Confessions of Insomniacs

Vivienne Flesher

Over tea and scones at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, Daphne Merkin and author Patricia Morrisroe talk sleeping pills, lots of sleeping pills, sleep patterns, and the perfect sheets.

Patricia Morrisroe: There are so many reasons why people don’t sleep. And if you’re a writer, chances are you’ve got a hyperactive, hyperaroused brain. If you’re thinking and writing all day long, what do you do? Flip the switch? I’ve tried every drug out there.

Daphne Merkin: Me too.

PM: I’d go to one psychopharmacologist, then another; this was even before I started writing my book on insomnia [Wide Awake came out in 2010]. I’ve tried Remeron, Trazodone.

DM: Restoril. Klonopin.

PM: Ativan, which was successful for a while.

DM: Did you ever try Seroquel?

PM: I didn’t. They wanted me to, but I was afraid.

DM: Because it’s actually an antipsychotic? What have you found most helpful?

PM: For a while, I did meditation, and I did it seriously for three years. And it did calm me down.

DM: There was one sleeping pill I was given, chloral hydrate—

PM: Oh, didn’t a character in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth take that to kill herself? That is like out of the Victorian age!

DM: It was phenomenal. On the other hand, I very rarely fall asleep reading.

PM: Reading reminds me of all the books I haven’t written, all the books I’ll never write, and all the writers who are better than me. After dealing with words all day long, I veg out in front of stupid TV programs.

DM: That’s now the closest to a soporific I have: The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

PM: So your big problem is not being able to fall asleep.

DM: No, my big problem is that I wake up a ton.

PM: I fall asleep right away and wake up four hours later, and then I’ve got three awake hours in the middle of the night. Do you have special sheets that you like?

DM: I have tried a number of sheets. I like a very cottony feel.

PM: I got a couple from Schweitzer Linen. The older they get, the softer they are.

DM: What is it they say? Our sleep schedules are divided into larks and—

PM: Owls, and they say that’s encoded in our genes.

DM: The world is not made for owls.

PM: We’re as different in terms of our sleep as we are in our temperament and our personality.

DM: Left to your own devices, would you get up late?

PM: No. I happen to love getting up early. There’s also the idea of what is perfect sleep—what we Westerners think of as perfect sleep, which is the lie-down-for-eight-hours-in-bed phenomenon. There is this woman from Emory University who did a study of ten people in nontraditional societies—in Pakistan, in Bali—and not only did they sleep on logs, on animal skin, but they did not sleep in chunks of time. They slept throughout the day, so if anything interesting—like if someone was doing a dance in the middle of the night, then they got up for two hours and joined them in the dance. Then they went to sleep. She and others have postulated that the staggering of sleep is better for us.

DM: Then there’s the whole issue of, how much sleep do people need? The difference between you and me is I never want to get up. My natural sleep pattern if I lived on Mars would be 4:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

PM: What would prevent you from going to that pattern, which is obviously your pattern?

DM: Sometimes I do. But then I feel guilty I’m starting the day late. I always feel that I would have written 15 books if I didn’t sleep as late. It’s not like I use the nighttime so productively.

PM: One of the top cognitive behavioral therapists told me, when I’m awake in the middle of the night, do something mindless, like count buttons. I mean, huh? Where are you getting the buttons? But being awake in the middle of the night, I am convinced that this is my pattern.

DM: You know what I find puts me to sleep? With rare exception, I fall dizzily asleep the minute I hit the theater. I did it at two plays recently. I thought, clearly I should have an infusion of theater.

PM: I do too.

DM: After this talk, I’ll have a bad night’s sleep tonight with great ease!

For the most insomniac-friendly mattress on the market, read our article »