September 2009

Dying to Sleep

The Moral of the Michael Jackson Story

MJunmbrellaThe dramatic, grief-driven public inquisition about which medications and doctors are responsible for Michael Jackson’s death obscures a deeper, more critical concern about his life. As a sleep specialist who has worked extensively with entertainers, I believe that Jackson died from complications of chronic severe insomnia. And, I believe his life offers a simple moral lesson about sleep that most of us are deeply resistant to learning.

To explain America’s intensely grievous reaction to Jackson’s death, Bill Maher declared, Michael Jackson is America! “Both Jackson and America,” he said, “were fragile, over-indulgent, childish, in debt, on drugs, and over the hill.” I would add that their most fundamental similarity was entrenchment in the Puer Aeternus archetype. Latin for eternal child and exemplified in modern times by Peter Pan, the Puer is characterized by a flighty and ungrounded idealism that fueled the chronic sleeplessness shared by Jackson and America.

Even if as a caricature, Jackson symbolized the American spirit of unfettered aspiration. “I am Peter Pan” he announced, soaring from the ground of ordinary life to walk the moon. Ungrounded in place and time, the sun rose and set around him. But all the glitz and glamor aside, Jackson, like most entertainers, was essentially a well-paid shift worker who suffered from radically disrupted circadian rhythms.

Michael Jackson could be the poster child for America’s insomnia epidemic. Whether engaged in formal shift work or not, Americans are an especially ungrounded bunch. Having lost our regard for circadian rhythms, we are losing the battle against epidemic insomnia and our growing dependence on drugs and substances that artificially secure us to sleep.

Whether fueled by excessive work or play or substances, chronic insomniacs are high altitude flyers, who are, in fact, hyperaroused. They idle high with an increased metabolic rate across the 24-hour circadian cycle. It is not surprising, then, that as a group insomniacs are actually less sleepy during the day than normal sleepers. But cruising at such a lofty altitude by day makes it nearly impossible to fully descend, land and sleep at night. Consequently, chronic insomniacs also find themselves much less sleepy during the night than normal sleepers.

I’ll sleep when I’m dead is the motto of the Puer Americanus. I’ll sleep when I’m dead because life, waking life that is, is my most compelling entitlement. It’s a kind of relentless special event, a heady celebration or endless urgency that consistently trumps bedtime. Like Jackson, we eschew nature’s circadian rhythms, living as if the sun rises and sets around us.

Healthy sleep is antithetical to the Puer’s commitment to never land. It requires that we surrender our aspiration, slow, descend from flight and, yes, come back to earth.There is no oscillation of night and day on the moon; it has no circadian rhythms. And the gravity up there is woefully inadequate to secure and ground anyone. The simple lesson here is that we must return to Earth nightly to rest.

The untimely death of a celebrity is like the crash of an airliner. Something that has ascended to such elegant heights and seems so invincible suddenly fails and falls. It is an affront to our puerile naiveté, but we simply cannot stay up the way we do and expect to sleep well. Sooner or later, we will come down. Those who opt to wait to sleep when they’re dead will likely find that, like Michael Jackson, they are dying to sleep.