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Awake All Night in the Rocking Chair
Sleep and Insomnia

Awake All Night in the Rocking Chair
  • Yours for sleep (by )
  • The philosophy of sleep (by )
  • On Sleep and Sleeplessness (by )
  • Sleep and Sleeplessness (by )
  • The Witchery of Sleep (by )
  • Sleep and the sleepless : simple rules f... (by )
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The average human who sleeps for eight hours a day, sleeps 25 years in a 75-year life span. While we still don’t have hard biological reasoning for why we spend so much of our short lives sleeping, theories of physical and mental exhaustion are good enough for the lay. Speculation as to why some won’t or can’t sleep is more compelling. 

Sixteen year-old Randy Gardner awed the scientific community, in 1964, by setting the record for intentionally staying awake 11 consecutive days without any stimulants. At the end of the 11 days, whether by coincidence or his own accidental fortitude, he showed little detrimental, physical effects other than heavily slurred speech and general lethargy. He fully recovered in the following weeks with no lasting impact. Still others have taken the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” far too literally and actually stayed awake until they dropped dead.

The negative effects of lack of sleep have been documented for some time. Willard Moyer’s book The Witchery of Sleep—a curious and amazing compilation of sleep related essays and poems released in 1903—reads, “the loss of a single night’s sleep shows its effects on the nervous system in the exhaustion, drowsiness, irritability, mental disturbance, and digestive derangements which ensue.” Some people even equivocate missing one night’s sleep with a moderate level of drunkenness.

Insomnia is a general term for the common sleep disorder of sleeplessness, which has a range of causes, lengths, and physical effects. In Sleep and the Sleepless: Simple Rules for Overcoming Insomnia, Joseph Collins describes:

The unfortunate victim will begin the day under the shadow of doubt. Before it is yet noon, he will be obsessed with the idea that the coming night will not bring him sleep. Behind every thought, will lurk the fear that the hours of darkness must be spent in restless tossing. He will become haggard of face, wandering in attention, impatient in manner, hesitating in speech and bungling in mind. (p. 6)
Stranger anomalies have occurred, to the extent of full insomnia. American Al Herpin claimed to never sleep a day in his life, but instead “rested,”  often reading the paper in his rocking chair until sunrise. Vietnamese Thái Ngọc was said to have stayed awake for 47 years after a fever in 1973. Some thirty years into his insomnia, he said he felt “like a plant without water.”

Some defy it willingly, others unwillingly, and still others succumb to it pathologically. In Sleep and Its Derangements, William Alexander Hammond recounts:

Damiens, who attempted the assassination of Louis XV of France, and who was sentenced to be torn to pieces by four horses, was for an hour and a half before his execution subjected to the most infamous tortures, with red-hot pincers, melted lead, burning sulphur, boiling oil, and other diabolical contrivances, yet he slept on the rack, and it was only by continually changing the mode of torture, so as to give a new sensation, that he was kept awake. He complained, just before his death, that the deprivation of sleep was the greatest of all his torments. (p. 15)

Those plagued by insomnia should head to page 178 of Henry Addington Bayley Bruce’s book Sleep and Sleeplessness for timeless cures or to E. P. Hurd’s book Sleep, Insomnia, and Hypnotics for less traditional methods to catch those 40 winks.

By Thad Higa

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