30 Oct., 2020

Originally published pseudonymously

“You say you want more sleeping pills?”                                                         


“But the ones I gave you last week are very strong.”

“They don’t work any more.”

              ~The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

In The Bell Jar, Esther claims not to have slept for eleven days, which her mother tells her is impossible—she must have napped at some point. Thanks for the sympathy, Mom. Later she tells her psychiatrist she has not slept for 28 days. This would be an all-time record, if it were true.

The response is a prescription for electro-shock therapy.

I wonder what I’d do if I were offered electro-shock—or more correctly, “electro-convulsive” therapy?—which by the way, looks nothing like it does in the movies. They give you drugs to relax you, and cause a paralysis, like sleep paralysis, so even while your brain seizes, it doesn’t translate into your body going into convulsions—that is, random, spastic movements. You just lie there. And you are unconscious the entire time, as you would be for surgery. Not that I’ve done research, or anything.

At any rate, I do not know what kind of success ECT has had with intractable insomnia, because it doesn’t seem to have been used on a wide enough scale, that there are studies, but if someone could show me evidence, of the controlled, double-blind type, that ECT helped insomnia, I’d be banging on the doors to try it.

I have not slept more than 5 hours a night for six weeks now, and at least once a week, I’ve gone an entire night without sleeping. The 8-10 hour night of “catching up” sleep sometimes I get during extended bouts of insomnia hasn’t happened in a long time, either.

In The Bell Jar, ECT works for Esther. There are textual hints that she goes on to have a future, which includes a baby. In real life, the author, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide very shortly after the book’s publication.

People cluck and say, well she was depressed, or bipolar, or whatever, obviously, we can see from the book.

Sure. She also couldn’t sleep.

The more carefully I read the book, the more it appears to me that while she had a few things crash down around her, and no one to help—her mother is there, and seems caring, albeit, she has no idea what to do, and much of what she does ends up being worse than nothing, as it just contributes to Esther’s feelings of failure—anyway, nothing that happens to Esther initially is insurmountable, but they interfere with her sleep. And there her troubles begin.

I don’t know what Plath thought. I don’t know what her doctors told her. But my take on the book is that insomnia drove her crazy. Wouldn’t 28 days of sleep deprivation make you crazy? Even if you were getting an occasional nap, and a few hours of sleep every other night? if it were never enough, how would you be doing? Ready to stick your head in the oven?

It is just after midnight on Friday morning. I slept 1 hour, 51 minutes between 6pm and 11pm last night. I have been up since. I’m forcing myself to sit at the computer, but I really feel like going for a walk, or a ride on my bike. It’s very wet out from having rained all day, and besides, my dog is deep in that kind of dog dream where they whimper a little and paw at the air. I don’t want to wake her. I also don’t want to go out alone at this hour.

I am going to take some more rapid release melatonin, and half an Ambien, and see what happens.


That was a good call.

It is now a little after 3. Sleeping nearly three hours at once is the Holy Grail for me these days. I think I’m up for the day, but I feel good. I feel rested. I don’t remember dreaming anything, but I still may have, because I feel very alert. I have an appointment just down the road at 7:30am, which I can either walk or bike to, and I can get a walk with my dog in before that.

I will have to walk the dog in the dark, which I don’t mind, but I’m not sure how good it is for her. I have a feeling that she should be out in daylight at some point. But I like exercising her before I leave her alone. So Instead of a 2-3 miles walk, we’ll just go a mile or so, and then in the afternoon, we can go out again.

Exercise wakes me up if I’m still a little drowsy—a little itchy-eyed and tight-muscled. As it is, I feel good right now. I actually feel like breakfast.

And reading a little more of The Bell Jar. Maybe I’ll go back to the beginning, and read it through again. I haven’t read the whole thing in years. The first time I read it, I was in high school, I think—it might have been the summer after high school, making me a year younger than Esther. This would be the same summer I read Gone with the Wind, which I also liked, but have never read again. I have returned to The Bell Jar a number of times, so something in it speaks to me.

I’ve never had food poisoning in an hotel with a large group of women, and only two bathrooms, and I didn’t end up in the emergency room, hemorrhaging, the night I lost my virginity. I did once have Esther’s experience of transferring from an elite class to an ordinary one, and discovering the “regular” people have to work harder than the “gifted” ones.

In high school, I started out in the Honors English program. We spent a lot of time going around the room talking about our ambitions, our hobbies, and what we’d had for breakfast that day. We had quizzes where everyone in the class made up one of the questions. We sat around giving one another back-rubs, while the teacher read impromptu essays we’d written on a topic on our choice. Mike always wrote explicitly about sex, and his essays had to be redacted if they were read aloud. I assumed he was lying.

First, you have to understand that my school had “tracking.” We didn’t just have Honors, and everybody else. There were four levels: Honors, Academic, Standard, and Remedial. Both Honors and Academic were considered college-bound. You just didn’t get the “Honors” stamp on your Academic diploma.

I didn’t like the teacher in the Honors freshman class, and I did, very much, like the teacher who was teaching the Academic sophomore class: she was the teacher I’d had for drama my freshman year, and she was the best teacher I’d ever had in all of my public schooling. So I went to my counselor, and requested to be transferred from Honors to Academic.

Wow, did we work in Academic. No essays on topics of our choice. We wrote essays on the theme of the literary work we were reading, which was assigned departmentally. We never sat around and discussed ourselves. There was no time for back-rubs. We were diagramming sentences. We had spelling tests.

I got an A in Academic English, and never once regretted leaving the Honors program. I learned things that year. I had that teacher for two years of English, because I had her again my junior year, and I had her for four years of drama. I was in plays, so I saw her at rehearsals. The day after graduation exercises, when I showed up for end of the year clean-up of the theater, she had a gift for me: she gave me the bracelet that her drama teacher had given her, when she graduated from high school.

Nope. Not one regret.

Esther starts losing sleep when she figures out that the world isn’t going to be like her Honors college program. I started losing sleep about a year after I left the Honors English program. There were more things I learned that year than just that life wasn’t like an Honors English program.

I learned that I’d outgrown precocity. When I was five, it was adorable that I could count to ten in five different languages, and knew not just the name of the president, but the vice-president, secretary of state, and attorney general. I could recite the alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Greek alphabet. Just precious and delightful in the host’s 5-year-old daughter. Sorta cute still in a 10-year-old. But no one cares if a 15-year-old can do those things. No one cares what a 15-year-old can do, even if you can recite an entire Shakespeare play from memory (really), juggle knives (really), or solve a Rubik’s cube (really). Another reason not to stay in Honors English: no one but your parents cares.

I don’t think there’s a direct line between becoming invisible as a teenager, and the onset of insomnia. If the insomnia has anything to do with being a teenager, it probably has to do with hormones. But I don’t suppose the general attitude adults have toward teenagers helped. I’ve never forgotten that feeling, and always make a point of treating teenagers as individuals, not representatives of a class, much less an undesirable one. And have met some interesting people for it.

Yes. It’s time to read The Bell Jar again.

Published by Chava Freya

Insomnia is a brain-based disorder I’ve had since I was at least 16 years old. Anti-anxiety medicine doesn’t help, except when there’s external anxiety exacerbating the problem. Sleep hygiene is irrelevant, because it’s not the problem, although I have submitted to it five different times, including having sleep specialists actually come to my home and advise me on rearranging furniture, buying special pillows, forbidding TVs in the bedroom, telling me the bed was for nothing but sleep, sex and reading, and when that didn’t work, then nothing but sleep. Period. That was the biggest failure of all.

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