Let’s Sleep on it

Gayle GreeneGayle Greene, professor of English at Scripps, took a break from the world of memoir and Shakespeare to write a tale of personal experience. Insomniac, released in March 2008, is a first-person account that combines narrative with scientific investigation to detail the reality of living as a writer with insomnia.

“People are always saying to me, ‘No wonder you get so much done,'” Greene says. “Wrong. I get stuff done in spite of insomnia, not because of it—and because I cut a lot of other things out of my life. Insomnia doesn’t give me more time, it gives me less.”

Sleep deprivation, says Greene, wreaks havoc on hormonal functioning, raises levels of stress hormones, diminishes growth hormone, and promotes insulin resistance. It increases appetite and impairs immune function, memory, and motor coordination. Insomniacs are at risk for diabetes, obesity, and other age-related illnesses. “It makes you old before your time,” she warns.

Yet despite the ailments associated with insomnia, most insomniacs never consult a doctor about their condition. Greene believes this is because doctors rarely take insomnia seriously. The first doctor she consulted—her own father—told her to lie still and relax and she’d become sleepy. (“Half a century later, it’s never happened,” she says.) Indeed, many doctors Greene spoke to pride themselves on how little sleep they themselves need, as their own medical training was an exercise in sleep deprivation. Consequently, insomniacs are told to “get a grip.”

Research suggests not all insomnia is caused by psychological upset, as doctors would have sufferers believe. In some cases, the condition is genetically based. Greene believes therapies should be individually targeted to specific insomnia problems, but admits that there’s a long road ahead before such an ideal could be reached. Currently, only $20 million is given to research a condition that afflicts as much as a third of the population, with most of that third consisting of women, the elderly, and the poor. “Sleep itself isn’t held in high regard in a 24/7 culture where ‘sleep is for the weak’ and ‘you snooze, you lose,'” Greene says.

Greene points out that it is impossible to function well over long periods of time when you’re consistently getting less sleep than you need. “Many of us resort to meds that can be dangerous—as testified by the recent death of Heath Ledger,” she says. She cautions that no sleep drug provides natural sleep, and all have undesirable side effects, on memory and coordination.

While the scientific details in Insomniac are eye-opening, the personal anecdotes are equally compelling. Greene describes how her condition drove her back to graduate school: she was fired from her only 9 to 5 job for being consistently late. She also lists techniques that have personally worked to combat her condition, such as watching a movie late at night or listening to books on tape when going to bed. “But it has to be very good writing, or I just get mad or bored,” she says. “And it has to be the right kind of story, interesting enough to engage the mind, but not so interesting that you want to stay awake to see how it comes out.”

Insomniac has received praise from psychology professors, doctors, and writers, including best-selling author Joyce Carol Oates and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. “The good news is that Gayle Greene’s book is all you ever need to read on the subject of sleeplessness,” said Collins. “The bad news for fellow insomniacs is that reading it—even in bed—will fail to lull you to sleep.”

Above: Professor Gayle Greene, in a rare moment. Her book, Insomniac, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. She has written an article on insomnia as a women’s issue for the April 2008 issue of Ms. Magazine.


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