Eyes wide shut


I write this as I am stranded in the limbo land between days. It is three o'clock in the morning and everything hidden in the background of daily life has come crawling forth: the tortuous ticking of the clocks, the thudding of my heartbeat, the tapping away of the keyboard, measuring out time, blood, words.

These are the loneliest hours in the universe, a wasteland of time, worse even than the deathly middle of the afternoon. It feels like I am the only person left in the world awake. But then the bright blue bleeping of a text message makes me jump right out of my loneliness. My gluey eyes scramble the strange black shapes into some meaning:

"You still awake? Please say yes."


"Oh thank God I am not the only one suffering ;-)"

Far from being alone in my insomnia, at this twilight hour there are at least 3 million people in Britain tossing and turning, eyes burning, restlessly pacing through their houses and unruly consciousnesses. A report published earlier this year, Insomniac Britain, researched by the Future Foundation for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, revealed that 27% of the population - 12 million people - have at least three bad nights of sleep a week, with 63% suffering from at least one bad night. The problem seems to be worsening: the study found that almost one in four people were finding it increasingly difficult to sleep well.

How to cure sleeplessness other than by banging one's head against the bed-board in despair? Evelyn Waugh used bromides. Charles Dickens had to lie in the exact middle of the mattress. Vincent van Gogh soaked his bed in camphor. Winston Churchill had twin beds and swapped between them. Alexandre Dumas gave up trying, and wrote novels instead.

I have tried all the traditional remedies. I have soaked my life in lavender. I have glugged down glasses of hot milk. I bought soft pillows, eye patches and flooded the room in chill-out music. Still, the hours have ticked by, until the harsh light of dawn cut up my eyeballs. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills but it was like being torn in two: my body would become a dead log while my mind still fluttered on.

"You should try a glass of red wine, it always helps me," a good Samaritan suggested. Red wine! I kept a bottle stashed in arm's reach. When sleep eluded me, I would have a few swigs. It bought a fitful semblance of oblivion, but with it, troubled dreams. And by morning, I'd still be a little tipsy.


Snoring leaks through the walls, the floorboards creak, the refrigerator whirrs, a cat's shrieking tears up the night. The traffic outside has slowed to just the occasional scream of a siren. But these are the hours when all the internal traffic starts up - the insomniac mind's congested rush hour.

I'm a hair's breath from tumbling into oblivion, but then some loose end of the day snags at me, dragging me back up to the world and all its hard edges. The mind endlessly replays, rewrites the day's events. Some switch stubbornly refuses to turn off.


I am falling asleep, I know it. But then the lunatic singing of a bird shreds me to pieces.


The world has contracted into just my sticky eyeballs, swivelling round and round.


The sun has crawled up the sky. But suddenly everything blacks out.




The alarm clock forces open my eyelids. I awake from my precious two hours of sleep infinitely more tired. I haul my leaden body and mind out of bed. Glug down my first cup of coffee. Insomnia ages you - it's almost as if, not having slept, you've lived twice as long. Look at ghastly, zombified face in mirror. It shows some tiny twitches of life. Better have some more coffee.

At first, it isn't so bad, but then the caffeine wears out, my breathing becomes irregular, my hands start to tremble, my stomach muscles are all twisted up like a fist permanently punching me. Time, I think, for another coffee. And perhaps some ProPlus, energy tablets, ginseng, Coca-Cola, Lucozade, freezing cold shower ...

Despite my best efforts at seeming half alive, the inevitable death toll comes: "Are you OK? You look tired." I am plunged into unknown depths of weariness.

"Just leave me alone."

When the pattern of sleep and waking is severely disturbed, all the other patterns of life - normal behaviour, relationships, work - crumble too.


Waking life is a veritable nightmare, a living death. I step outside and the weight of the world crashes down on me. The air, even, seems to crush upon the head. My water bottle strains down my wrist. My legs - and brain - wade through some strange, treacly substance, my feet jammed on to the floor so that even lifting one foot is an effort. Yes, any description of insomnia lends itself to ludicrous exaggeration; but life itself becomes distorted. The world is difficult to process, with the senses in disarray, the perceptual comprehension skewed. The hideous offspring of insomnia are disorientation and irrational thinking; indeed, total sleep loss deranges the mind. Am I actually asleep and dreaming this? The days lose their contours, gliding into each other in a gluey blur of light and shadow and noise. Tenses become confused.

At the height of my insomnia, my hands stopped being able to hold things - things kept slipping out of them. Cappuccino spilt all over a manuscript, a plate smashed on to the kitchen floor, my toes sore from dropping things on them. My head, too, would be unable to hold things. Nothing would stick in there for more then a few moments - names, dates, things to do - everything tumbled out. I would lose track of time, forgetting even to watch Robert Winston's How to Sleep Better.

Sleep is as essential as food and water and friendship. Deprived of it, a pervasive sense of physical and emotional unwellness takes hold. Slow wave sleep, when one is in deep sleep, is essential for the rejuvenation of physical processes, for it is when the body is thought to carry out most of its repair work. During this time, the growth hormone, important for children, is secreted (could this be why I am so short?), and important for adults in assisting with the healing of muscles (is this why my limbs ache?). REM sleep is vital for emotional health: dreams are thought to deal with unfulfilled emotional arousal, thus, underdreaming leads to hyperactivity. I haven't dreamt enough. Just as skin hasn't healed and the number of natural killer cells is reduced, causing physical illness, likewise you are left with emotional skin as thin as this paper, so that the slightest thing can trigger unwarranted tears. Insomnia also breaks down the body's natural biological clock, throwing the rhythms of life into discord.

At the nadir of insomnia, I lost my equilibrium, became seasick. At work, I would stand up (to get a coffee) and my body would sway and bang into the desk. I would stagger about, bumping into things - objects were painful, people even more so: "Oops, sorry, not you again." The instructions the brain gives out are not met, so that I would tell my leg to move and it would stay still as stone. A strange feeling of unravelling, of nothing coordinated. I would count out the wrong amount of change in the supermarket, mind stuck and stuttering - things had stopped adding up.


The mind seems to be functioning on some crazed reserve of energy, just as the body produces lactic acid when its own supplies have run out. I have reached that point where I am so exhausted that I cannot sleep.


What is keeping so many of us locked out of the Land of Nod? The Insomniac Britain report states that most people surveyed cited overactive thoughts, general anxiety and the excessive pace of modern life as root causes.

My insomnia peaked last year, when I was working late into the night, drinking copious amounts of caffeine, and sharing a room in which my sweet dreams would be blasted away by my flatmate's earthquake explosions of snoring. But I can't even remember when it first started. It definitely has roots in childhood and is now a habit that's difficult - aren't they all? - to break. It is probably conditioned sleeplessness, aggravated in times of upheaval. It is as if I am expecting to not fall asleep, so that, sometimes, when sleep finally comes like a blissful gift, my subconscious will be so surprised by it that it will jolt me awake just to let me know how grateful it is.

If sleep does finally come, Insomniac Britain reveals, it is often haunted by bad dreams. One third of those who remember their dreams have had a nightmare about at least one of the following: war, terrorism, a tsunami, a politician or a scene from a TV programme or film. But the nation's third-top dream, after work and childhood, is falling. We've all had that strange sensation, of dropping off to sleep only to be rudely awoken by a dream of falling. A fear of falling is, perhaps, at the root of some insomnia - a fear, as well as desire, of falling asleep, of letting ourselves go. One friend tells me that she cannot fall asleep because she is terrified of dying if she does. So, fears of falling, of failing, of all the half-emptiness; fears of death, keep us seat-belted intransigently into the waking world.

Tonight, I will try not to think about anything at all. I will let myself fall. Tonight, I will sleep like a baby, not a care in the world.


Still awake.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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