Sometimes the rattle of a clapper sounds over your bed. Or a ghostly draft lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, cooling your skin; or there’s an upstroke, feather light, along the inside of your forearm. A sudden lurch, maybe just a blink, then a sense of falling upward and it is there. So are you.
If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.
When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.
At the velvet end of my insomniac life I am a heavy-footed ghost, moving from one room to another, weary, leaden — there, but also not there. I read for an hour, make myself a cup of tea, and sit with the dog.
We stare at each other with big cow eyes and I marvel at his animal knack for sleep. Curling in beside me on the sofa, he is out within minutes, legs splayed like bagpipes, his warm little body rising and falling. If I so much as twitch he snaps awake instantly but without any sense of alarm; he just lifts those liquid brown eyes toward mine, wanting to know if the world is unchanged.
How much do I love sleep, I wonder. And can sleep love me back?
On nights like these I leave a trail of evidence behind me to be discovered and remembered in the morning: my reading glasses upturned on the coffee table, carelessly cast off like a pair of party shoes, an open book facedown on a chair, food crumbs on the kitchen counter. Sapped by fatigue, I stand in the middle of the living room in the dusty light and pull my dressing gown around me. I am trying to puzzle out the clues so as to reconstruct the events of the night before, but I keep blanking. The mise-en-scène of morning starts to resemble the scene of a crime. All that is lacking is the body shape outlined on the floor: the missing body, wakeful when it should be sleeping.
There are also luminous moonlit nights, lurid nights, when everything feels heightened and I jerk awake with a fidgety awareness, my mind speeding. In the grip of an enervating mania, I creak my way down the stairs and switch on the computer, scrolling for bad news from places where daylight reigns: an exploding bomb, the wreck of human carnage, floods, fires, terrorist traps. Ordinary disasters. I pace and fret, railing at the dumb news, racing with emotion. I feel held back by the night because I am convinced that the hidden mystery of our beautiful existence might be found in its very bowels. I am looking for insight, for a nugget of value to carry across night’s border into morning.
But where is the hidden value in this spinning carousel — a flash memory of my daughter hula-hooping, Earth, Wind & Fire singing “Ah-li-ah-li-ah,” a presentiment of abandonment: Am I or am I not loved?
Insomnia (noun): a habitual sleeplessness or inability to sleep. It comes to us from the Latin insomnis, meaning without sleep. The insomniac complaint was known to Artemidorus of Daldis, one of the Western world’s oldest interpreters of dreams. In his second-century treatise Oneirocritica, Artemidorus distinguished mortal dreams that arise out of the dreamer’s life experience, and conjure with symbols drawn from the raw materials of his or her desires, from prophetic dreams, or oneiroi, which are gifted or sent to us. But the Greeks had another term to denote sleeplessness: agrypnotic, from agrupos, meaning “wakeful,” which in turn derives from agrein, “to pursue,” and hypnos, sleep. Insomnia, then, is not just a state of sleeplessness, a matter of negatives. It involves the active pursuit of sleep. It is a state of longing.
What do I long for? I ask myself this question in the witching hours because it cannot be asked by day. On certain turbulent nights this longing is so great and deep and bald it swallows up the world. Defying comprehension, it just is. And I am a black hole, void of substance, greedy with yearning. To be without sleep is to want and be found wanting.
Mostly, though, I long for benevolent Hypnos, dreamiest of the Greek gods, to swoop down over me, scattering his crimson poppies, and drug me into a sweet insentient sleep. Hypnos reminds me that the bestowing of sleep comes from above. It is literally a gift from the gods.
When you cannot get sleep you fall in love with sleep, because desire (thank you, Lacan) is born out of lack. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship here, between the degree of lack and the corresponding degree of love. How much do I love sleep, I wonder. And can sleep love me back? The medieval Islamic poet Rumi seemed to think the relationship might be reciprocal. In “The Milk of Millennia” he wrote: “every human being streams at night into the loving nowhere.” I find it comforting to think that we might stream beyond our bedroom walls at night, like a crystalline liquid (or like data), as though our avatars were flowing toward, then alongside those of others in surging formation while our bodies were at rest. I find it reassuring that nowhere can be a loving place. Although when I am revving in the night hours, Nowhere does not feel especially loving.
These days my prime time is 4:15 a.m., a betwixt and between time, neither day nor night. At 4:15 a.m., birds chirrup, foxes scream, and sometimes, when the rotating schedule for landing and takeoff from Heathrow Airport collides with my sleeplessness, planes rumble overhead. The quality of the dark is not as pure at this hour as it is earlier. It is porous around the edges. In my bed, I flap and thrash like a grouper caught in the net, victim to an escalating anxiety about the way the darkness appears to be yielding to the idea of retreat. (I don’t want it to yield; I want it to last so that I can sleep.) Unable to settle in one position for more than a few beats, I try them all out in turn: the plank, the fetal curl, the stomach-down splat — as if I’d landed on the mattress from a height. Each of these poses is contrived insofar as it corresponds to an idea I have of what relaxation looks like. Some nights I trawl the whole alien repertoire of self-help. I try breathing deeply and slowly like a yogi, my fist pressed into the chakra under my rib cage. I try to stay my galloping pulse, tripped by fretful thoughts I would like to banish, by thinking of water or mountains, or fluffy sheep. I tell myself I am heavy, heavy, heavy. I pursue sleep so hard I become invigorated by the chase.
In insomnia we encounter the very heart of love’s darkness: the essential otherness of the beloved.
Through it all, I am aware of a slumbering form beside me, a still mound under the duvet, heaped up like a rock formation under the sky. I peer at the shadow-shaped mass across the bed, my rock, my stay, straining to detect any hint of movement in the dark. Let’s call this sleeping form Zzz. I am loath to wake him, knowing that he, like me, is exhausted to the point of defeat. I also know that if my thrashing does wake him he will snarl and shift; occasionally he swipes at me, a big cat in his lair lashing out with a heavy paw. There is a sleep-charged force field around Zzz and woe betide me if I disturb it.
Zzz and I have a history of beds we have slept in together. Hotel beds with silky sheets and too many pillows; beds so old we’d end up rolling into the middle; tufty beds with broken springs in cheap rented flats where we popped corn and watched scary movies through finger fences. In our shared history of sleep there have been beds of character and beds of convenience. Beds that spring out of sofas, supplied by relatives happy to accommodate our long-distance visits, and twin beds (supplied by relatives lacking fold-out options) that create an austere, prohibitive gulf between us, and bring on fits of the giggles. There have been state-of-the-art mattresses we have bought and regretted (especially the orthopedic kind once believed to be best for backs, but which I now think belong only in jails), and beds we have drooled over on the Internet but cannot afford — beds made out of “memory foam.” We have shared countless beds down the years and across continents, Zzz and me, under mood clouds fair and foul, and we continue to commune by night, in code and often in counterpoise to the way we relate to each other by day.
To share a bed with someone is to entertain a conversation played out in the language of movement and space.
I want to say more about insomnia and love, in that both are states of being that pitch us face-to-face with a stinging absence. In insomnia, we crave oblivion — that escape from consciousness, which sleep appears to confer on everyone but us — and in so doing we reaffirm our uneasy relationship to the world of material necessity. Lovers, meanwhile, assert their fealty against the complete absence of any certainty about the future, as though love were a concrete thing that might be thwacked ahead of ourselves like a hockey puck to stake a claim on new ground.
“Love like sleep requires immeasurable trust, a fall into the unknowing,” says one scholar of sleeplessness. But let’s bring the two into more intimate proximity. In insomnia we encounter the very heart of love’s darkness: the essential otherness of the beloved.
When Zzz and I began regularly sharing a bed together after that first restive night, our sleep dovetailed into perfect accord. It was harmonious. We were like the ancient landmass of Pangea, fused into a single state of being. But then, slowly, incrementally, a continental drift set in and we began to separate bodily, imperceptibly at first — one complaining of overheating, the other of needing their own pillow — and before we knew it, each of us, me and Zzz, had become continents in our own right: miniature tectonic entities, separated by a swathe of night.
Every now and then, I steal a look at Zzz’s sleeping form, melding into the blackness of the night, blended into virtual immateriality, and I long to buy a ticket to sail over to his continent, away from Snore Awake and Restive Tossing and across to the land of Peaceful Slumber. Intrepid explorer that I am, I would brave the choppiest waters to get there. Willingly would I fall into unknowingness, becoming blind to my faltering steps; gladly would I forfeit my understanding. All it would take is for me to proffer an outstretched hand.
It’s so simple a tender. Yet you’d be astonished at how regularly I stumble before its prospect: unable to relax into the companionability of night, I am forced to patrol my own borders. It is as if my will has been impounded. Clamped and bound according to the dictates of some higher-order bureaucratic lockdown. The maddening frustration of it recalls those rare and panicked states of sleep when you are awake enough to know a mosquito is buzzing in your ear but you are incapable of swatting at it because a crushing bodily paralysis, pushing down on every part of you, pinning you to your bed, flatly forbids it. The wrong bit of you is sleeping, the wrong bit awake. In such a state it is all too easy to flip out, to feel your head become a pressure pot; your panicky resolve, the steam jiggling its lid from within. Your command and control center is embroiled in internal conflict. To crown it all, for all those agonizing minutes spent fluttering in the bell jar, the oxygen of free will draining steadily away, you are at that goddamn insect’s blood-sucking mercy.
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Marina Benjamin is the author of three previous memoirs, Rocket Dreams, Last Days in Babylon, and The Middlepause. She has also worked as a journalist, her pieces appearing in The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Independent, and other British newspapers, and she has served as arts editor at the New Statesmanand deputy arts editor at the Evening Standard. She is currently a senior editor at the digital magazine Aeon.
Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky
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