The irony was far too obvious to be ignored. I was unable to sleep for thinking about the books I was reading about insomnia. I was thinking about writing a post (this post) on the subject. The ideas and words and the books kept circulating in my brain, as those things do when you can’t sleep.
It began, my insomnia, in the time of Covid. My circular thoughts turned over fears about social isolation, especially for those over 60, about falling ill, about what we would lose in this pandemic. These thoughts engulfed me and interrupted my normally healthy sleep. I was not alone. Even without the anxieties over Covid, sleep experts had been referring to the widespread incidence of insomnia as an epidemic.
For the first 70 years of my life I had not bothered much about sleep. It came easily, refreshed in the way good sleep did. The worst impact was to be annoyed by how much time it took out of my life. I had had episodes of not sleeping when I worked in a very stressful job: headteacher of an inner-London secondary school. Then I had developed the technique of noting down whatever was troubling me and adding an action to take the following day which would move me towards a resolution of the issue. And then I would fall asleep. I did not regard this as insomnia, more as an inevitable outcome of the stress of the job. My blood pressure remained low, my appetite remained good but my sleep was infrequently interrupted.
But since March 2020 sleep has frequently eluded me, usually disappearing between 2 and 3 am. I developed several responses, all of which took at least an hour, sometimes two, to get through.
- I would complete another Sudoku or crossword
- I would scroll through my twitter timeline, or news apps
- I would listen to podcasts
- I would read, frequently this was several pages from Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, or a short story.
After two or three hours of this I would eventually sleep, but when I woke I felt terrible, and even a restorative doze in the afternoon did not make me feel better or avoid the same thing happening again the following night.
My insomnia retreated somewhat with the restrictions we all hoped would deal with the virus. I am aware that Covid is still around, doing its own rising and falling activities. I decided to read a bit more about sleep and what might help me get more of it.
First up was The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter (2017). The title and author seemed to promise everything I needed: a definition of the problem (aka a diagnosis), a solution, provided by a doctor no less. It was quite chatty, full of diagrams, chapter reviews and sub-headings. All very reader-friendly, and full of good advice and sound information. I learned about ‘sleep hygiene’, which is a terrible name for some sensible actions. And it reinforced what I knew about smoking, drinking and other drugs on the quality of sleep. But it did not help me work out why I wasn’t sleeping well, or indeed what I should be doing differently.
More frightening was the second book, because it emphasises the function of sleep in keeping our bodies and brains in good health and I learned I was in danger of damaging mine: Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I’m not sure in what ways the science he is reporting on is ‘the new science’, but I got a good sense of the work being done while I sleep and dream to maintain my health, memory, and wellness. But no diagnosis and no cure.
And most recently I have been dipping into The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey (2020). This describes a year of hell by the author, the effects on her life, her writing, her relationships, her sense of herself as a result of what she calls ‘hard insomnia’. There is little evident structure to this book, and it embraces many different approaches: a case study, a conversation with a friend, a novel she might be writing, straight forward accounts and some consideration of the medical encounters she endures. I think this lack of structure echoes the experience of unwanted awakeness. Although the writer stresses that there is no solace, the book ends hopefully:
This is the cure for insomnia: no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too. One day, when you’re done with it, it will lose its footing and fall away, and you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it so impossible. (175)
My go-to book, however, remains Insomnia by Marina Benjamin. I can start reading it wherever I have left off. I love it for its accessibility, for its artistry, intellectual insights, lateral thinking, gems of cultural disclosure and the picture of the writer and her dog, together on the sofa in the depths of the night. The dog is asleep.
Sleep in Fiction (Bookword, March 2020)
Books referred to
Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018.
The Sleep Solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it by Dr W. Chris Winter, published by Scribe in 2017.
Why we Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker, published by Penguin in 2017.
The Shapeless Unease: my year in search of sleep by Samantha Harvey, published by Vintage in 2020.