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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.