At the end of September, WNYC’s Radiolab broadcast an episode called “Insomnia Line.” The show kept its phones open from 2 a.m. until sunrise so listeners struggling with sleep could dial in. A nurse called. Then a laid-off teacher. Then a college student. The callers stared up at Mars. They listened to crickets and thunder, a ticking clock and a spinning fan. They had weird thoughts about horse treadmills, mushrooms, and space. They relayed nightmares. They expressed anxieties for job interviews, and grief for dead relatives, and cravings for the alcohol they wanted to drink but couldn’t, because they were getting sober. When the callers left voicemails, they asked the hosts to please call them back.
Radiolab produced this episode in response to our “shadow epidemic,” coronasomnia. Self-reported shut-eye is down, and sleeping-pill prescriptions are up. The epidemic’s causes are tragically obvious: political dread, financial anxieties, muddled routines, blue light, isolation. Of course, we mostly sit up worrying about infection from the actual virus. But insomnia, experts warn, comes with health problems of its own, from weight gain and depression to elevated risks of heart attack and stroke.
In Karen Russell’s sci-fi novella Sleep Donation, newly released in paperback this fall, sleeplessness isn’t a symptom of sickness. Rather, insomnia is the primary pandemic. Sufferers die after weeks awake, with bloodshot eyes, waxy skin, hair gone white, and failed organs. Generous donors give sleep like blood, in drives organized by the nonprofit Slumber Corps. Trish, the novel’s protagonist, recruits volunteers by telling the sad story of her sister, Dori, one of the disease’s early victims. A mother she convinces in a grocery-store parking lot turns out to be a huge get; her child, Baby A, has perfect, pure sleep. An infusion of Baby A’s slumber can cure even the most chronic insomniac. Don’t worry, Trish reassures the baby’s father. They’ll never draw more sleep than the child can give, no matter how badly it’s needed.
All Slumber Corps donors are pre-screened for bad dreams, evaluated with an alphabetized list: “Abomination, horned. Ambulance, frozen yellow siren. Anthill, no queen.” But one night, a contagious nightmare from “Donor Y” taints the world’s sleep supply. Was it an accident? Or an act of bioterrorism? The dream is so tortuous that it’s indescribable. Suddenly, patients who wanted rest are begging to be kept awake, asking to have their eyelids stapled. They’ve become “elective insomniacs,” preferring to die of sleeplessness rather than experience the nightmare again.