My grandmother used to say that her mother used to say she was lucky if she slept every other night. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve inherited her genes.
Of course, I know there are good sleep habits and bad ones, and lately I’ve been slipping into the bad column—going to bed too late, working on my iMac’s large screen until 10:00 or 11:00 at night so I’m exposing myself to too much light before I should be getting ready for bed (this is actually a huge factor), trying to do too much in the evening so my brain can’t unwind.
Recently I’ve been turning to Turner Classic Movies to relax as I finally get ready for bed, because they’ve been showing a lot of wonderful Oscar-winning films, and there are no blasting commercial interruptions. But then, it’s really hard to stop watching Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men.
So Sunday night, after Chicago ended and I was finishing up bandaging my fingers for the night, I was amused to watch an old black-and-white short film featuring the droll essayist Robert Benchley talking about—what else?—insomnia.
Understand that my sister and I used to take turns when we were young reading Benchley’s essays to each other (and James Thurber, too). Benchley was also born in my home town of Worcester. So I was obliged to watch (at 12:15 a.m.).
The film, How to Sleep, released by MGM in 1935, features Benchley explaining all the ways we do everything but go to sleep—transitioning from a mug of warm milk to a feast of leftovers; getting up for that glass of water to quench our thirst, and another, and another; swatting at mosquitos; and fixing the flapping blinds only to trip on the way back to bed. He failed to mention all the journeys to the bathroom, but then again, it was 1935 and such things weren’t discussed in polite company.
Benchley also demonstrates all the contortions that the sleeper goes through during the night—parodying a study by the Mellon Institute about sleep patterns that was commissioned by the Simmons Mattress Company. This, apparently, was the inspiration for the film, which won an Academy Award and is Benchley’s most famous short feature. Simmons Mattress, however, was not amused.
I shut off the TV and went to bed, feeling lighthearted. But, of course, all it takes is a comedy shtick on insomnia to make me more self-conscious of how I wasn’t falling asleep. I tossed. I turned. I couldn’t shut off my brain. Al was snoring. I shoved him. He stopped and then snored some more.
Finally, around 2:00 a.m., as snow plows once again rumbled down our street, I went downstairs to read. I picked up an art book and was transported to 17th century Spain. A different part of my brain, the visual rather than word-intensive side, took over. By the time I went back to bed, I had finally enabled my busy mind to unclench, and I went to sleep.
Five hours isn’t really enough for a very full day, but I made it. And the one good thing about a bad night’s sleep—odds are much better that I’ll sleep soundly the next. As long as TCM isn’t showing another good flick that will keep me up way past my bedtime.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.