I used to be an insomniac. This is quite a statement for me: insomnia was part of my being for so long that I can't quite imagine myself without it. It is the negative sides of the personality that often feel most disorientating to change. Bernard Levin, a lifelong arachnophobe, was once offered some kind of treatment that promised him freedom from the phobia, but he declined, concerned that his fear of spiders operated so deep within him that erasing it would fundamentally reset the coordinates of his personality. I know what he means, about insomnia. I also, as it happens, know what he means about spiders. Perhaps I just am Bernard Levin.
Another Premier League intellectual, Bertrand Russell, said: "Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact." This is true, up to a point. Insomnia, like depression, can operate as a boast, a way of presenting oneself in public with the subtext: I am tortured and have depth. However, like depression, in private it is a living hell. It is of very little consolation, when you're thrashing your legs in and out of the sheets, or fighting off psychic demons at 3am, or counting sheep into the minus numbers, or watching the dawn light come up behind the bedroom curtain, that it's just possible that tomorrow in the pub some girl may think that the bags under (and bloodshot in) your eyes indicate that you're artistic, or sensitive, or have a brain so sparky it resists sleep – particularly when more likely she'll just think you're drunk. The sense of strangeness about not-being-an-insomniac-any-more is enhanced because I've had to renounce it professionally. I used to do insomnia jokes; my first novel is about an insomniac. I get asked, from time to time, to do documentaries and stuff about the condition, and I have to tell them, sorry, I haven't got it now. This never quite feels true, even though it is. It feels like a disacknowledgment of the self, like saying no, I'm not Jewish any more, or no, I don't like football any more. And every so often it comes back, with a vengeance – I'll be in a cold, uncomfortable hotel room, or I'll have drunk the kind of red wine that gives you a hangover almost as soon as you down it, or, as happened last week, on the night before beginning my new sitcom, I'm under pressure to sleep, knowing I've got something really big and important and requiring wakefulness the next day – and my brain will once again become a buzzing fly, consuming and regurgitating the same shit round and round and round. Which is when I realise that, whatever character confirmation insomnia creates, I'm better off without it.
In a sense, insomnia also gave me my career – insofar as I had to do something that allowed me to get up at 11.30 every day. Standup comedy wasn't the best way of combating insomnia, however, as after a hard night's work I'd be full of that well-known sedative, adrenaline. Many people would advise me that the cure was to get up early, but that, I thought, was impossible if I hadn't slept the night before. And so it went on, for years and years, with my duvet covers getting ever crustier, until I had children. At which point it turned out the people advising me were right: if, over a sustained period (like 12 years), you get up ridiculously early – because, say, someone is banging their tiny fists into your face – then, eventually, you get to be so tired that you go to sleep at night. It all seems so simple now. I sleep really well most of the time. Of course, because I'm older – and, also, of course, because I have children – I'm generally much, much more exhausted.
© David Baddiel. David Baddiel's show Fame: Not The Musical is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1, from 29 April-23 May.