hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

February 28, 2013

Getting a good night's sleep a luxury

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — One dilemma has always piqued my curiosity.

How did Rip Van Winkle sleep for 20 years and have the world slip by him? Okay, so it’s as much fiction as poppycock, but Washington Irving turned the classic into one of the most endeared stories in American literature.

And guys like me bought into it at a very young age. Rip was the man. He left a nagging wife, slept through a war, and returned from a deep sleep to find his troubles gone.

In some ways, we all look to a good night’s rest as a solution to our problems, provided we’re not held hostage by them.

I do my best thinking in bed. It’s true. Being a lousy sleeper, I lie awake nights like a zombie, thinking my days through and what my next column idea may carry.

Maybe it’s all that carrot juice I’ve been drinking, allowing me to see through my eyelids. To put it bluntly, sleep and I are strange bedfellows.

It never used to be this way. I once slept through guard duty in the Army and got busted a rank. A trip to the theater had me nodding off in my seat. A long, monotonous trip in the car often has me pulling into a rest stop for a quick wink.

Much to my embarrassment, I’ve dozed off occasionally in church, right in the midst of my pastor’s sermon, and later had the audacity to tell him how much I enjoyed his homily.

But beds are my albatross, it seems.

I’ve tried every trick in the book. I’ve turned to each side, laid on my back, listened to Brahms’s “Lullaby” and other soothing music, even counted sheep.

A friend suggested I count 100 bottles of beer on the wall — backwards. All that did was make me intoxicated with frenzy.

I’ve changed locations, adjourning to a sofa. I’ve also tried reading myself to sleep. “War and Peace” wouldn’t do it.

They tell me the TV is the greatest sleeping pill every invented. That may be true to some extent, but it creates another problem. If I do conk out in the midst of a boring movie, it’s impossible trying to fall back asleep once again.

This guy I know might have an answer. Take a stimulant, a shot of brandy, he recommends. Now Harry is the senator to his friends. When he talks, people listen.

“My best sleep, it turns out, is when I exercise in the afternoon,” he tells me. “I enjoy a light evening meal, followed by fruit snacks at night. A heavy dinner makes me feel bloated and uncomfortable. Cutting down your food intake will increase your appetite for sleep.”

I used to attribute my insomnia to an evening coffee to settle my nerves. Even when I switched to decaffeinated, I was bamboozled. I eliminated caffeine altogether, even with soft beverages, and still no luck.

I couldn’t blame it on my wife’s snoring habits. One of the great mysteries of life is why people who snore are always the first ones who fall asleep.

The earplugs I used kept me from hearing the lullabies.

So off I went to my local pharmacy, looking for a solution over the counter. I tried this and that with no success. My doctor prescribed zolpidem tartrade. I know. It sounds worst than it actually is. What’s 5 mg of anything?

It’s not the way I want to retire for the evening — with an addiction to sleeping pills.

This posed another ridiculous question. The United States spends more money than any other country on coffee to keep people awake and on sleeping pills to put them to sleep.

Then I saw a TV ad that gave me hope. Maybe it wasn’t me? Perhaps it was my bed. Did I need a new mattress? A softer pillow perhaps?

On comes this suave, debonair man plugging a pillow.

“Change the way you sleep and your life,” he says. “Get away from those sleepless nights. Buy one of our pillows. Guaranteed to slumber you away or we’ll refund your money.”

Hey, it was cheaper than wrangling with another mattress. Pillow talk. I liked it.

On comes a satisfied customer who says, “I’m a busy salesman. When I go to bed, I need to sleep.”

It wasn’t the water bed he owned that did the trick, but his pillow.

So I did what I hardly ever do, order a product from the television. It was worth the exception. The pillow arrived a couple weeks later and I was relieved.

It worked to an extent. I woke up the next morning with neck pain.

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.