I have never been a good sleeper, the kind of person able to rely on that magic seven-hour stretch, or easily let go of the day’s gifts and complications instead of hoarding them up for non-stop review on an enervating night-time loop. I have always had a paralysing terror of the blank negation to which I believed sleep led: the obliteration of my consciousness, even a temporary reprieve, seemed to me a kind of death.
Lately insomnia has got me in a headlock and refuses to let me go. I find myself stumbling, red-eyed and incoherent, dumb with exhaustion, through endless weeks that have acquired the hazy furze of a dreamscape. Often I am too tired to climb out of a chair or to pick up the phone, and I have to work hard to focus on the simplest of tasks. To free myself from insomnia’s grip, I abandon normal routines and lurch towards extreme solutions. I pop pills, gulp herbal infusions, scent and oil my baths, and subject my wired frame to relaxation tapes and specially-commissioned nocturnal symphonies. I hum and chant my way into cul-de-sacs of mindfulness, mumble every witchy incantation I can summon. And still I thrash in bed all night long.
In an endeavour to broker some kind of peace with wakefulness – if not exactly giving in to insomnia then at least accommodating its unwelcome presence – I’ve hit on a new tactic. At 3:00 am, or 3:40 am or 4:30 am, whenever my mind is on fire, I get up and read slow-moving novels, or curl up on the sofa with the dog. We comfort one another, fur against skin, and he’s out within minutes, leaving me marvelling at his animal knack for sleep. Sometimes I scroll Twitter, primed for news of disaster – knifings, forest fires, suicide bombs, or I mine my feeds for commentary I’ve little time to digest by day. If I feel sufficiently alert, I’ll open up my laptop and write.
These nocturnal distractions are a last resort, taken up only after I’ve tried to cauterise my brain and tap my molten anxiety by making lists of the things that preoccupy me in the dark. In my head I compose emails I’ve neglected to attend to, arrange and re-arrange my deadlines, invent mnemonics to remember everybody I need to call. In the notepad at my bedside, I itemise the household shop and jot down the various chores I promised my mother I’d undertake.
It is an exercise in banality, to be sure. But banality is the point. Cataloguing my worries and obligations is about irrigating the mind, flushing it clean of mental sludge so welcome sleep waves might re-colonise my brain.
In truth, I have been a neurotic list-maker for as long as I can remember. When I was small, I’d fill notebooks with itemised entries ranking all the things I wanted to have or do. I drew up fantasy lists. Lists that captured my budding childish desires – to own a Barbie doll with tractable hair and a rainbow array of Staedler colouring pencils. I coveted miniature Japanese rubbers that smelled of urgent sweetness and school-ground besties that stuck around. Very badly, I also wanted Steven Lansing, the teenage stud at my local youth group, to look my way. I listed favourite songs, favourite foods, and favourite friends – in descending order.
Week by week, my life would unfold in lists, as other children might measure their development against height markers on the wall. I wanted to travel to Mars, become a famous scientist, date David Cassidy and gorge on Big Macs (mine was a healthy household, in thrall to Cranks). I wish I’d kept them now – all those shorthand records of my evolving awareness of what the world might offer. But it is the fate of lists to be thrown away, along with the ephemera of everyday living.
Now I compile a list every morning to tick off tasks that need to be accomplished before I clock off work. Scrawled on the back of envelopes or on old bank statements and scraps of card, these lists are scattered over the house as evidence of my commitment to productivity.
List-making is something I do not because I am organised, but because I am not. It’s my way of whipping myself into plausible shape. Yet with chronic insomnia eating at me, turning me into a bleary-eyed blob, drained of life and of colour, the lists I offload by night are designed to do the opposite: I want the lists to un-shape me. That way, my muscles can relax, my brain can wind down, my body simply flop. I pray that lists will be the key to getting me off the hook, letting me deliquesce into a mindless mass of animal matter that does what any other animal does in the dark, and rest.
If only I could sleep! This is my daily mantra – my keenest wish. Yet if I added my yearning for sleep to my wishlist, sleep would only thumb its nose at me, since sleep is one of those perverse states of being, whereby the more you hanker after it the more it spurns you. Court sleep and it denies you, evade it and it will besiege you. That is its way.
But what about insomnia? If I cannot tame or purge this blight of wakefulness, this wayward trespass of day into night, by weaponising my list-making, then at least I might exert a vengeance of sorts.
So what is insomnia to me?
Insomnia is the pickpocket who steals your house keys when your back is turned, then dangles them in front of you like bait, only to yank them away each time you try to swipe them back.
Insomnia is the last groover on the dance floor, still going at it when everyone else has collapsed in a heap, singing along to all the tunes, whooping it up, letting it rip. But insomnia has no goddam beats.
Insomnia wants to crawl beneath your skin and there erect a million micro-tents – every tiny tent pole a tantalising itch.
Insomnia sounds like a high-pitched buzzer to a multi-storey city apartment block through which people endlessly come and go.
Insomnia has a bad case of Tourette’s.
Insomnia is your internalised Jewish mother: every time you feel yourself relaxing it prods you, wanting to know: are you hungry? Are you cold? Have you been to the toilet? Have you washed your face?
Insomnia is greedy, like the levitating egg-shaped ghoul from Ghostbusters who snuffles up platters of leftovers in hotel corridors before room service can clear them away.
Insomnia is the totality of pins dancing on the head of a needle.
Insomnia is the needle.
Insomnia wants to needle.
Insomnia is a relentless nag.
Insomnia wants to play all night long, like a child who has not yet learnt to recognise its own limitations.
Insomnia is a vacuum cleaner draining juice from the wall socket and spinning off round the room on its own accord.
Insomnia is the bloom on the agar plate, iridescent and revolting.
Insomnia is the idiot driver who enjoys revving the car engine at stopped traffic lights, foot on the pedal and nowhere to go.
Insomnia is that house in the street where every window rattles because of the vibrating boom-box baselines pounding within.
Insomnia is a junkie – a coked-up arriviste, wide-eyed and needy – who is convinced they’re more interesting than they are.
Insomnia will try any hypodermic.
Insomnia is a head-banging Goth, sweaty and kohl-eyed.
Insomnia is a vampire that will suck your blood and initiate you into the lonely underworld of night waking.
Insomnia leaves the tap running.
Insomnia is the drip-drip-drip of senseless thought overflowing through mind and body and bedroom.
Insomnia opens the door onto the void and rushes out through it.
The ghost of your insomnia will haunt you by day.
Insomnia will pull out your earplugs and subject you to a clattering, pot-banging assault.
Insomnia is afraid of the dark.
Insomnia cannot dream, but knows how to trip.
Insomnia only has one dimension, so you cannot see it – only feel it.
Insomnia roams the web of streets in town after town, switching on all the lights.
Insomnia is a hungry cannibal: its mouth is stained with blood.
Insomnia will eat you alive.