Reflections on Insomnia (Part 1)


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As an interlude from the series of ‘poems to stay at home with’, I am posting an essay inspired by my reading of two recent books on insomnia: The Shapeless Unease, by Samantha Harvey, and Insomnia by Marina Benjamin.

This piece was first published on 5th April as ‘The Big Read’ at Wales Arts Review, for which many thanks to editor Gary Raymond.

Poetry service will hopefully resume on Monday.


As my insomnia has progressed over the years, and for long stretches has become the normal state of affairs, I have become expert at dressing in the dark. Reaching for my clothes at four in the morning, I find them without really seeing anything at all; I have learned to see through the dark, in much the same way that an experienced diver, swimming at depth for long spells, finds their way through murky waters. And the swimming analogy, as it happens, is not far-fetched; there is a secret synergy between sleeplessness and swimming, just as there is between sleep and water — a theme to which we will return.

The quality of darkness is nuanced, ever-shifting. The insomniac learns to differentiate between the subtle gradations of light, the shifting texture of the night. We insomniacs rarely need clocks; we are usually able to discern, within ten or fifteen minutes, what time it is. And there is something else, which Marina Benjamin describes near the start of her 2018 book, Insomnia: ‘When I am up at night,’ she writes, ‘the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static . . . In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.’

In Benjamin’s nocturnal wanderings I recognise my own: conversations with the bemused, sleepy dog; a trail of crumbs around the kitchen, evidence of food I cannot remember eating; reading glasses upturned on the coffee table. ‘Sapped by fatigue’, she writes, ‘I stand in the middle of the living room in the dusty light . . . I am trying to puzzle out the clues so as to reconstruct the events of the night before, but I keep blanking.’ It is like visiting a crime scene. ‘All that is lacking is the body shape outlined on the floor: the missing body, wakeful when it should be sleeping.’

This missing body perfectly encapsulates the defining characteristic of the insomniac: their absence — even from themselves.  As I wander through the house at night, my prevailing thought is that I am not here. I am absent, vacated; in a real sense a shadow of myself. If you were to approach me, I would seem to be standing there, in front of you, but if you prodded me in the chest with a firm finger, I would shatter, disintegrate, turn to dust. There is no one here in the darkness.

Back in the first decade of the Millennium, my insomnia was way out of control. I manage my sleeplessness better these days.  Like any other deficiency or handicap, one learns to cope, finds strategies for survival. Nowadays these strategies very rarely feature any of the wide range of prescription and other drugs that I once consumed so thoughtlessly, and which did nothing to help me sleep, but only disoriented me further. Back in the bad old days, I would stagger into work, at the university where I taught, where I still teach, shattered after no sleep at all, ghostly, dead-eyed, like a wraith, gabbing on in seminars in zombie mode, drifting in and out of slumber, once even falling asleep while standing, giving a lecture. I recall, from the worst period of my insomnia, a snippet of student feedback; rather than commenting on the content or delivery of the module, the student had written simply: ‘I believe Dr Gwyn may suffer from narcolepsy’. But it wasn’t narcolepsy that sent me to sleep so much as the accumulated effect of sleep deprivation.


 *.    *.    *


Sleeplessness, like Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, is a topic upon which everyone has an opinion. The Western world is apparently living though an insomnia epidemic, or, as a recent Guardian article spun it, ‘a golden age of sleeplessness.’  As someone with a vested interest in the subject, I am alert to any new publications on the subject, as reading about insomnia is about as near as I am likely to get to treating my own.

I have written about insomnia before. In my novel The Blue Tent, the protagonist is a hopeless insomniac, and in The Vagabond’s Breakfast I vented, tetchily, on behalf of the sleepless:

‘An insomniac is never short of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Everyone has experienced difficulty in getting to sleep, and many people feel that this qualifies them to offer advice based on the authority of experience. “Oh, I have trouble sleeping”, they will tell you, and what they mean is that they have struggled from time to time to get to sleep, have tossed and turned for a while, or woken in the night and found it hard to return to their slumber; but essentially these setbacks rarely make a dent on their seven or eight hours of regular sleep. Such people find it impossible to conceive of the extent of disability endured by a serious Contender for the World Title, such as myself. Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get to sleep – it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of night, awaiting the dawn as a mortally injured man might await morphine, in the hope that with the light will come sleep, if only for an hour, or half an hour.’


*     *.    *


‘When I don’t sleep,’ Samantha Harvey writes, in her recent book, The Shapeless Unease, ‘which is very often, I don’t sleep at all. It’s not so much that I’m a bad sleeper these days, it’s that I am a non-sleeper. I am a bad sleeper too, but nights of bad sleep are the good nights, because they involve sleep.’

That’s right: nights of bad sleep are the good nights.  On such nights even the suggestion of sleep seems miraculous, and you await it with greedy, hopeless anticipation. And sometimes, just sometimes, you are gifted a miraculous burst of sudden, unexpected sleep, and wake with the prevailing sense that you are refreshed, and wondrously alive, only to check the time and observe that you have slept for all of ten minutes, and with that realisation a dreadful fatigue and lethargy will overcome you: you have been duped, and your poor gullible body has responded as if it had rested for several hours. The truth afforded by the alarm clock suggests otherwise, and the body slumps back, resigned to this seeping drip drip drip of exhaustion, and a redoubled sense of injustice: how could you have been so easily fooled?

It is generally proposed by health professionals who advise on sleep problems that the insomniac who is awake in the dead of night should follow a simple rule. If you are unable to return to sleep within fifteen minutes, you should get out of bed and do something (preferably something healthy and affirmative, but not too strenuous, and not in a place bathed in bright light, and certainly not involving electronic devices of any kind). I tend to follow this rule, unless I have a strong gut feeling that I am going to return to sleep.

Samantha Harvey, by contrast, is an advocate of the ‘stay in bed and worry’ school of insomnia. When challenged by a therapist about her refusal to abide by the fifteen minute rule, she says, petulantly: ‘Sometimes I get up, it doesn’t help. I feel angry about getting up. I don’t want to be up, I want to be asleep.’ To which the therapist replies: ‘You shouldn’t be in bed awake. Have you heard of sleep hygiene?’  The therapist suggests doing something gentle, like ironing, or emptying the dishwasher. ’I don’t have a dishwasher, or an iron,’ Harvey whines. ‘I once had an iron but I don’t know where it is any more.’ Eventually she compromises on a jigsaw puzzle.

Nights awake are vast, empty places; ‘the longest, largest, most cavernous of things’ according to Harvey. ‘There is acre upon acre of night, and whole eras come and go, and there isn’t another soul to be found on the journey though to the morning.’ If you endure, say, three or four of these night in a row, it really begins to take its toll. ‘I give up,’ you say into the darkness, ‘and then into the morning light, I give up.’

The Shapeless Unease, however, is so much more than a litany of woe, evoking the terrible desolation of the long-distance insomniac. It is beautifully crafted and its achievement makes itself more apparent on a second reading. In an interview with Tessa Hadley for the London Review of Books podcast, Harvey claims that the thing came together as a collection of notes, and never was intended as a book. It just happened. She wrote some sentences, she says, and then some more sentences, instinctively and without design, and if this is  impressive it is not entirely surprising either. A sense of spontaneity, or skilled improvisation, lies at the heart of it.  The writing is both tight and loose, as Geoff Dyer once put it, following the model of jazz legend Charlie Mingus: ‘the Mingus ideal — tight and loose at the same time.’  Harvey’s book is funny as well, never more so than when she is off on one of her pet riffs, such as the inappropriate use of the descriptor ‘great’, in collocation with the noun ‘Britain’, and its  appropriation to mean ‘above average’, ‘most important’, ‘really good’ etc., as it has been in countless outbursts in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, celebrating Britain and Britishness: ‘Great British Values, the Great British Public . . . The Great British people have spoken’ . . . ‘Who says we are great?’ asks Harvey, and ‘Great at what exactly? At being British?’ (As an aside, I always thought that the ‘great’ in Great Britain came about because the word ‘Britain’ is — rather neatly, in light of recent developments — borrowed from the French ‘Bretagne’ (Brittany). Topographically, the island of Britain somewhat resembles Brittany, and ‘Great Britain’ simply refers to a larger Brittany (Grande Bretagne) and was so called by the invading Normans to distinguish it from the region of northern France, just as Great Gidding is juxtaposed with Little Gidding, or Great Yarmouth (Norfolk) is differentiated from Yarmouth (Isle of Wight). However, such distinctions are doubtless irrelevant to readers of the Mail.)

The book’s narrative accurately mimics the wandering of the sleepless mind, as Harvey — or ‘the insomniac’, one of several voices through which she speaks — lies abed, struggling with her fears, her anxieties, the piled up detritus of her waking life, which includes, among other things, musings on the nature of language and Chomsky’s recursive grammar (by which we embed one clause inside another, one thought within another) versus the non-recursive language of the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon; the idiocy of Brexit (‘an almighty, extravagant, eternal show of shit’); her anger that ‘the week we gained Donald Trump as a world leader we lost Leonard Cohen, in some deal that even the Devil must have flinched at’; the fashion for prefixing the titles of TV programmes with the adjective ‘secret’, such as The Secret Lives of Dogs, The Secret Life of Ireland, The Secret Life of the Zoo, Secrets of Underground Britain (‘not so fucking secret are they, if every other programme is intent on airing them?’); the recurring memory of her first period in front of Ann Hathaways’s table while on a school trip to Stratford (‘the blood and the shame and the reckoning with a sanitary towel’); the wretchedness of adults (the abandonment and death of her beloved childhood dog); visits to an unsympathetic doctor (‘No catastrophising!’) and again to the infuriating therapist (“Why don’t you spray some lavender on your pillow?’); the nightly swelling fear of sleeplessness, and its inevitable, relentless arrival.

One of the most moving and unsettling passages in The Shapeless Unease is Harvey’s account of an hiatus in her year of not sleeping, when the insomniac responds to a sedating antidepressant and goes swimming. It is July and the sun blasts down on a small lake in a meadow in Wiltshire. The drug has gifted her a few nights of proper sleep and she has awoken to bright thoughts, is refreshed and energised. She swims up and down the lake. She swims below the surface, where there are ‘water fleas and nematodes and giant water bugs and scuds.  Some small fish and tiny crustaceans. Even with goggles the insomniac can’t see any of this through the water, which is the amber of brewed tea that’s been lightly milked.’ We look down on the swimming insomniac from high in the pristine sky, gazing through the thin crisp air, past the ‘buzzards, pigeons, crows, magpies, swifts, all swimming at their own depths in the sky’, zooming in on the swimmer far below, who, just then, ‘stops mid-lake to float on her back and look up at the dragonflies and swifts and magpies and buzzards and can find no words for how extraordinary the world is and how inexplicable and gracious is life . . ’.  As the drug starts to lose its effect, and the sleeplessness returns, the insomniac continues to visit the lake, but the beauty and mystery of the occasion begins to be clouded by doubts; as she swims up and down, arms windmilling in front crawl, she becomes convinced that something up in the sky is waiting to fall. It is a thought that has been there since she started taking the drugs; the imminence of insomnia’s return; the threat of a return to the long nights of nothing, nada.

A few days later the thought shifts: from the imagined high vantage point in the sky, will she be small enough to go unnoticed by the unnamed watcher? Who is the unnamed watcher? I imagine the figure of Death, who makes an appearance earlier in the book (a tall figure in black, carrying a scythe), when a girl (young Sam) and a boy (her cousin, whose death in real time appears early on in the book) are playing listlessly in a garden, and the two children follow the Reaper, in spite of themselves, and ‘begin to play a game for which there were no rules and no aim, because it seemed there was no choice.’

After nearly three weeks off swimming, the drugs have no effect at all, zero-sleep nights are back, and the ‘pale, starfished figure of the swimmer is like a piece of bait’. She has become bait: bait, I would venture, for the tirelessly patient figure of Death. She panics, feels alone and in danger. The fear of insomnia creeps into her every perception and the world is a dangerous place once more.

The blissful assent granted by swimming in a lake descends into panic, and one will do anything to have sleep back; one will bargain with insomnia, barter hopelessly with sleep; bargain with a God in whom one does not believe, or with Death itself.


                                                                      *    *    *


Samantha Harvey is horrified by the ritual of dressing after a sleepless night, its abject necessity, its futile routine: ‘Always something unbearable about this process — the process of getting dressed in the morning after a night of no sleep, getting into the very clothes you took off the night before when you embarked on the ritual of bedtime as if such things as sleep applied to you any more. The pile of clothes is an open rebuke. I want to say they mock a lost innocence even though I know this makes no sense, but more and more I make this unconscious association between innocence and sleep.’ And she’s right to make this connection. The compound noun ‘bedtime’ is replete with cosy and infantile connotations of hot-water bottles and teddy bears, warm milk and winceyette pyjamas, the welcome imposition of a rehearsed and ordered normality, the unthinking acceptance that there is a time designated specifically for bed and innocent slumber. The insomniac suffers a heart-wrenching nostalgia for a time when ‘bedtime’ meant something good.

Perhaps getting dressed becomes an act of such grotesque routine, such cruel parody, because you yourself are a parody of a well-slept person getting dressed. In fact, almost all of the insomniac’s activity becomes in some way as if, parodic: so shattered and knackered have you become, such (I repeat) a shadow of yourself — and not until I became an insomniac did I appreciate the accuracy of that cliché. You are a parody of a person taking a shower; a parody of a person pouring a cup of coffee, a parody of a person making conversation: everything takes place at a remove, as if blearily observing yourself going through the motions of a normal life, all the time feeling at a remove, as if all this were happening to another person, an impostor, the person impersonator who has taken over your body and your mind when you weren’t paying attention. How could you have been so careless as to not pay attention, how could you have let the demons of sleeplessness steal your soul, take over your body? How could you have been so very, very stupid as to lose your innocence in this way, and with it lose all the good, kind, soft, well-washed things that pertain to sleep, allow them all to overrun and spill into the slurry of dirt and waste and rotten, broken things that furnish your insomniac’s beggarly basement? All this runs through your mind like the chattering of a thousand monkeys as you step into your jogging pants, and pull a hoodie over your head.


To be continued . . . 

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