Wednesday, June 09, 2004


If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to describe just how disabling insomnia can be. Most people have had a few sleepless nights here and there. It’s a pain and the next day you’re zonked, but it’s usually temporary. And if you put the time to good use, all-nighters can be quite fun, sometimes even profitable.

But when it goes on for days and weeks and months on end, that’s a whole different ballgame. One in which, unfortunately, I’ve been forced to play designated hitter, pitcher and shortstop all at once and unasked.

I’ve never been a great sleeper. But things took a turn for the intolerable three years ago. It was not long after the violence broke out in September 2000. As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I would hear the sound of helicopters. They seemed like they were just over my house. In reality, they were all of a few miles away, looking for terrorists who had been shooting every night at the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from nearby Bet Jalla and Bethlehem.

The sound of helicopters and machine guns got me so riled that I lay in bed wide awake wondering what the hell am I doing here? Is this insomnia or insanity? Indeed, the question is one that I have asked on a number of occasions since then:

What do you do when your ideological commitment to a place is literally making you sick?

Not willing to give up, I started my search for a cure. I’ve never been one for strong medicine, always preferring alternative, more natural remedies. First stop on the tour was a Chinese herbalist named Aliza.

Our first appointment lasted nearly two hours. Aliza spoke at breakneck speed, downing multiple cups of not-very-Chinese looking tea and asking me questions about everything from my food habits to whether my sideburns itch (apparently itchy sideburns indicate bladder problems). She checked my tongue repeatedly. Then she gave me seven bottles of smelly liquid and told me to be in touch. I took my tonic for half a year.

It didn’t work.

Next I tried homeopathy. Then acupuncture. Over the course of the last three years, I must have tried it all: aromatherapy, reflexology, even magnets. I exercised regularly and cut out all caffeine. I visited a sleep clinic where I was told they couldn’t help me unless I have sleep apnea. That’s where you stop breathing and wake up repeatedly during the night.

Too bad I don’t have that, I thought. At least it would be something.

Friends were not always compassionate. There is an unspoken subtext with insomnia that the victim is somehow to blame. “If only he could just relax,” people think. And “how hard is it to sleep anyway?”

Most eventually came around and suggested their favorite practitioners: chiropractors, massage therapists, energy healers. I resisted the temptation to visit the doctor with the special machine that detects parasites. If there are parasites in me, they’re probably exhausted from not sleeping either.

For a brief moment I thought I had stumbled on something I’ll call "The Peanut Butter Cure." Magnesium, a key element in peanut butter, is supposed to have calming properties. But after two weeks of peanut butter pita sandwiches before bed, all I gained was weight.

Eventually, my regular family doctor sent me to a shrink. “Drugs...” I mouthed in my best mock-horrified Homer Simpson impression. But maybe it was finally time.

Dr. Robinson is a tiny man with jet white hair and the kind of oversized glasses I wore in high school. He used to be head of psychiatry at a private hospital in the Talbiyeh neighborhood of Jerusalem. I never heard of it, but I’m pretty sure there was an institution for lepers there.

A coincidence?

Dr. Robinson prescribed some bitter pills which made me nauseous. Which obviously didn’t help me sleep either. He then tried a different cocktail which totally killed my sex drive. Now if you can’t sleep and you can’t…well, what’s life worth living for anyway?

“These pills are making me crazy,” I complained.

“A bit obsessive-compulsive are we?” Dr. Robinson responded.

“Did I say crazy? Ha, I meant they’re not working. Um, yet.”

Finally, I hit up the sleep forums on the Internet. These discussion groups are very active. Apparently people who can’t sleep spend a lot of time posting messages and sharing in the collective misery. There was some talk of light therapy and several special “sleep” diets recommended. But mostly more drugs.

As I dug deeper and deeper I found that one particular combination of meds kept coming up. I googled my discovery and read as much as I could. They had none of the side effects that had plagued me. They seemed to be working for a lot of people. I rang up Dr. Robinson and self-diagnosed myself. To my surprise, he agreed.

My new meds are not perfect. I still have too many bad nights and I can’t say I’m out of the woods just yet. But the good is beginning to slowly outweigh the delirious. For the first time in years, I have a glimmer of hope.

The repercussions of my experience still rattle me when I think too hard, though. Is it really possible that, in order to make it in Israel, you have to be seriously drugged, crazy...or both?

Well, it’s something to think about on a sleepless night.

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