One of the new, exciting developments in my life lately is insomnia. Why had no one told me about this before? It’s life-changing. It’s particularly apparent – comes into its own, as it were – when I am behaving well and going to bed early. Take last night. In bed by 9pm, lights out by 10pm. Nothing to drink except one glass of wine and one small glass of whisky. A little read of something improving and then, bang, off to the land of Nod.
I wake up feeling suspiciously alert. I look at the watch placed on my bedside table. (This watch, by the way, is the only thing of value I own. I inherited it from my father. He inherited it from his. It’s a gold self-winding Omega, so I can chart my immobility by how frequently it stops. It’s been stopping quite a lot lately.) It’s ten past one in the morning. My phone confirms this is more or less the case. I kind of know the drill by now. Do not try to go back to sleep: that will only make matters worse.
I do the NS crossword number 552 (apart from 30 across, “oriental festival noisy at first”), pick up the improving book, pour myself another (for me, very) small whisky, and settle in for the still watches of the night. After all, it’s not as if I have to go to work the next day. Oh, apart from having to write this column. Which is already a little late.
Last night was unusually bad. By the time I finally got back to sleep, it was some time after 6am. This was also tiresome because I have a streaming cold. And I might have Covid. The doctor tentatively said that could be the case and I sent off for a PCR testing kit: it sits, unwrapped, on my desk. I have not used it yet because I gather the procedure is unpleasant. So at the moment you might as well call it Schrödinger’s Covid Testing Kit. A similar concept could be said to apply to bills. You see, if you don’t open the box with the cat in it, there is still a 50-50 chance the cat is alive.
Some people advocate insomnia as an opportunity to Get Stuff Done. As a writer, I might be expected to take full advantage of the condition. After all, there are no distractions, and you have as much time as you need. I could have sent off this piece as a nice surprise for my editor when she came into the office this morning. But for some reason the idea didn’t even occur to me. It must have occurred to my subconscious, though, because when I got back to sleep I had a full-on anxiety dream about having to go the New Statesman’s office in Southampton (why Southampton? No idea) to type up the column in person.
It became narratively entwined with a tenderly erotic dream about my first girlfriend, Karen, which often happens when I am feeling sorry for myself, which I grant is quite often. If one is feeling unwell, and one’s sleep patterns are disturbed too, dreams can bleed into real life in ways that can be disturbing. I found myself in my first five minutes of consciousness wondering groggily how I was going to get to Southampton, and whether it might not be better to go to London instead, and when I was next going to see Karen again.
I wonder whether my reduced alcohol intake has something to do with my insomnia. I do remember a doctor once telling me not to stop drinking suddenly as that would send my body into shock, or something, but he was wrong about that. Believe it or not, I can go without a drink without getting delirium tremens. And insomnia, which may well be a side-effect, holds no terrors for me when I have no deadline in the morning. God, how I pity people who have to go to work every weekday. It’s been 30 years since I’ve had to do that and whenever I am at my lowest I remember this, and then suddenly everything doesn’t seem too bad. Right now I am still feeling as though my brain has been replaced by wet soil, but I think how much worse that would be if I had to get public transport and then sit in an office for eight hours.
Imagine: the waking up at 1am, the increasing anxiety as one realises that that’s more or less it when it comes to sleeping. I remember it now, from my school days: the actual miracle of going to sleep, the misery of sleeplessness. How did it happen, sleep, before alcohol entered my life? I think from as far back as I can remember it was a nightly battle, and heaven help me if the night was warm. For some reason I felt that it was a rule that I had to wear pyjamas, and they didn’t help. One night I had an epiphany: you know what? I don’t have to wear pyjamas. Discarding them was a liberation, and to this day I simply cannot understand why a grown-up would continue to wear them. Combine that with alcohol and a third of my life was transformed.
And now I’ve just seen this magazine’s redesign. That’s it. I’m definitely having a big drink this evening.
I hope Karen gets in touch again.
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor