Not sleeping is awful beyond belief, but I can't imagine life without my insomnia

Sleeplessness is difficult to cope with, and can result in dizziness, paranoia and hallucinations. But chronic insomnia sufferer Nicky Woolf reckons he'll see the sunrise more times than you will.

I am writing this at half past four in the morning.

I usually work at night. I'm not asleep. Not because I am panicked about the deadline; no extraneous worries or gnawing doubts trouble the calm waters of my mind tonight. But I'm still not asleep. “I never sleep”, I joke to friends. It's not true – I do sleep, sometimes – but it's never easy. It's always a fight to push my brain under, as if I am drowning it. Sometimes, much more often than I would like, I simply lose; lie there listening to the white noise in my mind, snatches of songs playing over and over, meaningless words and phrases and images for hours on end until it's time to get up again un-rested; or, like tonight, give up entirely and get on with some work.

Sometimes, if I have something I really need to be well-rested for, like an exam or an interview, I will keep myself awake the couple of nights before, just to slightly increase my chances of sleeping the night directly before. Even this doesn't always work. My brain has an uncanny ability, no matter how tired I may be physically, simply to refuse to go to sleep. Sometimes I can trick it into relaxing. Rarely, but triggered seemingly by nothing, I have a particularly bad insomnia attack. During these, I can go days – very occasionally even weeks – without any satisfying sleep at all, leading to dizziness, paranoia and hallucinations; crackling or popping noises at the edge of hearing, and smoke or flashes in my peripheral vision. It is practically impossible to for anyone who hasn't experienced it to understand quite how awful it feels to operate on that little sleep.

Insomnia is not, in fact, an illness. It is a symptom – sleeplessness – with a wide variety of potential causes both physiological and psychological. General stress or worry, lifestyle changes, new work hours and so on can cause acute (in the medical sense, meaning short-term or temporary) insomnia, which can often also be a side-effect of other illnesses like those that affect the respiratory tract. About the causes of chronic, psycho-physiological or “primary” insomnia like mine, less is known. In about fifty per cent of cases it can often be linked to deeper-rooted psychological issues including depression. There is also a condition called somniphobia or hypnophobia, which is a chronic insomnia caused by an irrational fear of sleep after nightmares or trauma early in life.

But some people just don't sleep sometimes, with no visible links to previous trauma or current depression – and while there are behavioural changes and medication that can be used to ameliorate the problem, there isn't really a cure.

“People say things like, 'have a bath', or they ask 'have you tried having camomile tea before bed', says Clare*, who has suffered from insomnia since her early teens. “All obvious questions to which you obviously know the answer. They're well-meaning and sympathetic, but it kind of illustrates how very little they know about it. Because... there's an insanity that comes to you after a long time [without sleep] where your mind is stretched very nearly to breaking point, and no-one is going to assume when you're ratty, or crying, or having a weird reaction to anything it's because of insomnia. But it is. Because not sleeping makes you mad. It casts a shadow over the whole day. And because sleep is something everyone has and doesn't have a lot, it's something everyone thinks they can relate to. Everyone thinks they get it. But they don't.”

“About a third of the population has a tendency towards insomnia,” says Professor Adrian Williams, of the London Sleep Centre. “There are many potential causes – perhaps body clock problems, psychiatric issues around depression: probably 50 per cent of insomnia is linked overtly or subtly to depression. Then physical disturbances which cause patients to wake; most commonly, sleep apnea – snoring-related problems – restless legs. These are symptoms that the patient may not be aware of; they say 'I wake up and can't go back to sleep'. Then there's psycho-physiological insomnia, which used to be called Primary Insomnia, and the current thinking is that this occurs in a physiology which allows poor sleep.”

The human brain is a terrifically complex machine, and the subtlest changes in brain chemistry can have far-reaching effects on our lives. Sleep is regulated by a family of neurotransmitters produced in the hypothalamus; the most prominent one is gaba, (which stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid and interacts with the pontine tegmentum to initiate REM, or deep sleep), and in 1999 a neurotransmitter called “hypocretin” was discovered to act as a switch to regulate wakefulness, and is notably absent in narcoleptics.

About the physiological causes of insomnia in the brain, Professor Williams tells me, not much is known. Considering how common the problem is, and how numerous its variations, there have been very few studies ever done on human subjects. One, Webb and Bonnet, 1979, concluded that sleep deprivation carries “no ill effects” - but in that study participants had their sleep reduced no further than to four hours in every 24; the same amount, in fact, that Margaret Thatcher recommended for a productive life. The record for monitored sleep-deprivation is held by 17-year-old Californian high school student Randy Gardner, who stayed awake for 11 days in 1964, reporting hallucinations, problems with short-term memory and paranoia, and no long-term ill-effects were noted, though the experiment was conducted with the little scientific rigour. Harder-pushing sleep denial studies with animals – rats and dogs – do lead eventually to death.

“There are concerns about the physical consequences of poor sleep, and they're under investigation now,” says Professor Williams. “The textbooks would not talk about this stuff at the moment – textbooks being ten years out of date – but we in the field feel that insomnia is not as benign as it might seem. It's more than just an irritation, and should be taken seriously.”

For myself, I have no idea who or what I would actually be if my insomnia was cured tomorrow. Sleeplessness has been such a constant in my life that I'm not sure I'd know what to do if I could just lay my head on the pillow and switch off the way others can. If I'm under pressure, I can easily work 48 hours or even more without sleeping if I really need to; I've had plenty of practice.

On top of that, there is a strange and strangely wonderful community of the sleepless with whom I often share the connection of being online, awake, sleepless, frustrated, at past five on any given weekday morning. Oh yes: and I'll bet my last valium that we've seen the sunrise more times than you ever will.

In fact, the sun is just rising now.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Sunrise over London. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.