by Larkin Vonalt


The clock ticks over another minute. Thoughts spin round creakily like a hamster on its squeaky wheel. Fold the pillow, rearrange the blankets. Next to you your spouse sleeps peacefully. 3 a.m. Count sheep, count former lovers, count days left. Doze for a minute or two. 3:20 a.m. Get up. Check Facebook. Open the refrigerator door and peer in. Leftover pizza– ooh, chicken, bacon and spinach on white sauce, your favorite. Put a slice in the microwave. Eat the limp slice of pizza. Drink a glass of water. Brush teeth. Trundle back to bed. 4:16 a.m. Sigh. Turn over on your other side. Practice breathing. Think about your father, the bill you forgot to pay, the thing you said that time. Just as the sky begins to lighten in the east, sleep overtakes you at last. And then it’s time to get up.

We can’t fall asleep. Well, of course we do eventually lose consciousness, having worked until we’re bleary-eyed, or driven in straight-through from San Antonio, or had enough cocktails to fell a small horse. But we aren’t sleeping easily or well. 70 million people in the United States are believed to be afflicted with sleep troubles, generating some 43 million prescriptions for five billion dollars in sleep aids.

In 2006, when Lunesta first appeared on the market, people were so seduced by the lurid green butterfly floating across their television screen (promising them the good night’s sleep they deserved) it more than doubled the amount of money Americans spent on sleeping pills. One physician,David Claman, director of the UCSF sleep disorders center, told the San Francisco Chronicle “In the 12 years I’ve been in practice, this was the only time I’ve had a line of people out the door waiting to try a medicine.”

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that including health care costs we spend $14 billion dollars a year trying to fall asleep. When you add in indirect costs like loss productivity and property damage (i.e. from accidents caused by the sleep impaired) the number shoots to more than $35 billion dollars. Ad Age reports that the current recession has not affected the sales of sleeping pills (or antidepressants.)

43 percent of people aged 13 to 64 report that they rarely or never get “a good night’s sleep,” and 63 percent of American adults believe that their sleep needs are not adequately met during the week.  Between 2000 and 2004, prescriptions for hypnotics for individuals age 20 to 44 doubled and those for children age 10 to 19 increased by 85 percent.

We’re really in a state here, aren’t we?

The ability to transition from a busy day into a state of restful sleep is for many people a lifelong challenge, and trying to get children to fall asleep (and children arriving in your room wanting another story, a drink of water or the eviction of the monster from under the bed) contributes to our bedtime woes.

Nowhere has this been more humorously illustrated than in last year’s smash hit of Go the Fuck to Sleep, a children’s book for adults, written by Adam Mansbach, which reached number one on’s bestseller list  a month before it had even been published. (An email link sent to booksellers in advance of the book went “viral,” because anyone who has ever tried to get a toddler to go to sleep felt resonance with the book. The combined “hits” on YouTube for readings by Samuel L. Jackson or Werner Herzog are at 1.4 million.)

When my own son was an infant, he suffered from colic. Night after night, he wailed. My mother was staying with us and the three adults took turns walking the floor with him. I remember feeling asleep on my feet, it was all so exhausting. Then one night I put on some music and he stopped crying. Within a few minutes he’d settled down and fallen asleep.  It was a Billie Holiday record and over the next few days, we discovered that the child could be soothed and eased into sleep by Billie Holiday and nothing else.

I wonder if it would work now, as that baby boy is 17 years old, and he still doesn’t sleep much. I can hear him moving around in his room, listening to music or talking on the  phone. On mornings where he doesn’t have to get up, we won’t see him until noon at the earliest. At least we don’t have to walk the floor with him anymore.

It’s hard to put away your toys and go to bed. (And conversely, once we do fall asleep, it’s hard to stir out of that cozy and warm bed and face the day.)  But we need the sleep. That suspended sensory activity creates a heightened anabolic state which allows for the growth and rejuvenation of the immune, skeletal, muscular and central nervous systems. Many migraine sufferers find relief in a sleep state, and conversely  numerous studies show that wound healing is significantly slowed in the sleep deprived. A very rare and terrible inherited condition called “Fatal Familial Insomnia” has cruelly demonstrated that  we cannot survive without sleep.

While it is difficult to shift from the constant forward motion of our days to a good night’s sleep, anxiety is one of insidious components of insomnia that plagues us day and night. Not necessarily clinical anxiety, just the regular day-to-day worries can keep you awake. For instance, the number of people seeking assistance with insomnia jumped dramatically after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

When we are asleep we are vulnerable. We are not in control of the situation that surrounds us. We must be willing to let go and let nature take its course. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have faith that you will wake up again. People do die in their sleep. My own mother-in-law sat down for a nap in her recliner after a nice breakfast with her daughter, fell asleep and died so quietly that no one knew until they went to wake her. She was 94, but it can happen to people of any age. Every new parent knows the anxiety that lurks in the spectre of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Or pity the poor man or woman who awakes to find their spouse’s body cooling next to them. Each year 38,000 people die from sleep apnea. No wonder we’re reluctant to let go.

As a child I used to recite a bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Well, honestly, I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she taught me this. We didn’t go to church on Sunday, we went to dog shows. The message I got from this little ritual was not “God will look after me no matter what” but “I could die before I wake up.” (I’ve noticed on a recent recording that the prayer’s been adjusted to the less worrying “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, Thy Love go with me through the night and wake me with the morning light.” ) But it was the prayer she’d been taught as a child and she simply handed it down. I counter-acted this by saying this little five-word spell  to my parents every single night “See you in the morning.”  I didn’t teach the bedtime prayer to my son, but I noticed that after my father died that he added that same promise each night before he went to bed. See you in the morning.

In addition to bedtime prayers, most of us had sleep rituals as children. We would put away our toys and start winding down for the day. We’d have a bath and put on our pajamas. We’d be tucked into bed. Perhaps there would be a story. I started thinking about this one night when the hamster wheel was going around and around in my head while I was struggling to get to sleep.

We pack our days full. An estimated 95 percent of us engage in some kind of electronic stimulation in the hour before bed– television, computer, cell phone, and sometimes we bring that stuff to bed too. We fall into bed exhausted, our brains still feverishly working on whatever dilemmas we faced in our waking hours. No wonder we aren’t falling asleep. Though my husband can fall asleep anywhere, he was game to try the experiment I suggested.

We cleared our bedroom of accumulated junk, books and newspapers stacked next to the bed, clothes left across a chair and never put away, things stuck in the room because we had no other place to put them. I cleared all the surfaces and put a vase of fresh flowers on a dresser. I made a point to actually pull together a complete set of sheets, lovely Egyptian cotton the color of hope. The bed was made up with the precision of hospital staff. (That would be my husband, I’ve never been any good with corners.)

We chose midnight as our bedtime. It might not be optimum, but it was realistic given our habits. An hour before bed we turned off the television and the computer. (Harder than you might think.) We put the phones on the charger and left them there.

Night-clothes were laid out on the bed. One of us brewed green tea. We had showers and put on our jammies and sat in bed together drinking our tea. We talked, but we agreed that we would not talk about the problems that had beset us during the day, whether in our own household or in the wider world of news and politics. We were gentle and quiet with each other. Occasionally we read, but again, we tried to choose carefully; a biography of John Wooden or a well-loved novel. No controversy, and no despair. Sometimes there was soothing music. Sometimes I had to make a conscious effort to settle my thoughts, but having the hour of bedtime preparation really helped. Occasionally I’d use breathing exercises to relax. The end result? We fell asleep. We slept well. We awoke in the morning refreshed and energized.

Then the inevitable happened. We got busy with other projects. We started using every last minute until the one where we fell into bed. Elmer started dozing off in front of the television. I started staying up all night writing. The room filled up with more stuff. The tea stayed in the cupboard. I was going to bed as my husband was getting up. (And I have to say I’m not beset with insomnia now, but only because I’m exhausted. I’m running on afterburners. When I wake up again, it might be three or four in the afternoon. And that’s no way to live.)

So to ring in the New Year, we are turning off the television at eleven. We are clearing our bedroom of accumulated junk, books and newspapers stacked next to the bed, clothes left across a chair and never put away, things stuck in the room because we had no other place to put them. Surfaces will be cleared and polished and there will be flowers again, and Egyptian cotton sheets the color of– spring. Maybe I’ll buy myself new pajamas. Santa brought a glass teapot and flowering tea with which to close the day. We will make an effort to be kind and gentle with each other for at least that last hour of the day. Thy love go with me through the night and wake me with the morning light.