Insomnia has the punishing capacity to render a thinking, rational human being a complete and utter zombie; a mere wraith who feebly flickers; a creature that that is frantically chewing their pillows while everybody else is snoring like a Triceratops. Here is my experience of a sleepless night and the gradations of mood one endures during its torrid wastes.
Midnight – 2.00am – This is the ‘honeymoon’ period of the night. You have recently turned in, a fresh combatant in the battle for sleep, hope is still high that you will nod off fairly quickly as you do feel tired. Perhaps a listen to the radio will help (the repetitive cadences of the Shipping Forecast, perhaps), or read for a bit. Even towards the end of this period, you still feel that you might get enough sleep to function the next day if you go under now – but doubt is scratching at your mind.
2.00am – 4.00am – You are starting to toss and turn with more violent rapidity; more frequent anguished glances are cast at the clock. You are continually calculating just how much sleep you are now capable of getting, “If I nod off now, that means I will get 4 hours 40 minutes and 37 seconds; that will be enough to enable to give my presentation without starting to gibber – won’t it? WON’T IT?”. Every nanosecond that passes now, though, eats into that safety zone and is a nanosecond of sleep you will not get; panic starts to prowl the perimeter of your mind – “Christ, I’m going to feel so bad tomorrow, I won’t be able to cope, I’m going to be a slobbering mess!”. You long to be able to reach out and grasp Time and somehow prevent its inexorable advance. By around 3.30am, you feel as if you have been in bed so long that you must have retired sometime in the Neolithic period. You are entwined in a cruel paradox: time seems to pass with glacial slowness yet also appears to be hurtling towards the time when you must arise, a derelict wreck of a being.
4.00am – 5.00am – This is it. The Dead Zone. The Bottomless Pit. This is the worst time of all, the true Dark Night of the Soul, a time of fear and trembling. You are now manacled to sleeplessness. All your problems and anxieties, which you obsessively and futilely ruminate upon, are now magnified to become hydra-headed, blood-soaked giants. A nameless dread, with no discernible object, haunts your by now disintegrating brain. 4.00am is said to be the time when the human spirit is at its most depleted; when your strength and will are at their most puny. I have certainly felt this to be the case – the terrors and imaginings reach their highest pitch of intensity; one is stripped of the outward trappings of adulthood, and you simply curl up in a foetal ball; a desperate, lonely child seeking warmth and comfort from somewhere, anywhere. You can almost envision sleep as a physical presence; you can see where it is located, almost touch it – but it remains cunningly elusive and gradually draws away, twirling its skirts with disdainful scorn.
5.00am – 7.00am – you have emerged from the desperate hour, purged and scourged, and almost get a little boost from having survived. In summer, it is now light which, though indicative of the approaching day, also pushes back the worst irrational fears. In winter, though, it now seems as though it has been dark since about 36 minutes after the Big Bang. Part of you has now come to terms with the fact that you will get no sleep at all – a kind of resigned serenity; another part has fastened on the faint chance of grabbing at least an hour or so. Either way, the alarm clock always sounds harsher, more discordant than ever as it erupts with its baleful message – time to get up!
And so, with limbs the weight of the Angel of the North and eyes seemingly containing enough grit to keep the roads of Leicestershire free from ice for a whole winter, you stumble into the day. You know with chilling certainty that you are going to feel this bad all day and it will last an eternity; you are like the Voyager spacecraft just embarked on its epic voyage to the far reaches of the Solar System. You grimly step forth on the true horror that is the commute to work after a sleepless night – being forced to stand next to a braying businessman who is bellowing about “those guys in marketing” needing to “raise their game” into his mobile. Then there is the ordeal of colleagues who, inexplicably, are bright, bumptious and positive at 8.30am. They seem to belong to a separate species from you and are blithely unaware that a hand grenade has gone off in your brain, and you feel like you are moving through syrup. Your urge to disembowel them with your computer mouse is almost irresistible. Large stretches of the day are spent in a kind of stupor, a sort of awake coma. You suddenly come to and you realise you have been gazing vacantly at the same page for 45 minutes; you see things out of the corner of your scarlet-rimmed eyes and keep twitching and starting like Jack Douglas in an old Carry On film. You try and speak and you can feel your lips slap uselessly together and a strange, disjointed language emerges, sentences tailing off into useless silence.
Somehow, though, you get through the day. You will try and avoid going to sleep too early for fear of waking in the middle of the night, so you keep your anvil-heavy eyelids open for as long as possible. So you stay awake until midnight – and then……
About the author
I love art, history, theatre, natural history, music, Derby County and birdwatching. I am passionately interested in all mental health issues and also in animal welfare issues.
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