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Sleepless in America

Making it Through the Night in a Wired World

By Mary Sykes Wylie


It's 3:00 a.m. Your eyes suddenly snap wide open and stare unblinking into the darkness. You try to remember the dream you were having, but it's gone, and anyway you're now as tightly tuned as a bowstring to the mysterious night noises of your house—pings, drips, rustles, hums, creaks—that send little electrical jolts zinging unpleasantly through your nervous system. You determine not to move, because that would be to admit you really are irrevocably awake. So you lie very, very still and clamp your eyes tightly shut again, though they fight back, quivering in the effort to reopen.

You're aware of a dull, inner pain in your lower left side, or up near your heart, or deep in your belly, or behind your right eye. How long have you had this pain? What does it mean? Cancer? Stroke? Heart attack? Just lie quietly, relax your muscles, breathe slowly from the diaphragm, watch your breath, you think to yourself. But your body doesn't want to lie still—a cascading series of itches, prickles, cramps, and aches build up to an unbearable restlessness.

So: roll over to the left, curl up into a fetal position, roll over to the right, stick one foot out from under the covers, roll back to center, straighten legs, bend legs, flex feet, stretch, yawn, scratch stomach, scratch upper back, rub eyes, drum fingers on covers, throw off covers, pull up covers, pound pillow, massage temples, crane head around to look at clock (3:13), try the breathing thing again.

By now, your hyperactive brain is in full gear, a gazillion neural networks churning out a kaleidoscopic vision of every awful moment of fear, loss, frustration, fury, humiliation, and failure you've ever had, going back to college, to 7th grade, to kindergarten. (Now is also a good time to relive the really grisly part of that horror movie you watched years ago, still lodged permanently somewhere between your amygdala and prefrontal cortex.)

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