Essays > Something Keeping Us Awake in Flint


Something is keeping us awake in Flint. Did you realize? Are you one of the ones who takes a pill, even a teensy one, to get yourself to sleep?

If so, you’re not alone. Here’s something to think about the next time you’re pacing the floor at 4 a.m.: according to a 2008 survey from the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, one in nine Genesee County residents reports trouble sleeping every single night, and a stunning one-third of us rate our sleep quality as “fair” or “poor.” On average, we pop pills to get to sleep three nights a week and, for our trouble, still manage an average of only 6.45 hours per night, less than the recommended seven.

When UM- Flint professor and sleep researcher John Sonnega offered these worrisome results in a talk to one of my classes recently, I took the news personally. That very day, I was groggy from a virtually sleepless night, one of many; recovering from sinusitis, I’d had trouble breathing and imagined dark scenarios. My husband said I often up wake gasping and snorting, not exactly my image of myself as a sexy middle-aged babe. Scary apnea, he confessed, had been going on awhile.

Prof. Sonnega said there were five sleep labs in town to study us bedraggled insomniacs. My doctor sympathized, and two weeks later, my symptoms not much improved, I reported at 10 p.m. for a “sleep study” at a hard to find Westside lab.

It was one of the first cold nights of the year, a Tuesday, the chill offering needed relief to this year’s allergy sufferers. For the past eight hours, as directed, I’d refrained from chocolate and caffeine. I’d packed a little bag with my red flannel pants, a favorite baggy teeshirt and a toothbrush.

At the end of a long maze in the dim clinic, I saw I wasn't the only one. Three others sat on the edge of low-slung beds in their respective rooms, getting electrodes pasted onto anxious foreheads, chests, fingertips and calves.

The tech who tended me said she can't sleep either. She works 10 p.m to 6:30 a.m., and goes home and sleeps on the couch. She uses the CPAP machine, just like I might have to, depending on how I do. She looks forward to winter when the snow makes the world quiet; she lives by a school and the children make a lot of noise. At night while she's watching her subjects, she reads books and studies for her sleep certificate.

She was kind and friendly, but I have to say that lab was like a cheap motel: hard pillows, bad mattress, no art on the walls, thin bedspread. How could a person, wired up like a high-tech Shiva, fall asleep like this?

At least a TV had all the channels. The box of leads slung over my shirt, plastic air fork up my nose, I watched Jon Stewart interview an oddly unfunny Steve Martin. Then the tech came back, turned off the lights and left me alone.

I felt claustrophobic and a bit nauseous, watching an orange light blink on a plastic thimble on my thumb. It was strange knowing somebody was watching me, monitoring my vitals. In another room, somebody coughed, and coughed again. She's worse off than me, I thought.

I muttered my mantra, a string of trusty repetitions. And then, astonishingly, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew the tech woke me up and it was 6 a.m. She peeled off all the wires and I went home.

Insomnia, of course, is not just a physiological but a spiritual problem. In the tossing and turning, the body’s anxious refusal to do what it’s supposed to do, something fearful and irrational sweeps in. Often, if my husband’s in LA, I turn on the radio; all night, it’s the BBC I used to like the voices, liquid and steady as a salmon run. But lately I don’t: too much Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Turkmenistan. Compared to all those victims, my life is unbelievably good. So what’s my problem? Why am I still awake? Couldn’t they report just one little light-hearted feature about, say, a French accordionist? A few words about a placid potter in Rotterdam? A recipe for butternut squash? The sad litany morphs into despair: this poor old planet. I find myself murmuring, and then I lapse into fruitless grief. Falling asleep like that, if I finally do, is surrender: there is nothing else to do.

If I lived right, I sometimes ask myself, wouldn’t I fall asleep like my cats, who stretch out mindlessly? If I only knew what’s bothering me – what I need to resolve – perhaps sleep would come. Or maybe it’s hormones, or what I ate, or what I drank, And thus the wheel goes round.

In the meantime, the trains kachunk-kachunk along the Court Street crossings; there are sirens, the morning paper dropping on the doorstep, a good neighbor scraping snow, two joggers padding down Maxine, chatting, as they always do, at precisely 5:58. I wonder if they sleep well.

I am trying to find the peace in this. I’m trying to figure out how to tell my frayed mind that all is well, that all will be well. But the deep unconscious, like the Loch Ness monster slicing back and forth in dark water, seems to know better.

I’m still waiting for my sleep study results. But at least now I know I’m not alone – that for whatever reason, a third of you are out there too, waging a similar war. Prof. Sonnega’s research suggests that neighborhood factors like fear of crime might play a role in sleep – sobering results that say we need to work together on what happens after dark. There’s a plank to lay your head on: a good night’s sleep for us all, sleep like a honeyed drink whose only hangover is waking up feeling kind of good.