I started sleeping with earplugs out of necessity: I lived on New York City’s Lower East Side, which was loud enough to begin with. But then, in the winter, when the heat came on, my six-by-eight-foot room exploded into a squealing, wheezing, almost pornographic rasping radiator noise, waking me up every two hours. I was already pretty unhappy at the time, and sleep was supposed to be the one thing I could count on. Instead, I was up at three in the morning, standing at the foot of my white plastic bed frame with my iPhone held up to the pipe, wanting proof of what I was hearing, should I need it later in therapy, or in court.
I was at the Duane Reade beneath my gym buying Russell Stover marshmallow hearts when I found my savior: a small bottle of hot pink rubbery ear plugs (“for women!”), about 40 of them for six dollars. I am not, or wasn’t, an earplug sort of gal, if there is such a thing — I don’t like wearing headphones, and when I wanted to focus on writing I preferred to visit simplynoise.com and turn up the static. I grew up in a house surrounded by ambient nighttime frog croaking, cricket chirping, and the occasional loon call. I liked falling asleep knowing the world was still going on without me. But I like staying asleep more, so I bought the earplugs.
I was not optimistic. I thought they wouldn’t do much. I rolled the pink foam pieces between my fingers as directed, inserted the gummy tubes into my ears, and waited for them to expand back out again. And then I heard … nothing. Not the cars or the drinkers outside on Essex Street. Not my roommate coming in the front door three feet from my bed. Not even my enemy, the radiator pipe, screaming and rattling above my head. The next thing I heard was my alarm, the faint, fake harp sounds waking me politely at 6:30 as requested.
That was four years ago, and I have not slept a night without earplugs ever since, no matter my surrounding environment. I live in Brooklyn now, on a quieter street, and still — it could be quieter. I wear them when I visit home, sleeping in my parents’ arctic suburban basement. I wear them on the airplane after taking Xanax, a nearly infallible combination. A few months ago, my mom told me she was having trouble sleeping past 4:00 a.m. I prescribed her a bottle of earplugs. Now she wears them every night, too.
They come close, but earplugs are not a perfect solution. Sometimes, one falls out in the middle of the night, and I wake up to feel around for it in my sheets. They lose their squishiness with use, and get kind of disgusting-looking after a couple of weeks, no matter how clean your ears, so you’ll have to buy a new jar every so often. Personally, I get sick of the colors, so I don’t mind the chance to switch it up. It is the nicest, cheapest present I give myself regularly.
There is more than enough, these days, keeping us up at night. So far, earplugs are the only thing I’ve found that help me stay asleep once I get there. Do I miss things? Yes. Sometimes there is cool thunder, and sometimes my girlfriend says something to me and I only kind of hear it, and it is possible that an alien could fully abduct me before I realized what was happening. But at least I would be well-rested whenever I got wherever it took me.