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‘Wired’ Americans Wrestle With Sleepless Nights

December 4, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Guest essayist Julia Keller from the Chicago Tribune reflects on why Americans have so much trouble getting a good night's sleep.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, guest essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune looks at the quest for a good night’s sleep.

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist: Let me guess: You didn’t sleep very well last night. You worried about the jobs, the mortgage, the marriage. You turned, and you twisted, and you punched your pillow with a weary fist, hoping to squash it into a shape more conducive to that blessed nocturnal tonic called sleep.

We live in the age of insomnia. Sleeplessness has been around for centuries, but apparently it’s getting a whole lot worse, and it was getting that way long before today’s economic blues.

Almost 60 percent of us, according to recent studies, say we’re having real trouble just getting a decent night’s sleep.

Those television pitches for sleeping pills, like the one with the glowing butterfly looping happily across an indigo sky, are everywhere, along with ads for remedies to treat sleep-slaying maladies, such as restless leg syndrome. The makers of those drugs spent over $500 million in advertising last year.

And then there are the sleep labs. First established in 1977, these places with their sterile beds, and their electrodes, and their observation windows have multiplied like the books on an insomniac’s nightstand.

There are now about 3,300 of them across the country, all intent on getting to the bottom of a good night’s sleep. But why should we need pills or people in white coats to help us achieve that most natural of states?

Well, for one thing, we live in a 24/7 world now, a wired environment with an endless news cycle and round-the-clock access to an international marketplace. Your BlackBerry doesn’t shut off at sundown. Your Internet account doesn’t call it quits after midnight. So why should you?

And after spending the day guzzling lattes and slamming colas, it’s little wonder that when you’re finally ready to rest your brain puts up a fight.

But insomnia is a tricky target, because when we’re not busy complaining about it, we’re busy kissing up to it. Bragging about how little sleep you got the night before is a matter of macho pride. It shows seriousness; it demonstrates dedication.

Among the biographical tidbits that students learn about Thomas Edison is how little sleep he required. The implication is clear: If he had gone to bed at a decent hour, he would have snoozed right through the invention of the light bulb, somebody else’s invention, that is.

Sleep equals weakness, laziness, lack of purpose and resolve. Sleep, according to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is for wimps. Bill Gates didn’t nap his way into creating Microsoft. Visionaries are expected to pull all-nighters. Being asleep is equated with carelessness, with missing signals.

That’s why, when a momentous event occurs, we term it a “wake-up call.” Nobody wants to be “asleep at the switch.” Insomnia is woven into our culture like a stitch repeated in a quilt.

In her book, “Sleepless Nights,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of New Yorkers and “their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors, divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable, and the unattainable.”

And Thomas Wolfe turned insomnia into poetry. “Long, long into the night I lay awake, wondering how I should tell my story.”

With the advent of artificial lightning, brought to us by, among others, that notorious insomniac, Mr. Edison, natural cycles of sleep and waking were disrupted, and we’ve been tossing and turning ever since.

And yet there’s still a part of us that seems to revel in our restlessness, so maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the cultural conundrum. We hate insomnia, except when we love it.

I’m Julia Keller.