Insomnia usually begins with a lament, for the love (and loss) of sleep; over the red-eyed mornings and sludgelike days that tail the wakeful nights; for the rest you crave and cannot get and the cognitive snap that eludes you. Yet if we insist on viewing insomnia merely as a matter of negatives, a condition defined by lack, a nothing, a zero, a blank, then we risk missing what it can potentially reveal.
I’ve been insomniac all my life. As a child, my wakefulness was a matter of personal pride, a badge of honour signifying a shrewd vigilance (should any ghoul dare intrude upon my bedroom by night, it would meet with a grisly fate). Yet my refusal of sleep had less to do with my fear of the dark and the monsters it bred than with everyday suspicion: I simply could not fathom where people went to in sleep. They seemed lost to the world.
Terrified of the nullity that sleep imposed, I’d dodge the bedtime curfew each night: at lights out, a minor rebellion. Like Vladimir Nabokov (whose kindred spirit I had yet to encounter), I figured that sleep offered only a dumb conformity. Had I not been a child, I, too, might have described it as a “nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.”
I longed for the light of consciousness to burn throughout the dark nights.
These days, I’m less inclined to rejoice in the way my head is lit up at night, like an out-of-hours factory, when the whirring generators flip on, powering up the lights and the processing plants for a frenetic shift. Geared up this way, my mind trips ceaselessly from one mundane thought to the next, alighting upon a single word or meaningless riff or song snippet I happened to hear that day. Or it runs backward and forward over endless lists, stitching and unstitching. I compose strings of emails that could wait until morning, line up tasks in a shoulder-shoving queue. Mostly I just fret, worry-beading minor problems and irritations until they form a manacle of woe.
Since most people are sleeping when I’m awake — their circadian rhythms in happy synchrony with the diurnal clock — my insomnia is troubled by a sense of trespass, even contamination: the illicit importing of day into night. How can one not feel somewhat soiled by it?
The proponents of “sleep hygiene” have a lot to say about contamination, too. In this sense, the obsession with sleep hygiene has a kinship with the stylised fussiness of clean eating. Its rules dictate that rather than thrashing around in bed, not sleeping, the insomniac whose mind is polluted by looping dark thoughts and sudden lurching panics (the pesticides of wakefulness) should instead get up, switch rooms, attempt to read, make lists, make tea, listen to sleep tapes, meditate but not medicate, put on fresh sleepwear and experiment with soft lighting.
In a short essay titled Sleep, Night, published in 1955, the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot took a very different tack. Touching on the border-crossing wiliness of insomnia, he wrote: “To sleep with open eyes is an anomaly symbolically indicating something which the general consciousness does not approve of. People who sleep badly always appear more or less guilty. What do they do? They make night present.” Not for Blanchot the anodyne distractions of sleep hygiene, which conspire to evade night’s presence. His recommendation was that insomniacs leap into the night.
Heightened senses, everything amplified
This is not always easy. Anyone who has woken from a nightmare knows that shapes and colours morph in the dark. Night has its own alphabet, too, a sensory lexicon that is manifestly “other.” Lean in to insomnia and you can discern the varied granular textures of the dark. Tune in and your ears can feast on a strange nocturnal orchestration: animal, atmospheric, hydraulic, electric.
All your senses are heightened at night; everything is amplified. When you hear rustling leaves, it is as if you can pick out each individual flutter. The scurrying of small mammals offers a complex, scratchboard choreography. Listen hard along an internal register, and you sometimes pick up the pounding thud of your heart, or a mysterious whooshing that swirls through your ears like a miniature mistral. The cognitive realms of insomnia frequently resemble the dippy altered states induced by psychotropic drugs. (And of course, like a bad trip, the night can be full of terror: hypnagogic hallucinations causing mysterious shadows to sway before your open eyes or inducing furniture to hulk and loom.)
Just as artists, writers and seekers have used drugs to expand their minds, so have many sleepless souls wondered at one time or other if the insomniac mind, pushed to its lateral limits, might not yield insights as well as torments. Might there be some small comfort amid the suffering?
After all, once in a while, an unexpectedly profound thought will suddenly coalesce out of the dying remnants of a dream — and then I chase it down, all my insomniac energy bent on its capture. Again, I am reminded of Nabokov, delighting in the way his insomnia would explode in a “sunburst,” filling his head with ideas and fancies to feed his creative soul. The challenge involved, as Walt Whitman saw it, is to “see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth” and then “sweat the night into words,” as the poet Bernard Spencer more practically put it in his poem “Night-Time: Starting to Write.”
Maybe insomnia itself is a portal that encourages trafficking between the conscious and unconscious minds. On the one hand, as in her new book, “Why We Dream,” you can train yourself into lucid dreaming, exerting directorial control over the night brain’s filmic productions. Think of it, perhaps, as a form of scenario planning. Flip the direction of travel, though, and you become alert to the process Freud described when he wrote that during the day we “driveshafts” into our fresh chains of thought, and these shafts make contact with “dream thoughts.” This is how night and day fertilise each other. This — I’ve come to believe — is how creativity is born.
As ever, Freud’s grasp of the mind’s quirks proved prescient. Sleep scientists now speak of states in which the brain is neither awake nor sleeping, but both. According to at the Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, parts of the brain can drift into sleep during the day, effectively making sleepwalkers of us all, or shut down entirely, producing a flash sleep that endures for milliseconds and is experienced merely as a fractional slip of attention or momentary blackout. Perhaps, after all, sleep, not wakefulness, constitutes the mind’s default mode. And if that is the case, then perhaps insomnia is consciousness’ determined revenge.
— New York Times News Service
Marina Benjamin is the author, most recently, of ‘Insomnia’.