After Friday’s post, I figured I’d write about something lighter, like dance parties or how it never rains here anymore, it just blows freezing wind and then snows in the middle of the night, sneakily. But then yesterday I was too tired to write and then I woke up in the middle of the night last night, tossing and turning, my sleep schedule thrown off from too many late nights dancing, and thought- what the heck? Why not just write about insomnia?
Insomnia is terrible. I’m defining it, here, as bad sleep, which is the way it’s technically defined- you don’t have to literally get NO sleep to have insomnia. And by the way, did you know that the world record for longest number of days without sleep (held by a seventeen year-old boy) is 11 days? So if anyone ever tells you that they’ve gone longer than that without sleeping at all, they’re lying.
All my growing-up life, I never had any problems with sleep. My sleep was a steadfast ship, sturdy and unfailing, a simple mechanical action like the turning of a bicycle wheel or the flipping of a light switch. And I slept a lot, all the way into my twenties- I needed nine hours a night, most nights, but ten was ideal. Any less than nine and I felt sort of half-baked, angry and raw, as if I’d been thrust, against my will, into a harsh and hostile future. It felt as if the world had been derailed. These half-slept days were infrequent and unpleasant, and I passed them as a sort of hostage, impatient for the night to come so I could start the world over again.
But you know what they say- as we age, our bodies become less resilient, less willing to put up with the shit we throw at them- bad diets, cheap mattresses, irregular bedtimes. They start to rebel- or else, they just start to fail. There are moments that mark these changings, whole seasons, times we look back on with regret, or maybe just an overwhelming sense of inevitability. For me, the summer that changed everything was the summer I got scabies.
Not many people, anymore, know what scabies is. The little creatures have been burrowing into human beings at least since roman times, but in this cheap western world of obsessive chemical warfare against micro-organisms, you’d be hard pressed to find a living scabie anywhere. And indeed, if you, like the average American, scrub yourself raw twice daily with scalding hot chemicals and wash your clothes every four hours in the same, you will never, ever get scabies. I can promise you this.
And so no-one gets scabies anymore and the western doctors have forgotten what scabies even is, and they do not know how to test for it (although the tests are very simple) and they do not know what it looks like (although it looks very unique)- but then, since when do western doctors know anything at all about anything but the stupid crap they picked up from a pharmaceutical ad in People magazine? (But that is a whole other book, or discussion board, or set of encyclopedias, or Molotov cocktail.)
No-one gets scabies. No-one who showers every day and changes their clothes every five minutes. And who, among the great and teeming people of this nation, doesn’t shower every day? Who wears the same clothes four days in a row?
Homeless folks, is who. Homeless folks, and crusty punks.
I was twenty-one years old, and I was a crusty punk. I lived in a house with other crusty punks. I rode freight trains to Texas, and busses into Central America, and traveled for three months, with my best friend at the time, who was also a crusty punk. We slept in the same bed together on our travels, shared clothes, gathered mangos, hitch-hiked with indigenous folks in trucks full of white rice, leaned our heads on each others’ shoulders as our refrigerator bus rolled north through Mexico, rationing our pesos so we would make it back to the US border. What I didn’t know at the time, is that my friend had scabies. She’d had a mysterious skin problem for months now, and had gone to the doctor about it, again and again. The doctor had been bewildered, throwing up his hands, handing her a bottle of eczema cream. She’d rubbed the cream on every day, bought an expensive bottle of neem oil, stopped eating wheat. The itch hadn’t gone away, and so she’d resigned herself to a life of long baths and red, irritated wrists.
Scabies takes up to six weeks to show symptoms, the first time you get it. After our trip to Central America, another friend and I hitch-hiked to Alaska. It was mid-summer, and I got a job at a cannery in Kenai, while the friend flew to Bristol Bay to fish. I shared an apartment with a sixteen year-old girl, paid for by the company. We worked in the egg room together, folding salmon roe with origami-like precision into plastic tubs for the Japanese. Our bosses spoke no English and listened to Mariah Carey and Abba, and gave us cash to buy giant bags of fun-sized candy bars that we ate while we worked. I drank watery coffee in Styrofoam cups, made quinoa on my tiny propane stove, and sometimes I would walk into town to shoplift almond butter and lift weights at the community center, with the high-school football players and their gum-snapping girlfriends. I’d camped in the woods outside of town for two weeks while I waited to get the job, in a small tent crammed full of my books, sleeping bag, and my fiddle in its bulky black case. The fiddle had been stolen one day while I was in town, and I hadn’t even noticed it was missing until a week later, when I packed up my tent to move into the employee housing. But that was the only thing that had gone wrong, and life felt easy and good, and full of adventure, and strange and wonderful and endless.
And then I started to itch.
It was my forearms first, and I peeled off the yellow gloves I used to handle the roe, thinking I was somehow allergic to them. The itch persisted, and I wondered what in the world I could be reacting to. Was I allergic to the eggs, somehow? Was it the sodium nitrate we added to the broth when they were pickling? I scratched my forearms, worried, and then shrugged. The cannery job would be over soon enough, I would fly back to Portland, the itch would go away.
The itch spread to other parts of my body. Across my chest, down my legs. During the day it was a faded, half-way itch, and then as soon as evening hit, BLAM! It was like I’d rolled, naked, in a field of poison oak. It kept me up all hours of the night- the itch, the scratching of the itch, the anticipation of the itch, the anxiety about what on earth could be causing the itch. I started to dread the evenings, the weakening sun, bedtime. I tossed and turned, I put a blanket over the window, I shoved earplugs into my ears. I scratched.
I couldn’t sleep.
In the dead of night, scabies burrow under the top layers of your skin, and lay eggs there. The eggs hatch in a few weeks, and your body has a fierce allergic reaction to them (hence the itching). The new babies then travel to other parts of your body, burrow in, and lay more eggs. Your skin tries to crawl away from itself.
By the time I flew back to Portland later that summer, I was a frazzled mess. My nerves felt raw and on edge, sudden noises echoed off my empty skull. I was jumpy and covered in bruises and red marks where I’d scratched myself in my sleep. I went to the doctor, bewildered.
The doctor had no idea what was wrong with me. So I went to the internet, sacred bastion of insomniacs, compulsive worriers, and good old-fashioned community medicine. It took me approximately four minutes to find out what was wrong with me- scabies. I had scabies! It was no mystery, it was a common occurrence- or at least, it used to be. There were pages and pages devoted to the little beast and its eradication, whole discussion boards where people described symptoms just like mine. With a sigh of relief, I went back to the doctor and demanded a prescription for the hardcore insecticide cream that is used to treat the little monsters. There is a kinder, gentler way to treat the infestation- only one, a treatment that the Romans used- for the “seven year itch”, as they called it – but I didn’t know that then. The doctor grudgingly wrote the prescription, eyeing me as if I might be out of my mind, for even suggesting that scabies still existed. I wanted to punch him.
Looking back now, I can say that the Permethrin cream I smeared all over my skin that night was the most intensely toxic onslaught of chemical poison I have ever subjected myself to. Permethrin, at the time, was one of two creams that were prescribed for scabies- the second one, Lindane, is currently banned in more than fifty countries due to toxicity. And Permethrin, in its own right, was no Gentle George- an intense pesticide neurotoxin in a carrier cream that paralyzed the little scabies and poisoned their eggs, the unlucky sufferer was to rub the stuff all over their body, from head to toe, and then go to sleep– and in the morning wash it all off in a nice hot shower. Studies have shown that the you absorb the stuff in the night, (duh), through your skin and into your bloodstream, and piss it out for days afterward. Not only that but the cream is so harsh it gives you a rash that itches even WORSE than the scabies did, and can last up to two weeks. No-one tells you this and you end up treating AGAIN, thinking you still have scabies. And you, by this time, are not the only one treating- because you’ve given it to friends, you’ve given it to lovers- and they’ve given it to friends and lovers- and the whole community is in a state of panic, scratching phantom itches and smearing on poison cream and unwilling, for the first time, to share bath towels.
But the cream is nothing, if not effective.
The mushroom cloud settles and in the morning there are only tangled sheets, red scratches on your body like track marks, all your laundry stuffed into black plastic trash bags. You’d gone to sleep covered in poison and you’d had the strangest dreams- you woke in a sort of stupor, with all the mixed emotions of a post-apocalyptic Christmas morning- are they dead? Are you dead? Who has won? Who has lost? You call your friends, who have all recently treated- you feel collectively stuffed up, dull-headed, half-awake. A week later you come down with the flu, and your housemate gets a respiratory infection. Your ex falls into a depression that last for months while they travel in Europe, despondent. What has happened?
And worst of all my sleep, my precious, precious sleep, my steadfast fortress of dreams, would never be the same.
It was like I had to learn how to walk all over again.
Most of my friends, by this time, had had a problem with sleep at one time or another. Either they’d stayed up all night in college, writing papers, or they drank a pot of coffee every day in a sort of self-induced mania because they were afraid of missing anything, or they’d already entered the very grown-up world of panic attacks and general run-of-the-mill anxiety, which kept them up late or woke them up early, like a sort of rooster than lived in their central nervous systems. I, however, with my flawless and infinite nights of pure and sacred blackness, had never experienced any of this. And so it was with immense horror that I combed the library for books with which to fix my newly broken sleep- my inability to go under in anything less than two hours, my waking up at dawn with a headful of bright, buzzing anxiety. Sleep had become a shy rabbit, startled by the slightest noise, sent running by the break of day. What I wanted was a sort of frying pan with which to knock the rabbit out- a blunt, mechanical object to send me back into my past. I wanted simple mechanics, a biology like a wind-up toy. Instead, what I found was a thing called “sleep hygiene”- all the ways in which the modern human, driven raw and anxious by a bright and toxic environment, can tweak their surroundings to make sleep come easier and stay longer. I was to trick the rabbit, I was to slowly gain its confidence. At which point I would tie a mask to its face, stuff earplugs in its ears, and we would both sleep normally again.
And so began the slow and steady accumulation of irritating (to others) sleep habits I carry with me to this day- no caffeine, very little chocolate, limited sugar, no alcohol, no gluten, a dark and heavy curtain- a thing to cover my eyes, barring that- whole handfuls of purple foam earplugs, which I have learned how to wash (in a pants pocket), a cup of chamomile tea next to the bed, to drink from, cold, when I wake up in the night to pee (once), a cold room, warm blankets, fish oil every day, magnesium (two) and calcium (one) in their citrate form, each night before bed- not staying up late more than one night a week, (reasonably) early to bed, no wifi late at night, rigorous exercise every day. I learned the rabbit’s habits almost obsessively- I slept better, I learned, outside rather than inside, in the woods as opposed to in the city, it the winter as opposed to the summer.
But even with my new arsenal with which to defend the fortress, all was not trouble-free in the land of rabbits. My sleep became a sort of smoke alarm, a varying meter by which I could measure my health in general, and, by extension, the rest of my life. Last year, in Herbal Medicine school, I learned an ancient Chinese proverb- “No sickness, short life- Many sicknesses, short life- One sickness, long life.” It means that those of us who suffer from just one thing- diabetes, migraines, insomnia- often learn a sort of constant maintenance, a way of living that keeps us above our given watermark of health- because if we fall below it, all hell breaks loose. And so in this way, I was fortunate- my light sleep had forced me, at last, to learn how to really take care of myself- to get to know my body and what it wanted, to finally listen to the things it had been screaming at me all these years. I had whole weeks of bad sleep, here and there, but they came and went like a head cold (which I never got) and responded well to my earplugs and rabbit-tricks. And so I compulsively regulated my sleep habits (I am a virgo, after all), and maintained a fragile sort of equilibrium, balancing, one-footed, on my narrow axis of health, praying that I would never fall off of it entirely.
But sometimes life just gets shitty, and you have no idea why.
I spent the winter of 07-08 living alone in a yurt on the Olympic peninsula of Washington, just me and some chickens and two hundred kale plants. It was an organic farm, and I was the caretaker. My friend Toby lived down the road, in an old farmhouse with a trapeze in the barn, and worked finishing window frames in an unheated storage unit. I had a job as a server at a restaurant in Port Townsend, and I spent the rest of my time writing, walking in the scratchy, pheasant-filled woods, and eating my weight in raw kale and duck eggs. It was heaven, and my sleep was like the effortless sleep of the dead- a bicycle wheel, a lightswitch, a sturdy ship. The rabbit was gone, I’d let it loose in the woods and the coyotes had eaten it. I made roaring fires in my woodstove and tried to write a (terrible) novel, about two queer kids who murder their craigslist ride, squat an abandoned farm, and finally have debaucherous sex with the wife of a famous country singer. Soon March was just around the corner, and the farmers were returning. I decided to enroll in a one-year Herbal Medicine course in Portland, where I hadn’t lived for more than a few months at a time in almost three years. I had decided that I had floated, directionless, on the great river of life for long enough- it was time, now, to stop this fanciful traveling-around living-in-the-woods riding-freight-trains business. It was time to go to school and study something meaningful like a normal adult, although my heart, quietly but insistently, rebelled against it. It’ll be fine, I said, the mountains quiet and dark around me, the sky a nighttime jello mold of crushed diamonds. It’ll be fine, I said, as the tide, four miles away, sucked at clams and washed-up deer bones. A week later I packed my jars of gluten-free flour into the trunk of my old Mercedes and motored south, renting an attic room in an old friend’s house and making up the little twin bed with my green plaid comforter, lining my shoes up against the wall.
At first, I was over stimulated. I hadn’t spent more than a week in the city in almost a year. And then BLAM! Back to civilization! And then there were the things that I missed- the quiet, the good clean air, the dark of night, the empty forest, the long walks in the winter mist, the clean spring water, the kale… and now my life had become this other thing- constant noise and streetlamps that wouldn’t shut off, a hot, stuffy bedroom, long hours in a cold, cramped room listening to incoherent lectures on traditional western herbalism, which I hated. And everywhere I went, there were people- must I always be around people? And dating- I had started to date someone- so now not even my nights were my own- and there were someone else’s emotional needs to tend to- there were EXPECTATIONS, insidious, inevitable expectations- clinging to me like a pack of angry kittens, scaling my legs with their needle-claws. And then one night I heard a knock on my bedroom door- I opened it, and looked down- it was the rabbit.
Having been on extended holiday, the rabbit was eager to make up for lost time. My sleep began to suffer- not a lot each night, but consistently- an hour here, a half-hour there- and each day it was like a sliver of the barrier between my nervous system and the rest of the world had been whittled away- until a month or two in, when finally it was just my nervous system- raw, exposed, unprotected- and the whole world became pain- light was pain, sound was pain, talking was pain, movement was pain. My ears constantly rang, my joints ached. I was forever forgetting tasks, walking into a room and not knowing why I was there. My head was filled with sand. I was a zombie. I listened to the same Dolly Parton record over and over, I had anxiety attacks nearly every day. I stopped calling friends, I hid away to lick my wounds, attempted to coax the rabbit into submission with my old bag of tricks.
And the worst part about it, the very worst part- well, I will get to that.
In the corner of my brain there lives a machine. A great and sturdy machine, which grows larger each passing year, from use and careful upkeep. It is the Magic Story Machine, and at peak form it churns out more metaphors than I can possibly use, scattering them across the floor like arcade tickets. It is from this machine that I get my story-telling power, and each night, while I sleep, the trusty dream-workers in my brain give this machine its nightly maintenance- pulling out the jammed paper, oiling the metal cogs, changing the magic toner.
And the very worst part about having insomnia is that the Magic Story Machine is maintained last (I do not know why this is)- after my body makes new cells, after my liver cleans my blood, after everything else is squared away- the Magic Story Machine is maintained last, in the very last half-hour, the very last fifteen minutes, the very last ten minutes of sleep- and so if I miss even that much sleep- even ten minutes of sleep- in the morning I will walk, groggy, to the machine, and attempt to switch it on- and there will be a sheet of notebook paper stuck to the screen with a piece of scotch-tape, and on the notebook paper will be the words
OUT OF ORDER.
Which, of course, makes me want to kill myself.
So the Magic Story Machine was perpetually broken, gathering dust, I had anxiety attacks on the daily, I hated herb school, I missed nature like an amputated leg, and I wanted to kill myself.
And add on top of that the secret fear, the very secretest of fears, the fear that I kept sequestered away in another corner of my brain, folded up in a manila envelope like an old newspaper clipping, stuffed into a file cabinet with a broken latch-
My mother was crazy, and I could wake up one day and be crazy too.
Was I going crazy?
Away I went to the land of books, anxiety buzzing like a swarm of bees inside my head, to crouch for hours on the cold concrete floor and flip through terrifying tomes on mental illnesses both familiar and fantastical- well, I knew what schizophrenia looked like, and I certainly didn’t have that- maybe I was Bi-polar? But I wasn’t manic, there was no up– I was just tired– infinitely, endlessly, achingly tired- and unable to rest. I looked under “Z” in the index, but there was no listing for “zombie”. Where was I? Where was I in all these books? Not crazy, then, at least in any measurable way. What then, was wrong with me? What did I need?
In an unparalleled act of bravery and fuck-it-all-itude, I decided to drop out of herb school, abandon my girlfriend, quit the restaurant job I had been lucky enough to find (I was terrible, anyway, and my coworkers always thought I was stoned- who ever heard of a server who can’t remember anything?) and move to the woods, where I had gotten a job as a cook- failing miserably at my plan to be a responsible adult and admitting to myself, finally, that there was only thing that made me feel happy and grounded- writing, and, barring that, nature.
My herb school was annoyed. I had been their work trader, and they had made me pinky swear that I would stay the whole year. The restaurant where I worked was going under, anyway, so that was no big deal. My girlfriend was so pissed she wrote about it in her zine (instead of telling me), which was her way. I felt sort of broken inside, as I gathered up the shards of this promise I had made to myself and the whole world, but for once I felt ready to acknowledge who I actually was, instead of just pretending I was going through some sort of perpetual phase, a phase I would grow out of, eventually. I admitted to myself the shocking truth- all I wanted to do was write. And anything that got in the way of that was as good as killing me. And if I couldn’t write now, at least I could go hide away in the woods, where I could set the rabbit free and sleep the mindless sleep of the dead, hiring back a whole team of steadfast dream-workers to pull the sandbags from my Magic Story Machine and reassemble its dusty parts.
And in the other corner of my brain, a filing cabinet opened, and a manila envelope dropped at my feet.
What if my insomnia never went away? What if I could never write again? What if I was doomed to live forever in this strange sort of endless hell, slogging through the infinite sandpits of non-consensual conciousness?
I took these things with me to the woods, a rabbit tucked under my sweater, crossing my fingers that the old cedars and endless nights would do their magic.
And, of course, they did. Within two weeks in the woods, on a strict diet of dark nights and fresh air and spring water, my insomnia was completely gone. I was finally sleeping enough. The ice-age had officially ended, and life started to creep back into me, day by day, like warmth back into a frostbit limb. A few weeks later, I started this blog.
And, well, you know the rest.