was too busy chasing third shift distractions. Who knows? The bottom line is that my sleep schedule was thoroughly flat out fucked over in favor of being a night owl. College made it worse, bars made it better, and even once I became Mr. Nine to Five, I would go through spells of sleeplessness. I had opened a door I never really learned to close. As a result, all those thoughts I had spent late nights turning over between dinner sandwiches and midnight movies would not always leave me alone.
Now that I am without much of a schedule on the day to day basis, I find myself somewhere between openly embracing my insomnia and just wanting to get a solid eight hours of sleep once in awhile. I also know that the older I get, the lack of sleep (like everything else) catches up to me much quicker than it did even five years ago.
Insomnia is like sleeping in glimpses. During real sleepless periods now, it’s frustrating. I just start heading towards something which feels like a dream and suddenly I am pulled out of it and into the very real, very lucid, and very awake part of night. I’ve tried a variety of remedies and nothing really works. I have learned just to ride it out. I think being so anchorless these days has made it worse. If I feel like staying up because Solaris (the original, not the George Clooney version) is on until 4 AM on TCM, I stay up. If I’m hanging out in with friends, I will exhaust conversation like burning a Marlboro down to the filter. I will pour another cup of coffee, have another round, spin another record. It’s almost always worth the winding knots in my neck. If there’s a suspension bridge between my shoulders where the world adds the weight of its days, shouldn’t part of that heaviness be the hours in which we cross from one side to the other? If you ask, I will always chase the light with you. For me this is the marrow of life and I’m still afraid I’m going to miss something.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He drinks his coffee black and scalding hot. Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.