"You enter into a conflict with the whole world, with sleeping humanity. You no longer feel like one person among others because others live unconsciously. One develops a demented pride. One tells oneself, 'My destiny is different, I know the experience of the uninterrupted vigil.' Only pride, the pride of a catastrophe, gives you courage then. One cultivates the extraordinarily flattering feeling of no longer being part of ordinary humanity." EM Ciaron
Agonising over sleep is a curse that afflicts a silent army of insomniacs every night. It doesn’t even start in the night, more in the half-life of morning, around 3am, maybe 4am, and come 5am the end of the world as you think you know it is nigh.
At any point in that unforgiving cycle of lonesome despair, you might find the physical energy to lift your body from the entrapments of the duvet that is meant to feel like the embrace of a lullaby, yet very rapidly takes on the feel of an oppressive weight intent on destroying you with the sweats and extreme discomfort.
Today is World Sleep Day. Friday, March 13 - unlucky for some: I started composing this article in my head at 3am*, surely the loneliest hour of the universe, haunted by just me, a lone ghost with nowhere to wander to, no one to speak to, it’s purgatory, which means I’m dead, or death is close. Oh god I can feel my heart racing, if I don’t sleep soon I might die.
This is the chronic state of anxiety that sets in after what feels like an agonising period in suspended time. In reality, half an hour might have passed. The mind can indeed make a hell of heaven, and a heaven of hell.
While part of your addled mind tries to tell you it’s a gift to have these extra moments of consciousness while the rest of the world loses out, the other part is wrangling with a cacophony of not-so cerebral invaders, and another part of you still is trying to make it all stop.
The words for this piece came spitting out of one corner of my brain while in the other corners continued parallel conversations on everything from how to arrange some pictures in the newly painted dining room, to whether to cancel one of four too many meetings, to: “What if it’s raining on my work to work? Will my headphones be okay in the downpour? Will I be able to listen to the fourth episode in Open Culture’s Aesthetics lectures?”
‘When sleep is sound, health and happiness abound'
That’s the slogan of this year’s World Sleep Day. Supposedly a celebration of sleep and a call to action for sleep medicine. What is that exactly? It sounds highly suspect and deeply patronising. I caveat my latent vitriol with the fact that I am functioning on about three hours of the magical stuff a night. Perhaps I need some of that medicine, if, according to the “experts” the acceptable requirement is eight hours.
Or is that just a conspiracy spread by the sleep industry (the existence of which is irksome enough, as though Aldous Huxley invented it). They ask “are you getting the right amount of sleep?” Who are they to define “right”? I’m a huge believer in science, but when there’s such determination in a conviction that just doesn't sit with my empirical experience, well I just don’t believe it.
Why switch off when you can switch on instead?
That said, insomnia need not be a cause for despair. The philosopher EM Cioran saw in sleeplessness something essentially human. He cherished his insomnia as his route to deep philosophical insights: "The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal who cannot sleep."
Some of the greatest minds survived on less than three hours - Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf, to selectively name those I’d be comfortable being associated with. In his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato said: "When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health."
If you can’t beat it, make a friend of it. Rejoice in the restlessness. According to the School of Life, insomnia is a our alter ego on a mission: “It’s a form of revenge for the many ideas we couldn’t entertain in the day. “ Night time is the space where we can wander in limitless irrationality and unfettered ambition.
Whichever way you look at it, dear reader, it doesn’t really matter. It is I who must now pass from this murky membrane of a surreal existence into the painful Spring daylight with its fine drizzle, a climate that could have come straight from the mash up in my head, seeping all over the daytime floor with its crippling indecision. 16 hours until the cycle begins again. Oh look, it’s actually pouring out there. Me, my headphones and the aesthetics are ruined.
*This piece was brought to you from the recesses of a raging ravaged mind. Grammatical errors, flawed logic and questionable sense should be accepted as a necessary part of the process.