At some point I began calling myself an insomniac. I mentioned my problem to others casually, in passing, and matter-of-factly, as in, there’s no dispute about this. I said it like I might say, “I have long hair,” or “I’ve got this one tooth that’s crooked.”
Insomnia, to most people, means “can’t sleep.” That’s the simplest way to define it, I suppose, but it’s more nuanced than that. There are insomniacs who can fall asleep in minutes, but they wake up in the middle of the night and blink at the dark until daybreak offers relief. Some insomniacs go to sleep and make it until just before they are supposed to wake up, a maddening pattern that gyps them out of that last hour of peace before the alarm. And then there’s me: Mostly I’m the kind of insomniac who just can’t fall asleep. I could lay in bed tossing and turning for hours before sleep decides to prevail.
The dictionary defines an insomniac as someone who “suffers” from the chronic inability to fall asleep or remain asleep for an adequate length of time. I no longer see insomnia that way, as suffering. I used to, and no wonder; I was locked in a battle against my body, my brain’s activity, even my creative impulses. I had a particularly long bout of intense insomnia not long after I moved to San Francisco, about seven years ago, and that was the first time I realized that being awake when others might be sleeping was going to be a pattern for me. I fought it. Hard. I sought help for it, and was given all kinds of scary medications that brought on the bliss of sleep in minutes and took any feelings of grogginess away as they retreated in the morning. They were helpful, if a little disconcerting, but meant to bring aid only on the worst of nights. I was uncomfortable taking them and doctors were reluctant to prescribe them. They are, after all, narcotics. So I fought being awake however I could. I recently reread a journal entry I wrote late one of those anxious nights and was surprised how frantic and desperate my wishes for sleep were:
Lack of sleep – no, not merely lack of sleep…hunger for sleep…craving of sweet, sweet unconsciousness…
Thoughts flap about as if birds encased in glass. Bang! Bang! They crash, with a sudden surprising flutter, and unanswered questions, half-baked schemes and fleeting whispers drift like stray feathers to blackness.
What will I do at work tomorrow? What books can I read? Will I ever be a good writer? Bang! Bang! Bang!. The mind, given a choice, would never rest, seizing every opportunity to jolt me into some tangle of what-ifs and then-whats.
In time, I realized that fighting my insomnia was counterproductive. Now I (mostly) enjoy the nights when I cannot sleep. There are a lot fewer of them, too. I don’t lay in bed worrying about how the next day will be awful because I’ll be so tired. I don’t toss and turn. I get up. It’s one of my favorite times of the day, because I do what I want, and there’s something thrilling about being awake when everyone else seems to be asleep. I laze about in our spare bedroom reading (sometimes for hours). I write, though at night I struggle more for words and am less productive than I am in the morning. I scratch out ideas and sketch the things that tumble about in my head. More often, I think about what I will write, later, when my head is clear and I’ve managed to sleep. There’s research out there that links creativity and insomnia, and I don’t doubt that connection. Sometimes those hours of peace when I can let my mind go where it wishes are the only time I can think about writing ideas without interruption — not just from other people, or the dog, but from TV and the Internet (I rarely watch or surf when I can’t sleep, and most advice on dealing with insomnia will suggest the same.)
But there’s also something about being awake in those hours: Insomniacs hear the scufflings of night creatures, the creaks of houses shifting their weight, the yowls of cats fighting in the yard. We see gardens blue with moonlight and sip tea against lonely chills. There are lots of famous writers known to have insomnia: Mark Twain was an insomniac, as were Franz Kafka and Alexandre Dumas and the poet Amy Lowell. You have to wonder about Van Gogh (Take a look at “Starry Night”), and Munch (ditto) and Miro (“Constellations”).
The “suffering” of insomnia has little to do with not sleeping at night. It’s the next zombie-like day that causes the suffering. No matter how much I look forward to late-night hours of thought and creation, I still have to get up in the morning and make it through the next 14 or 16 hours. And I do get through, whether insomnia has robbed me of sleep or not. Thankfully, there’s coffee.
Insomnia and I have established a wary partnership. As Joan Didion wrote in the essay “In Bed,” about her migraines:
And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger. We have reached a certain understanding….