“I can’t sleep,” declares RM Vaughan at the beginning of his new book Bright Eyed. “If those three words in that sequence constituted some kind of prayer, I would certainly be an earthly saint by now, if not a blessed white-winged angel, because I say them every night, night after night, and all night long. I’ve done so since I was 10.”
Vaughan and sleep are mortal enemies and every evening for the past four decades they’ve engaged in a bitter battle. Very rarely is Vaughan the victor, a fact that has greatly shaped the Canadian poet, novelist, critic and video artist. In Bright Eyed, his extended essay, he digs into his own affliction, the general world of sleep and condemns the ways in which our plugged-in society’s constant obsession with being connected is creating a very literal state of unrest.
“If the world around us is being run, ordered, financed, and even entertained by people who are not sleeping well or not sleeping enough (or, in my case, barely at all), what kind of culture will we be sharing in the future?” he asks. And the question and the concern laced within it, is what drives most of the work.
Through vigorous research and deeply personal accounts, Vaughan dissects the topic of sleep – the good, the bad and, more often than not, the very ugly. It’s a compelling piece of work and one that deserves to be digested for its modern, truthful approach to the subject. Vaughan spoke to Van Winkle’s about Bright Eyed, sleep’s potential to become a sought-after, socially dividing commodity and why we should try to obtain rest by any means necessary.
Bright Eyed is a compelling and damning critique of modern society's inability to disconnect and how, as a result, sleep became a casualty. It’s also a highly personal account, as you’re a lifelong sufferer of insomnia. Why did you want to tackle the subject now?
The reason I chose to write Bright Eyed now is that until about seven years ago, I thought, like many insomniacs, that I was mostly alone in my plight. But suddenly, and with increasing frequency, everybody around me was talking about their inability to sleep. I sensed something larger was going on, and decided to use my own (granted, extreme) situation as a kind of “way in” to the subject.
The science of sleep is highly murky territory. While there are firm facts, oftentimes the entire genre is steeped in contradiction. How did you attack the subject?
I read everything I could find and understand. I’m not a neurologist, so many texts were completely opaque to me. One of the scientists I interviewed, Dr. Karlsson of the University of Reykjavik, informed me that almost all contemporary sleep science is based on studies done in the middle of the last century, studies that positioned middle-aged white men as the biological standard. I suspect this is the root cause of so much conflicting information – the base “standards” are wildly out of date and also culturally limited in extremis. On the other hand, the fact that no two sleep scientists can seem to agree on any topic meant that I, as a non-scientist, felt free to apply my own experience more openly and see my own experience as being just as valid as the deeply subjective scientific works.
The act of sleep is so universal: We all need it and are therefore bound by it. However, you posit that there might soon be a hierarchy of sleep, where the rich, able to afford future drugs that will let them exist on little rest and therefore have the ultimate competitive edge, will use that as a way to maintain dominance over the sleep-deprived poor.
To me, this future is both terrifying and also very likely. The rich already have better access to all the other life-sustaining, basic needs, such as food, water, physical activity and health care, so if chronic sleeplessness becomes the “new real”, of course the rich will benefit from whatever costly treatments are available. Perhaps there will be Robin Hood–like sleep bandits too.
Do you think this effect is already beginning today?
Yes, I do. Look at the boom in spa services, in specialty hotels designed to enhance sleep and in travel services for the rich that emphasize sleep as a business necessity. Airplanes have beds now, if you can afford one.
So why do you think sleep, or rather the ability to exist on very little, will be such an important commodity?
Because money never stops, and being awake equals more money. The nine-to-five business model is obsolete. I have very accomplished friends who work all hours to stay competitive with a now global trade. The more you can do, and the faster you can do it, and the more of the world you can reach with your work, the more successful you will be, according to this global definition of success – but it’s an illusion, and one that will eventually spin out of control. You can only live on so little sleep for so long. I would not be surprised if the next generation, the up and coming 20-somethings, will have a lower life expectancy than my post-Boomer, Gen X generation.
There is quite a lot of drug dependency among the sleep world, with Benzo addiction being a large part of the problem. You’re admittedly a lifelong insomniac. Could you speak of your experience with such prescription solutions?
The book recounts in gruesome detail my long love/hate relationship with all of the many pills I have taken and continue to take. I guess I’ll be on some type of drug for the rest of my life, and I see no problem with that, as long as the drugs work, or work a little bit better than the last batch. I live in Berlin now, and Germans have a really funny relationship with medication: they will proudly tell you that Germans are not like us “weak” North Americans, who must “take a pill for every problem”, and it is rather difficult to get even common pain killers here. But they all smoke and drink, constantly. Everybody medicates, just pick your poison.
And while it might necessarily involve medication, there are many people trying to "hack" sleep by resorting to truncated sleep schedules or using lucid dreams to gain a competitive edge.
Sleep has become one more thing to conquer, like body size or virility or fertility. What is telling about these systems, these hacks, is the anxiety that fuels them — that terrible sense that everyone is falling behind, hopelessly behind. The fact that it’s a culturally manufactured anxiety does not seem to register with people, even when they, in turn, attempt to manufacture disruptions and hacks to break the stress. We are all so skilled, and yet we so rarely look at the root causes of our skill applications, and thus if those applications are necessary or helpful.
It’s been so long now that you’ve struggled with sleep. How have you come to terms you’re your insomnia?
There are no terms to come to in this game. If I suddenly became a healthy sleeper, my writing would not change, and I resist any romanticizing of insomnia, any positioning of sleeplessness as being part of, or one of the costs of, living off your creativity. That formula (creative people = neurotic = can’t sleep) positions not-sleeping as beneficial, even if indirectly, and there is nothing beneficial about being tired and messed up all the time. Trust me on that. I suspect that I would be a far better writer if I was healthier.
What is your current sleep routine like?
Well, to be blunt, there is no routine. I go to bed and wait. At the time you are asking this, I’m in the middle of a particularly aggravating bout of Restless Leg Syndrome, so my views are tainted. Sleep to me, lately, is a fantasy, one I can only attain via nightly torture. Sure, that sounds dramatic, even flamboyant, but a month of RLS makes one into a bit of a sleep diva. Everything is so fraught, all the time. I remember when Michael Jackson died — and, no, I do not compare myself to him, he was a genius — and there was all this talk about how sad and terrible it was that he became “addicted” to a coma-inducing drug. All I could think was “How do I get this drug?”
You are a distinguished playwright, novelist, poet and video artist. Your accomplishments are vast and varied. Would you say that, in some way, your struggles with sleep have helped hone your talents?
It would be dishonest of me to say that my thwarted relationship with sleep has not influenced my work, but I really can’t stress enough the danger of the creativity-equals-sleeplessness romance. If anything, I know that being a chronic insomniac has made me a more empathetic person, not in any grand, Gandhi-aspiring bullshit way, but in one specific way: There is no medical problem or behaviour caused by a medical problem that I don’t understand on a base, primal level. And from that, I will agree that I am capable of imagining the lives of others with a certain amount of detail that perhaps a healthy person might not be able to imagine. But, as I said before, I’d trade whatever skill set I’ve learned from being an insomniac for a cure, for the chance to spend the rest of my life with a less hateful relationship with sleep.
Any other advice for the sleepless among us?
Yes. Get sleep any way you can. Don’t listen to moralizers who tell you to stop taking pills or smoking pot or whatever you are doing to get to sleep. Fuck them, they don’t get it. Until better cures come along, or we undergo a massive social change that puts quality of life before relentless productivity, take what is available to you, whatever gets you through the night, and don’t feel ashamed. And remember: You are not alone.