The Sunday Times Magazine: Insomnia is a mind game. The only way to win is by staying awake

01_5_Glass_a17_1204655kI’ve been awake since 11pm. Mind whirring at 12am, fidgeting at 1am, restless by 2am. Now it’s 3am and I am fully awake. The Boy is warm and snoring beside me, but having watched the clock drag for hours towards morning, now I suspect that come sunrise I’ll still be awake.

Listening to Faithless… I can’t get no sleep. Sometimes it’s hunger. Or boredom: wondering if that tub of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer is a legitimate excuse to get out of bed. Sometimes I’m kept awake by ideas for stories, or by new sentences tinkering in my head. Sometimes I’m worrying, or binge-watching Netflix, or staring at Twitter’s luminous news feed, a never-ending accomplice to insomnia. Mainly, though, I put my insomnia down to never having outgrown that feeling of being a child refusing to go to bed.

There are plenty of tips for sleeping. I know them all, because sitting red-eyed at 5am Googling “ways to cure insomnia” is what insomniacs do. Drink warm milk. Sprinkle lavender oil on the pillow. Have a bath. Get it on — even solo. Instead of counting sheep, one fashion editor recommends trying to decide what you’ll wear the next day. Claiming she always passes out before she can choose. None of this advice works for me. The only things that knock me out are, bizarrely, turning on the light and the radio: the soothing white noise of Ira Glass on This American Life drowns out the chattering in my head.

I love living at night, in the magic hours of secrets, fugitives, romance and trouble. When my city flat is moonlit at the back and police-lit at the front

Single for so long, this was always how I lulled myself to sleep. Now the Boy stays over, he compares such conditions to being interrogated at Guantanamo. He says if he moved in, he would die of insomnia. (And that’s his diagnosis as a doctor.) And so, because I quite like having him around, we go to bed in silence and darkness. And I lie beside him awake.

What fascinates me about insomnia is that it is a paradox: the act of trying to sleep is what keeps you awake. Try telling your brain not to do anything and in the process of checking whether it’s been successful, it’s forced to do it again. (Try this at home by trying not to think of a white bear for five minutes, and see how much luck you have.) As a result, the best way to beat insomnia is to stay awake. This suits me fine. I wake at twilight. Sleep at sunrise. Then reawake at midday to 40 emails and five missed calls. (Easy to do when you don’t have a proper job.)


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