Novelist, poet, and translator Richard Gwyn explores his own insomnia charting his unique experiences by way of the latest books on the subject by Samantha Harvey and Marina Benjamin, and finds there a community of sufferers that offers light and understanding.
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.
* * *
It seems only fair, at this point, to say something about how to deal with insomnia; how to approach it with a sense of purpose, how to break its hold on the poor sleepless victim, especially if that victim is you. A ‘cure for insomnia’, maybe.
Gayle Greene’s 2008 book, Insomniac, provides an exhaustive and at times entertaining account of the author’s attempt to find an effective treatment for the condition. Her investigations bring her to the conclusion that the medical world is really not interested in insomnia. Other sleep disorders are prioritised, such as sleep apnoea: ‘Apnoea is where the money is,’ one researcher tells her; ‘apnoea is where the career opportunities are,’ says another. ‘No one wants to know about insomnia, I’m afraid,’ a GP told me once. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s probably genetic; at least in part.’
That much appears to be true, since both my siblings experience recurrent bouts of insomnia. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) — persistent jerky movements in the lower limbs — from which I suffer, also seems to be genetic, and occasionally exacerbates my insomnia. Unfortunately, if you have RLS, you are automatically excluded from attending any of the UK’s very few sleep clinics, even if the insomnia is not contingent on the RLS. So there’s not a lot of help from the medical profession, other than sleeping pills (which are now more heavily regulated than ever before) or referral to a counsellor, who, like Harvey’s, will recommend adherence to a regime of sleep hygiene, along with hot milky drinks, sprinkling lavender on your pillow, recordings of waves breaking on the shore, gentle mood music, a warm bath before bed, whatever.
Paradoxically, in the light of medical science’s silence on the topic, a global sleep industry has emerged in recent years, flooding the online market and airwaves in much the same way as the multifarious alternative diets and healthy eating campaigns, all products of a consumerist philosophy in which we must be sold the fashionable advice, follow the tweets of the media’s self-help guru of the moment, buy the widget, get the app. Sleep has become a commodity, like any other. According to a recent report, the sleep aid industry turned over an estimated $76 billion last year, the millennial malady taking over from depression, which hogged the headlines in the 90s: remember Prozac Nation?
A. Roger Ekirch’s fascinating 2005 study, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, exposes the idea of a solid eight-hour stretch of sleep as a recent invention. Indigenous and non-industrialised peoples have very different sleep patterns to those of us in the industrialised nations, where a couple of centuries of the Protestant work ethic has forced people into following a sleep routine that has its basis in nothing more scientific than the demands of a capitalist means of production. In the medieval and pre-modern period, people in Europe took a first, and then a second sleep, retiring with darkness, but rising before sunrise and getting on with their various tasks; sewing or weaving, cooking, having sex, and returning for a second sleep — or not — always knowing that they could grab a snooze later in the morning, or a siesta in the afternoon. ‘In Colombia,’ a Colombian friend told me, ‘we like to take our siesta before lunch’ — and he was only half-joking. Why are we so uptight about our eight hours of uninterrupted sleep?
Perhaps if we were less neurotic about sleep, we wouldn’t deem insomnia such a problem. I continue to spend much of the night up and about, but it comes in waves; a few weeks on, a few weeks off, and when I’m sleepless I try not to let it bother me. If I can’t sleep, I don’t worry. I just get up and do stuff. I talk to my dog, I bake bread; I meditate, I read, I write. The worst thing for the insomniac is fear of sleeplessness; it becomes an incremental malaise. I don’t sleep; I worry; I sleep even less because I’m worried about not sleeping. And so on, in a vicious cycle of anxiety, self-blame, fear, and more sleeplessness.
Marina Benjamin remarks that her insomnia is ‘to a large extent a First World, post-capitalist artefact’, but confesses that the knowledge is of no use to her, unless she does something with it. In her case, as in Harvey’s, part of the solution lies in writing about it. ‘But then the fear that presses in on me is that my work might be fated never to transcend the neurotic’, she adds — a fear, I must admit, that may have seeped into my writing of this essay. In the vast context of what is wrong with the world, does my insomnia count for anything at all? Probably not, but neither is that the point. When seen in perspective, not much of what affects us in the daily round counts for much, but it is from those very flakes of the everyday, alongside the debris of our dreams, that we make sense of the things around us; and if by writing we improve our own understanding, we might, with luck, temporarily lighten the load of those who share our fears and concerns. Otherwise, why write at all?
Benjamin’s ‘taxonomy of darkness’ may seem like a recondite matter, but it articulates the surging mess of the nocturnal — and the unconscious — that spills over into the everyday. This is what gives us succour. Myth — humankind’s way of ordering the unconscious — has always been alive to the mysteries of darkness in order to better understand the world. This, after all, is what myths do. Orpheus failed in his mission to rescue Eurydice from Hades, but on his return sang more beautifully than before. ‘Ancient heroes’, writes Benjamin, ‘who wished to see things for what they really were had to pass through underworlds, or they dwelled in caves; sometimes, like Oedipus, they could see clearly only once they had been blinded.’ In some traditional societies (and in ancient Egypt) seekers after spiritual knowledge would spend a period of time in incubation, isolated from the world. Who knows, perhaps the self-isolation imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic will harvest benefits in just this way.
Benjamin and Harvey both find solace in those fragments of their lives and the lives of others that come to them at night and in the half-light, and the process of piecing things together, in the manner of a collage, or a mosaic, is something that is evident in the making of both these books. Both women have succeeded in forging something coherent and many-layered out of the scraps and shards scattered by sleeplessness. Benjamin’s account is more cerebral, speculative, and overtly digressive, while Harvey’s — as befits a novelist — relies more heavily on narrative and on pasting in images from her own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the interjection, by instalment, of a story about a man who robs cash machines, a seemingly random tale, which, however, has its own random logic. What, we might ask, is this story doing in a book about insomnia? (In her LRB podcast, Harvey admits that she fully expected her editor to ask her to pull it). But its randomness, perhaps, is precisely the point. It is a piece in the puzzle, another clue dropped into the narrative: remember when the therapist suggests a jigsaw as a gentle way of passing the empty hours of her sleepless nights?
Benjamin writes approvingly of Joseph Cornell’s collage technique: ‘that art of reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image . . . using the images of the commonplace to make something new.’ This idea can be likened to a comment made by the novelist Brian Aldiss, and cited by Benjamin in an article she wrote in The Guardian around the time of her book’s release: The ‘great attraction of insomnia,’ Aldiss observed, is that ‘the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.’ The idea is taken up again, and pushed a little further, towards the end of Benjamin’s account, when she suggests that insomnia, by picking up ‘the frayed thread-ends of one’s own existence’ might, just sometimes, evoke ‘the faintly delectable buzz of a cosmic hum that was there before human beings came into existence and will be there until the end of time’ — something which, in another language, might be called God.
And it seems apposite to me, in writing of insomnia, to equate such quasi-religious yearnings with the idea of the disintegrating self. This soul work relies heavily on a breaking down of the self in order to achieve some kind of integrity. ‘My self is a self understood through fragments. My self is a scattered thing’, writes Harvey (who, it seems, is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy). ‘I look in the mirror and I don’t know myself very much. I look at what I write and it’s like being introduced to my soul. Every time for the first time, not always liking what I see.’
And so we arrive inevitably at the role of writing in this business of insomnia. Harvey takes up a line she discovers in Larkin: ‘the million-petalled flower of being here’ — a phrase, she claims, that acts ‘like a steroid straight to the veins.’ The words appear to her as a revelation, when she is plunged deep in her insomnia — and I can see why. It is such a spectacularly un-Larkinesque sentiment, for one thing. For another, it is one of those lines, as Harvey claims, that can knock one’s life a little off axis. One can equate such an epiphany with Benjamin’s flurry of cosmic consciousness, late in her book, as well as with the idea that sleeplessness might at times act as a crucible for intense creativity (though it can also, it goes without saying, be exactly the opposite). ‘Writing’, Benjamin claims, ‘is. . . one of the few observances — sleep obviously being another — that get me beyond myself. Gets me ‘out of the way’, as we say in creative writing classes.’
The paradox that remained with me after reading Benjamin’s book was that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a desire to follow the imaginative threads left hanging by insomnia, and to use them creatively. This paradox is summarised at the very end of her account, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light’, before concluding, emphatically, almost defiantly: ‘This is the song of insomnia and I shall sing it.’
Harvey tells it rather differently: ‘Writing is dreaming,’ she says: ‘It is lucid dreaming — the work of the subconscious that has a toe in the conscious, just enough to harness the dream’s waywardness. I always heard it said that writing draws on the subconscious, but that isn’t true. It is the subconscious, and it draws on the conscious.’ She continues: ‘In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write, my nerves settle. I am sane, sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move.’ How fitting, then, that her book ends with a celebration of swimming as the ‘cure for insomnia’.
On certain days of summer, when I take myself out to sea for a long swim, there is just that sense of joy tinged with an intimation of danger that are the necessary preconditions for writing. Swimming, like writing, is precisely that: being nothing and nowhere in a silence where shapes move.