Thursday, July 10, 2014

No Rest for the Wretched

I'm guessing I may have only gotten three hours of sleep last night. The Land Cruiser shop across the street from me saw some late-night activity manifested in engines occasionally thundering as musical motor vehicles was being played in the parking lot and the street between us, ending on dissonant note with the squealing metallic shriek of the gate being closed; Burlington Northern cast four of its freight trains out into the night, whistling plaintively (though at least I didn't get one of their engine cars trundling down the street my loading dock abuts, which happens every two or three weeks); but worst of all was the fleet of garbage and recycling trucks that roused me out of my fitful slumber at least eight times and filled me with consternation because I hadn't noticed them before and had always thought that Tuesday or Wednesday was the neighborhood's trash day. I even had my ear plugs in! So, I ended up getting hour-or-so coast-guard ration increments of sleep, starting around midnight and ending in frustrated resignation with my nose in a book at 5:30 AM, waiting for the Friendly House to open.

Fortunately for me such insomniac nights are foisted on me few and far between because my spot is for the most part comfortable, safe, and quiet. I remember when I used to sleep near the Union Pacific tracks on the east bank of the Willamette River, beneath the I-5 freeway, and how miserably impossible it was to get more than maybe a couple hours of sleep and that I often had to be pretty drunk to keep my eyes closed through the din of the steam whistles and semi trucks. I also had to get pretty buzzed when I was below Naito Parkway and lay my head next to a tunnel wherein trucks and buses roared and growled like guttural banshees for all but the wee-est of the wee morning hours, which annoyance was exacerbated by the heat radiating from the concrete above on hot summer nights. Even when I slept in a tent in the woods off Barbur Boulevard I'd often get woken up by the crashing of dead branches tumbling down nearby from the English ivy-strangled trees, which also encouraged tippling. Sleep may well be the most precious and fickle commodity in the lives of people living on the streets, at least in terms of physical well-being and comfort; seasons and the weather change, and we inevitably are forced for whatever reason to move from one spot to another — some worse and some better than others — but sleep is a daily necessity.

Alas, alcohol is an inelegant solution to the problem of a good night's sleep, because alcohol interferes with its restorative function, particularly REM sleep. I don't know but can easily imagine other depressant substances inhibit or frustrate adequate sleep similarly (though alcohol isn't exactly a depressant but acts on the brain in complex ways). What ends up happening is we spiral into dependance and ultimately addiction while magnifying our long-term sleep debt, degrading our cognitive capabilities, and picking away at the already frayed edges of our psychology; we become dumber, more mentally unstable, more socially maladroit, and get hooked on a substance that eats away at our bodies and our souls and run the risk of compromising our ability to climb out of the well. Unfortunately, it's an easy trap to fall into, especially for people predisposed to substance use; ideally one would seek out natural sleep aids or non-habit-forming medicine, but it can be tricky to figure out what really works and there's also the issue of money and insurance coverage ... whereas a forty of malt liquor costs at most three dollars (in Portland, Oregon, at least) and requires no painstaking research or experimentation.

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