Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler
Sleepless Nights From Thankless Thought
Insomnia plagues nearly 15 percent of adults. Blake Butler exists among this anguished set of sleep-deprived humans, battling a lifelong issue that he explores in this 2011 memoir.
The heralded Atlanta-based writer juxtaposes his personal recount with a history of sleep that is marked by facts and studies, all while reflecting on the dementia that currently grips his father’s mind. This manic, long-form essay of sorts echoes the headlong style of the late David Foster Wallace, to whom the book is dedicated.
“What those words inside me could have said, I wonder—where or what I would have gone or been today having them absorbed—somehow ending up another person— smarter, further—this, gone forever. And still, here I am. Now.”
As exhibited, Butler’s struggle for sleep occurs from fits of wandering thought, which he describes as “holes” and “thankless thinking.” One stream of rapid ideas, arguments, and memories follows another, then another, and so on. Night after night, he drowns in a sea of unending contemplations.
He writes: “Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever).” This sentence further samples the writing style, with Butler rapidly spewing memories and examining facts in a superbly lyrical voice. In one spot, he brilliantly exemplifies the wandering-thought “holes” with an exhaustive six-page sentence of trivial thoughts, rants of self-hatred, facts and footnotes (clearly a nod to Wallace).
He begins with an introduction and a brief history on the subject of sleep. Then Butler takes us to his earliest memory of insomnia, touching on his adolescent habit of sleepwalking and on the nightly fear created by Stephen King’s horror blockbuster IT.
For me, it got personal. Page after page, with each new idea and recollection from different stages in Butler’s life, my own memories of battles with insomnia interrupted my reading. These experiences eerily parallel Butler’s especially the catalogue of idiosyncrasies an insomniac requires to achieve security and comfort in bed: A particular pillow. A special blanket. Perfect position for the feet.
Butler states his awe for non-troubled sleepers, those people that close their eyes and so easily drift off into a wonderland of dreams. That’s true for this insomniac too. Staying over at a friend’s place or sharing a hotel room with pals, I listen without fail to my roommate peacefully find REM sleep. Meanwhile, I toss and turn in agonized envy, watching the hours drag past. The consummation of alcohol prior to bed may help, but it usually brings the booze-soaked rest Butler refers to as “shallow sleep.”
Nothing did nothing to help my sleeping issues. Reading about insomnia during evening hours made it completely impossible to reach the blank thought needed to drift out of consciousness. Several nights, I closed the book and furiously reflected on what I just read, analyzing myself. Butler’s examination of his restless thought and sleeplessness inadvertently infects his reader with the same tribulation. If he set out to keep people up with his book, he’s a genius.
Like many disorders, insomnia comes in flavors. My own falls primarily into the category of sleep-onset insomnia, a condition in which it takes longer than 30 minutes to get to sleep.
Insomnia can also be situational. As with many victims, including Butler, this condition torments a victim with sporadic waking throughout the night—clockwatching, thinking, checking the phone. While trolling Butler’s book for various forms of primary insomnia and secondary insomnia (sleep deprivation caused by psychiatric or medical factors), I found myself furiously misdiagnosing my own insomnia. Finally, I got a perfect match: sleep maintenance insomnia. That’s the ability to fall asleep but not stay asleep.
Famous insomniacs throughout history include Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka. Kafka perfectly captured the feeling: “Slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life.” Despite his torment, literary experts claim that Kafka’s frequent dream-like hallucinations due to sleep deprivation molded him as a literary visionary. I see a related effect in Butler’s writing, a torment from sleeplessness that here makes his writing beautifully erratic and startling.
“Sleepless night. The third in a row. I fall asleep soundly, but after an hour I wake up, as though I had laid my head in the wrong hole,” Kafka wrote, citing a “hole” similar to the one Butler links with his own.
Butler’s own descriptions of waking dreams and delusions hit the mark perfectly. His busy brain creates repetitive characters and apparitions that enter his cycle of thoughts every night, sometimes making it nearly impossible for him to distinguish them from reality the next morning.
One example—a man in a car haunts him. Butler can’t seem to identify him. This man sits outside Butler’s home watching, waiting. Why? Butler can’t get an answer:
“The man inside the car is facing forward, at the windshield, with both hands gripping the wheel, and still I feel his burned eyes on me as I slide across the skin-toned seat in silence and I close and lock the door.”
In this vivid delusion, Butler finally gains the nerve to approach. Though far from reality, Butler’s description of his ride with “the man” is alarming and eerie, marked with symbolism, most memorably when the man says to Butler, “I should kick your ass out of the car. Stop talking. This is not a book about insomnia, because there is no such thing as insomnia. That’s an idea they sold you, like new music and birthday money.”
Butler examines these recurring characters and various vivid visions to the end of the book, where he at last finds some light shed on their meanings.
As an adult, Butler insists the numerous apprehensions and nights dampened by the inevitable wakefulness is a direct result of witnessing first-hand his father’s mind lose an agonizing battle to dementia. "I do not want to think this thought, and so it thinks me, harder,” he tells of this new discomfort.
He discovers last night’s meatloaf in the cupboard. He finds cereal wrapped under foil in the freezer, and many other fallouts from the awful disease that has taken residence in his father’s mind. Above this, Butler is forced to bear witness to the devastating frustration of the man who once cared for him. His dad shouts questions tinged with fear—“Where is everybody? What you doin’, mister?”—to the son he no longer recognizes.
It’s enough to keep anyone up at night.
The most common cure to the sleepless night? Obviously, prescription drugs. For some an issue of abuse, for others a miracle resolution, the common use of sedating drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta wakes unending debate.
Last year alone, pharmacists filled more than 60 million prescriptions for sleep drugs. Most Americans will be hard pressed to find a colleague or work associate who doesn’t pop a sleeping pill here and there to guarantee a snooze.
Not until the tail end of Nothing does Butler raise this topical discussion. It comes after he accepts his mother’s remaining prescription of Ambien. Taking one pill, or as Butler likes to say, “Eating sleep out of a doctor’s bottle,” solves his problem. Worry and holes diminish, and instead of run-on thinking, he spends an evening in dreamless, thoughtless, sleeping bliss.
To avoid getting hooked on the prescription, he attempts to ration it. The practice fills Butler’s hyperactive mind with even more thoughts and added unease on the nights he chooses to go without a pill. Enter rebound insomnia.
So Butler swears off Ambien and never takes sleeping pills again. His thoughts still pour in, perhaps more expected and manageable, but that’s up for him to decide. Helplessly watching his father lose his mind to dementia disturbs him now. His own mind overbrims as his dad’s drains away.
Caitlin Colford is a New York City-based writer and actress. She is a frequent contributor to Paste’s film section. You can follow her on Twitter @caitypoops.