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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.