Counting Sheep

Oh hey, 3:12 AM. I wish I could say it was nice to see you, but, of course, it’s not. I wish you and your pals 2:41 AM and 4:05 AM would leave me alone, but since you won’t—and haven’t for what, fifteen years?—we might as well run through The List. Shall I start with Shoulda, Coulda, or Woulda?

I’ve struggled with insomnia for years, and not the good kind. For a writer, the good kind of insomnia is when she wakes up from whatever decent sleep she’s gotten, moves gently to her writing desk, and, filled with star-dusted insights, spends however many wakeful hours in the middle of night spinning ideas into useful passages. I have the bad kind of insomnia—I call it Demon Visits—in which I awaken abruptly with some horrible earworm of a pop song in my mind, such as this 1993 ditty by Los Del Rio:

Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena
Que tu cuerpo es pa’ darle alegria cosa buena
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria, Macarena
Hey Macarena

A song like this can be used as a jackhammer, digging a tunnel straight to my amygdala—the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety. And in fact, it is the preferred entry point for the demon-thoughts, the aforementioned Shoulda, Coulda, and Woulda. They’re like Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” in Macbeth or the Fates in Greek Mythology: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They shuffle around my sleepy head and gather all the worries and regrets and disappointments they can find.

“Did you write that thank-you note? And did you buy cat food?”

“Don’t you think you were a little terse during that conversation?”

“You should write more thank-you notes.”

“Why do you hate the cat?”

“Do you really think the idea for your next book is any good?”

No, but I will. I was and I feel terrible about it. I know. She hates me more. Probably not.

My last four nights.

















This has been going on for so long that I can’t recall a night of really restful sleep. I’ve tried everything imaginable: melatonin, prescription sleep aids, herbal sleep aids, guided meditations, acupuncture, proper sleep “hygiene”, hot baths and cold rooms. For the past decade, I’ve mostly relied on diphenhydramine in doses high enough to tranquilize a very large man. I quit cold turkey two months ago, however, when a physician friend told me that daily use could lead to early Alzheimer’s.

Last week, I started working with a neuropsychologist who administers Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress resulting from disturbing life experiences. Often used with combat veterans and victims of violence, studies have found that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms after only six 50-minute EMDR sessions. We’re hopeful that it will as well work for my insomnia.

I did my second session yesterday, and last night, when 3:12 AM shook me out of sleep, I noticed that the demon-thoughts weren’t worming into my consciousness as they typically do. In fact, aside from being awake, I felt rather peaceful. Perhaps I should count sheep. Counting sheep! What a lovely, calm way to lull myself back to slumber.

One. Two. Three. Oh look at number four: such long eyelashes. She is smaller than the others; it takes her two tries to clear the wooden fence. The fence is sturdy. I wonder who made it? Five. Six. Seven looks impatient, waiting in line. His wooly back is twitching. From the cold? Or does he have fleas? Oh, wow: look at all of them lined up like that. Where did they come from? The fog is low—are we in New Zealand? I have cousins in Dunedin. They’ve invited us to visit. We should visit them, but New Zealand is really far away. Eight, nine, ten. These sheep don’t look pleased to have been summoned to my Demon Visit. Maybe I should dismiss them. Wait, this is starting to feel like I’m writing a novel. This is exactly what it feels like. OK, quit it. Just count the damn sheep and go back to sleep. Number eleven glares at me, then jumps over the sturdy fence dividing the foggy meadow with the aplomb of an astronaut. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Then number fifteen, whose curled horns looked uncomfortably heavy, simply walks around the fence instead of going over it. Sixteen bleats to the others, “Hit it!” And in rousing unison, they all begin to sing:

Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena…