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Sleepless in the Suburbs

To go to sleep with your anger means to think things over, to give a dispute some time to sort and settle before making what may be a rash move. It can also mean to bank to fire of your anger and see if it dies down and goes out. Charles Burnett used a version of this southern proverb as the title of his wonderful 1990 film “To Sleep with Anger” starring Danny Glover.

In Burnett’s story, a Los Angeles family is disrupted by the reappearance of a long lost friend. The opening titles of the film depict the father, Gideon (Paul Butler), sitting on a chair, waiting patiently for something; it’s not clear what, next to a table with a bowl of fruit on it. In the background, someone is singing “Precious Memories.”

As Gideon twiddles his thumbs, we see the bowl of fruit burst into flames. Then flames creep up the legs of the table, and steal around Gideon’s shoes. He shows no sign of awareness, since in fact only we can see the flames, but as the movie unfolds, we realize that Gideon’s anger isn’t asleep, and it will consume him, whether he wakes up to it or not. It’s Old Harry Mention, knocking on the door after 30 years absence, bringing his Mississippi ways and all kinds of memories that people would prefer to forget, who prods in just the right places and causes the family to explode. Harry’s got to go in the interests of family peace, and depart he does in a most unexpected way.

It would not seem a good idea to sleep with anger, but putting it aside is trickier than the sleep advice books make it sound. I’ve had what sleep experts term chronic insomnia (more than a few bad nights a week) for more than a decade, and if I could get rid of whatever it is that’s keeping me awake as easily as Gideon’s family gets shut of Harry, I’d convert to whatever religion or philosophy any old healer demanded.

The list of remedies that I’ve tried ranges from the familiar home cures, like warm milk, vitamins, and hot cider vinegar baths, through so-called alternative practices such as Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Behavior modification and stress reduction like exercise, meditation and rearranging my bedroom and bedtime habits helped a bit. I’ve traveled the rocky road from over-the-counter medicines to prescription drugs. Nothing has worked for more than a short time. The only things I haven’t tried are hormone therapy and exorcism, and those two are out for safety reasons.

As extreme as it sounds, my night of the living dead scenario isn’t unusual. Chronic insomnia occurs among about 35 million people in the United States and has given rise to an enormous sleep therapy, sleeping pill and sleep advice industry. In 1999, 56 percent of adults surveyed by a Harris poll reported more than occasional trouble sleeping. Women are twice as likely to be insomniacs as men, and one-fourth of people over age 65 are up for a lot of the night, according to Sleep Medicine Associates of Texas.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to point out that women carry a huge load of family as well as job stress; they have less cultural permission to unload their anger. It seems fairly obvious that older people are vulnerable to extra worries and loneliness. Less attention has been paid to the connections between work and sleeplessness, but some recent studies show that good sleep declines sharply as the work week exceeds 40 hours.

In this country, where the 40 hour week is a dream from the 1950s, an OSHA study of 40,000 industrial shift workers (night workers) showed they are especially sleep-deprived: 77 percent get six hours or less of sleep in a workday; 44 percent sleep less than five hours in every 24. I’d imagine that this is due to the double shift of home and family, as well as the inability to control hours of work. People on rotating shifts often have their body rhythms badly disrupted and find they can’t conk out even when they need to.

Increasingly, OSHA sees sleep deprivation as a safety risk on the job, but it’s a mental health problem, too. Doctors think that insomnia can be caused by depression and anxiety, but they also know that depression and anxiety are often caused by insomnia. In other words, you might be sleepless because you’re unhappy, but being sleepless can make you seriously miserable and, as torturers the world over know, cause suicidal thoughts and hallucinations.

The Buddhists claim that it’s wrongheaded to fight insomnia. If wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be, and that’s wide awake at 2 AM, that’s fine, and you should just go with it. The problem with this is that the true insomniac isn’t really awake; she’s only half awake and groggy. So if I tried to take advantage of the small hours to do something constructive, like writing or cooking or gardening, my chances of success would be small. There was the time I tried to bake a cake at 3 AM. I got it into the oven, and nodded off, waking up just in time to greet the fire department. Safer to sit on the back porch and try to learn night bird calls and constellations.

The other problem is exhaustion and inefficiency. Buddhists apparently don’t have to be alert during the day time, but I do. From time to time I come up with a new nonmedical, nonpsychiatric solution to the problem. The main point is to become really, really bored. Back before I had cable I used to watch old U-Boat movies on a scratchy black and white screen, and they always put me under. Now things are too exciting, or more precisely, too clear and threatening in the cable universe.

For a while, an excellent history of the relationship between the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party served as the perfect soporific. It was written with such care, and the subject was so predictable, that I went under in less than two pages. It took me years to finish that book. Right now, what’s working is to read the Nation magazine without my glasses. The combination of the Nation’s fuzzy ideas and my farsightedness is perfect. The brain works hard on a puzzle that is unsolvable — what do these sentences say and why would anyone write them? Until it gives up. Since I can’t understand it, it can’t make me angry, and I can go to sleep. See Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep with Anger”. It has a star turn by Jimmy Witherspoon, and it’s terrific.

Susan Davis teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana and is the author of Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, published by the University of California Press.

She can be reached at: counterpunch@counterpunch.org

Today’s Other Features:

Susan Davis
Sleepless in the Suburbs
Curing Insomnia: a new use for The Nation?

George Sunderland
“Send in the Weekly
Standard”: The Screaming Pundits Assault Corps

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