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17 July 2023

Insomnia has trapped me inside my own head

Who would I be if I could sleep? Would I appreciate the joy of being with people if I didn’t spent so much time alone in the dark?

By Marie Le Conte

I usually know it’s got bad again when I start staring at people in the street. I observe their gait and try to look deep into their eyes, because I want to know what it is like to be them. I gawp at them like they’re a different species, because they may as well be.

Around 10 per cent of adults suffer from chronic insomnia, meaning that the other 90 per cent do not: 90 per cent of people just sleep, and probably do not think about it all that much. In the evening they go to bed and they close their eyes and fall asleep, and in the morning they wake up again. When it gets bad, I want to walk up to their faces and poke and prod them, get under their skin, understand what it’s like for them.

If it takes you several hours to fall asleep every single night, you will spend a lot of time stuck inside your own head. Having done some vague maths, I would guess that I spend, at the very least, 750 hours a year trying to fall asleep.

I have never known anything else: some of my earliest memories are of tossing and turning in bed in my childhood bedroom. As a teenager, I’d often watch the sun come up. It ebbs and flows, like everything else, but the highs aren’t especially high. Whatever happens, I’ll end up lying in the dark every night, waiting for my body to do something other bodies do without thinking.

It means I’m always tired, obviously, but that’s the least of it. What those hours do, night after night, is create a wall between my brain and the rest of the world. I get this urge to walk right up to people when I’ve not been sleeping because I need to remind myself that they exist.

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On especially bad weeks, I tend to speak even quicker than I usually do, only occasionally – and resentfully – stopping to catch my breath, because I’m aware the window is small. I may be in front of actual, other human beings right now, who can listen to me then reply to whatever I’m saying, but soon it’ll just be me again. I have to make it count.

[See also: The insomnia problem]

I talk to people as much as I can because I’m aware that it isn’t healthy to live in a reality you’ve created solely by and for yourself, but it is hard not to become delusional if you are both living your life and watching a movie about it every night.

A psychiatrist friend explained to me recently that, when we remember something, we do not return to the moment itself, but to the last time we thought about it. That’s how memories can get twisted and bent out of shape over time. Whenever we reach out for them, we disfigure them a bit more.

It is a terrifying thing to know, because it means I cannot trust myself. Every evening I go to bed and I think about things that have happened, old and new, big and small. I think about them again, and again, and again, because there isn’t anything else to do. Every time I do it, they move one step further from reality.

Of course, the great irony is that those hours spent rewriting the past mean that I am then often unable to fully participate in the present. Operating on little sleep means either feeling wired or like your brain and muscles are made of thick fudge. So much work goes into looking vaguely functional that other concerns fall by the wayside. I have, on more than one occasion, walked straight into a wall or a lamppost, like a character in a cartoon.

It is no way to live, but it’s the only way I know. Weak sleeping pills do little and strong ones leave me feeling like a zombie. Melatonin works but its cost – vivid, twisted nightmares – is too high. Sometimes I wonder if it should be society’s turn to change – I’ve tried everything, so why can’t they?

An ability to take sick days after sleepless nights and a moratorium on early morning work would be a start. The only problem, really, is that it isn’t clear what should come next. Insomnia is unpredictable and so is the way people react to lack of sleep. Some days, five hours can feel like plenty; on others, getting even to lunch feels like an impossible task.

On a deeper level, there is also no meaningful way in which to address what it does to you. The state cannot legislate on my compulsion to overshare with acquaintances, which is driven by a desperate desire for human connection. Even the best HR department in the world could do little to deal with the fact that everything I say seems rehearsed, because it probably was.

If I’m being entirely honest, it isn’t even clear that I would want them to. Insomnia has shaped my entire life; I have no idea what person I would be if I could sleep. Would I still have no trouble walking into any room and talking to anyone? Would I know myself in the way I currently do? Would I truly appreciate the joy and glory of being surrounded by real, breathing people?

The thousands of hours I have spent in bed in the dark, lying still but stubbornly awake, are what made me who I am today. They have forced me to appreciate myself, because any other scenario would have been unbearable. I like who I am and who I am is an insomniac. I think I’ll just have to live with it.

[See also: Sleep has always proved elusive – but at least I have nothing to get up for]

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