"Insomniac is an impassioned work--an inspired amalgam of academic and first-hand research, memoir, analysis, and the kind of obsessive brooding we associate with the insomniac state. Much here is fascinating, and much is upsetting; here is a cri de coeur from a lifetime insomniac that is sure to appeal to the vast army of fellow insomniacs the world over."
--Joyce Carol Oates
"The good news is that Gayle Greene's book is all you ever need to read on the subject of sleeplessness; the bad news for fellow insomniacs is that reading it--even in bed--will fail to lull you to sleep."
--Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate
“Insomniac is far too interesting to lull you into dreamland.”
--Francine Prose, O: The Oprah Magazine
I was in my late fifties when I got the idea for a book on insomnia. I’d been finding it harder, with each passing year, to tolerate sleep loss or the medications I relied on. “Don't worry, you need less sleep as you get older,” we often hear, one of those cheerful bromides that gets dispensed about insomnia, that turns out to be like so much we hear about insomnia, so much BS. I was finding that, on the contrary, I was far less able to soldier through my life on insufficient sleep.
So I set out to understand what was known about insomnia. I started going to sleep conferences. I’d never heard of a sleep conference before I went to Seattle in 2002 for the APSS (Associated Professional Sleep Societies), the first of seven I attended. They’re a very big deal. They’re huge, 5-6 thousand people, scientists doing animal research mingling with psychotherapists and nurses and sleep technicians and neuroscientists and geriatricians and epidemiologists and drug companies reps and people who make CPAP machines, and etc. Six days of lectures, seminars, poster sessions, over-the-top exhibits from the pharmaceutical companies and makers of sleep equipment, lavish industry-sponsored events. (These conferences on 3-4 hours sleep, which is what I get at conferences, were totally trippy) A sense of excitement informs these meetings, the excitement of new discovery, the excitement of people hoping to get rich, for there are big bucks in sleep disorders. But in spite of the explosion of new knowledge about sleep, insomnia is still explained as something the patient is doing wrong, something we bring on ourselves.
I found that, sure enough, the state of the art was not too different from the days when my father (a doctor) would give me advice: go to bed earlier, drink a glass of warm milk. I’d been hearing the same-old advice for 50 years: get up at the same time, keep a regular schedule, avoid caffeine, sleep in a dark quiet place. You’re stressed out, you worry too much, you’re anxious, you’re depressed, you’re doing something wrong. What little research there was concluded that insomnia is caused by the habits and attitudes of the sufferer.
When doctors and researchers confront conditions they don’t understand—especially when the condition affects more women than men, as insomnia does (2 to 1)— there's a tendency to blame the patient. The other groups that disproportionately suffer from insomnia are the elderly and the poor. None of these groups— female, elderly, poor—is a favorite with doctors; none is high on the priority list for research. That’s one reason insomnia gets so little research. The neglect of insomnia is the neglect of women, the elderly, and the poor.
Another reason insomnia is that scientists don’t like conditions they can’t see, measure, or test. You can’t see insomnia, x-ray it, biopsy it; it often doesn’t show up on an EEG. You only know a person has it by what that person says. Since insomnia is only known by what the insomniac says, I was kind of surprised to find that the voices of insomniacs are almost totally absent from the scientific literature. You can read through articles and books by the acre and never find an insomniac quoted. So I started collecting stories; I tracked down everyone I’ve ever heard of or known who has insomnia, friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, students, to hear their stories. I placed dozens of ads; I spent late night hours surfing the insomnia sites, blogs, newsgroups. I found a chasm between what the professionals are saying, their assurances about “safe and effective” treatments, and the howl of pain and rage I hear from people who live with this condition, who flounder from one unsatisfactory treatment to another.
Insomniac (University of California Press, Little Brown, U.K., 2008) takes issue with received opinion that insomnia originates primarily in the dysfunctional beliefs and attitudes of the sufferer. I argue that there may be underlying physiological causes that are not yet understood (and the science has, in the years since the book was published, been moving my way). Unlike the many books by “experts” who approach the subject from the outside, my book offers an inside account based on my lifelong experience with the disorder and on the accounts of the many insomniacs I interviewed.
Though it challenged mainstream thinking about insomnia, the book earned praise from the New England Journal of Medicine, where reviewer Fred Turek “found the presentation of sleep science very impressive and up to date…at a level I would expect to find in a scientific review… As an in-depth overview of the patients, the physicians, and the science… Greene’s book is the best available on the subject.” Sept 2009, 359, 13, 1412-13. Insomniac was shortlisted for the Gregory Bateson Prize by the Society for Cultural Anthropology: “Shakespeare scholar turns ethnographer, sleep specialist, and science detective…[and] reveals just how little the contemporary medical community knows about the world of sleeplessness…” The book was Amazon’s pick of March, 2008, said to be “similar in depth and scope to Andrew Solomon's remarkable memoir of depression, The Noonday Demon.”
Starred review, Library Journal
"Although the topic of insomnia might seem to lend itself to a put-you-to-sleep treatment, this engrossing, easy-to-read study addresses the multifaceted subject with wit and wide-ranging scholarship. Greene (literature & women’s studies, Scripps Coll., Claremont, CA; The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation) has lived with insomnia for as long as she can remember, and in this engaging treatise-which she describes as 'very personal…wrung out of my life’s blood'-she takes readers into the world of sleep research, sleep clinics, pharmaceuticals, sleeping potions, alternative medicine, and sleep physiology and psychology. Throughout, she demonstrates in-depth knowledge of the latest and most comprehensive research efforts in understanding this extremely painful,even life-threatening condition. Nontechnical in its approach, the book is completely accessible to the general reader and should prove enlightening to anyone with an interest in insomnia and sleep studies.Unfortunately, no solution it offers ultimately advances beyond the W.C.Fields Chapter 1 epigram: 'The cure for insomnia? Get plenty of sleep.' Highly recommended as the up-to-date summation of what is known about insomnia."
James Swanton, Harlem Hosp. Lib., New York
"A harrowing memoir."
Wall Street Journal
“Provides . . . insights that many sleep researchers and doctors have lost track of. . . . Among the best books of its kind.”
“Greene imparts a feeling of solidarity to fellow sufferers.”
“No easy answers - but fascinating.”
“Disturbing, important book.”
"This is a very well-researched, in-depth book on insomnia, written with much empathy and from the patient's point of view. I would recommend it to all who are plagued by this malady or who professionally try to treat it."
Peter Hauri, author of No More Sleepless Nights
Insomniac “trailer,” me reading the first few pages
Advice to insomniacs: (short version) (long version)
Here are a few radio interviews (a complete list is on my website, sleepstarved.org):
Talk of the Nation, NPR, Neal Conan, May 2009
The Leonard Lopate Show/WNYC Radio, NPR, April 2009
WEEKDAY/KUOW RADIO , Seattle NPR, March 2009
– with Dr. Vishesh Kapur, director of Sleep Disorders, Harborview Medical Center
THE MORNING SHOW, Michael Krassny, KQED, March 2009
At Issue, Wisconsin Public Radio, March 2009
Here are a few articles:
“Snooze Alarm: What the deaths of celebrities can teach us about the dangers of insomnia,” Opinion, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2008.
“The Case for Sleep Medicine,” New York Times
“Why We Can’t Sleep, It’s Not Just in our Heads, But in our Hormones,” Ms Magazine, April/May, 2008