Wrestling with Insomnia

Over the past several weeks, I have experienced bouts of insomnia. There’s not been an obvious physical cause. I have tried warm drinks, I have tried listening to relaxing music, I have attempted sitting on a comfortable sofa with a purring cat beside me. For whatever reason, stress, an active mind, concerns about the future, I have had difficulty shutting down and falling into the arms of Morpheus. When sleep has finally arrived, it has been the deep, dark type notable solely for the absence of dreams. Then, usually, I am awoken at 3 AM by my dog needing to be let out.

I wish I could say these lost hours were productive. I have not had any earth shattering ideas at these times. Midnight comes, then 1 o’clock, 2 am, 3. The house is quiet: there is no ticking grandfather clock in the hall that chimes on the hour. By two at the latest, most of the cats have found where they are going to spend the night: as it’s February, this is usually beside or under a radiator. My faithful cat Thomas usually sits next to me on a sofa in my study, which is where I spend most of these restless hours. 3:30, 4, 4:30: sometimes there is a gust of wind brushing up against my window, but otherwise the world is quiet, lonely, more at peace than I am. Then I hear my dog huffing and puffing, bounding down the stairs needing to be let out. I encourage him, I follow him. I open the door and the cold night air strikes me across the face as he goes into the dew covered garden. I shut the door, then sit at a dining table underneath the light of a single bulb, as I wait for his insistent bark, demanding he be let back in. When I open the door, he shoots past me and back up the stairs to bed.

As this indicates, there is nothing romantic about insomnia. These lost hours are isolated: even Thomas will yield himself up to sleep after 1 AM, his white paws curled up around his face. I switch on the television. I find a film or television programme to stream. I hope it will bore my brain into switching off. I lean my head back onto soft cushions, trying to tempt myself into slumber. It rarely works.

There is little that is pleasant about the sunrise, when it finally arrives. These days, the skies are usually grey, so there’s not often the multicoloured palette of the dawn, which gives one hope. Surely, if the beginning of a day can be that beautiful, then the prospects for the hours ahead are elevated. However, lately there’s been generally no such luck, the sky merely turns a deep blue. It lightens, and then its true greys are revealed.

5:30, 6. I wander into the kitchen and put on the coffee. The grinder goes and the water begins to boil and percolate. “Alexa,” I say to the Echo Dot on a ledge, “World Service.” The BBC World Service tells what’s going on around the world: an assasination in Lesotho, the spread of disease in China. It has often been my night companion: I am comforted by the thought that there are technicians somewhere, in some remote building in London or perhaps further afield, awake like I am, struggling with remaining awake so that the news runs through the night. They are making it possible for me to hear a programme in which the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah talks about her novel, “The Book of Memory” with a studio audience. Alternatively, if I’m listening to Radio 3, I am sure that someone is there, watching indicators that suggest that the broadcasts of classical music are continuing. Where are they? Salford? London? Is there someone in a study like mine, working from home and watching over everything from a laptop? What happens if they fall asleep? I’d deem them lucky if they were able to do so.

I can hear the occasional lorry in the early morning travelling on the nearby dual carriageway; the wheels of commerce may turn more slowly through the night, but they do continue. I am certain that there are doctors and nurses at the hospital up the road, tending to the sick and the broken. The ill lay in beds, their monitors humming steadily, with nurses in light blue uniforms keeping watch. I know in town there’s a 24 hour fast food restaurant. When it gets to be 3 AM and no one wants chicken nuggets, what do they do? Consume coffee and donuts? Take bets on when the first order for pancakes will come?

I comfort myself with knowing that much of the world is still awake: when it’s 4 AM here, it’s 8 PM in Los Angeles. No doubt cars are still driving down the freeway; on a Friday night, the bars and restaurants are still open. Young couples raise glasses to each other, music plays. In Australia, it’s long past dawn. No doubt someone is taking their beige labrador for a walk along the shore: salty, turquoise hued waves crash in, the owner looks at the distant horizon. But where I am, it is time to sleep, but I cannot.

I hope that this period passes quickly: apart from listening to vinyl records and watching documentaries which have fully briefed me on the ins and outs of Watergate, the Ottoman Empire, and the 2008 Financial Crash, there isn’t much good to be had. How much better it would be to sleep properly, dream well, and to wake up when I should; I imagine what it must be like to face the dawn invigorated, rather than relying on caffeine and a sense of responsibility.

Once this period ends, however, I will no doubt recall this time when I saw the night through: largely, it’s pointlessness, but also the brief moments of value, like when a bright moon shone through the window, and I felt like I had the sight of it to myself.

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