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25 July 2018updated 11 Sep 2018 8:44pm

My eleven sleepless nights

The torment of chronic insomnia.

By Nicky Woolf

BZZZZT. You blink, and you’re in the dark again. You don’t remember where you are at first, but you’d guess it was in the dark. When it hits, it usually comes after four, five, maybe six days without sleep, and you start having the usual audio hallucinations at the edge of hearing, as if a pot is boiling over on the stove in the next room.

If it isn’t dark, maybe if the dawn is starting to creep in – and God, how you hate the dawn – then you also see the blur, like smoke at the edge of your vision. The bed is a deconstructed wreck: sheets and blankets twisted, pillows splayed. You try to focus on the fractal echoes of the explosion on your eyelids and feel the lenses of your eyes flicker against them.

You sat upright, at least you think you did, or maybe not, but either way your body clenched tight as a fist when it hit you: a sudden noise, louder than anything ever has been, a buzzing, tearing dissonance like static. The world goes blinding white for an instant. Your eyes could be open or closed; the distinction is immaterial. The whole thing lasts less than a second.

This is called “exploding head syndrome”, and it’s part of insomnia.

Anyone who’s experienced insomnia like mine – not common sleeplessness but permanent, persistent, and to all extents and purposes incurable – has witnessed time dilation first hand. You have felt time slow down, stretching for an eternity when a long sleepless night lies ahead; you have felt it speed up, rush through your fingers like sand, as the dawn approaches. I can’t stand the sound of birdsong; it reminds me too much of those mornings. Dawn approaches, for me, with cruel inexorability. Sleep is hard enough in the dark, but when daylight comes there’s almost always no chance left for rest. I experience the dawn as pain.

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If you have primary insomnia – sleeplessness that is not attributable to a known medical, psychiatric or environmental cause – something in the complex systems in the brain that trigger sleep is broken; perhaps has always been broken. Your earliest memories will be, as mine are, of sleeplessness. Left to its own devices my body adopts a non-circadian rhythm that probably averages out to around nine hours of real sleep to somewhere between 36 and 48 hours awake. Sometimes it’s even worse than that.

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Very occasionally sleep comes to me unforced, and I’ll wipe out for days at a time. On other nights, despite days’ worth of exhaustion or fistfuls of meds, it remains stubbornly out of my grasp. The longest I’ve gone without satisfying sleep was 11 days; but four, five or six days is not uncommon. In school, shared rooms and fixed hours combined with a lack of useful medication meant I went without sleep for days at a time. For a while, only vodka helped.

It is nearly impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced extreme insomnia the wall-punching madness of laying your exhausted head on the pillow, closing your eyes, and then… nothing, nothing but mounting frustration at the inexorable march of the clock, back when I allowed a clock in my bedroom. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Boredom and silence terrify me more than anything else, because they remind me of the screaming insanity of nights spent in the solitary prison of my sleepless brain. I have spent years, in aggregate, locked in the dark with my thoughts.

Over the years, I have tried every possible cure, largely to no avail. At the end of my 11-day ordeal, by which time I was essentially a zombie, in the grip of paranoia and considering checking myself into hospital, someone gave me a Xanax, a short-acting drug of the benzodiazepine class that has since become my magic bullet. I try to use it as rarely as I can, partly because of how addictive benzos can be, but also because it is my only reliable line of defence. If I develop a tolerance to Xanax, as things stand, my life is over.

I have no idea what going to sleep feels like for a non-insomniac. Perhaps no one can remember the exact moment of transfer between waking and sleeping, but you may be familiar with the lulling of the senses that precedes it, the slow, wonderful rush of oncoming rest, the sweetness of temporary oblivion. I have felt the tantalising beginnings of that feeling, but for me it comes adulterated with dread: the mental act of realising that feeling seems to kick my brain into a panic that drags me back to consciousness with a jolt of adrenaline.

Going to sleep, for me, requires either brute chemical force – drugs or alcohol – or trickery. One trick from childhood: I kept an eclectic stash of toy spaceships, or objects that I could pretend were spaceships, by the bed; at night, I would fly them around, conjuring up a complex fantasy world. I don’t know whether it was simply that by making the noise of the engines I was controlling my breathing in some kind of jury-rigged analog of self-hypnosis, but whatever the reason, it still sometimes helps. I can turn almost anything into a spaceship for this purpose, but a pen usually does the trick.

What is it about insomnia that makes everyone think they have found the perfect cure? Almost everyone has experienced some sort of insomnia, and almost a third of the population at any given time is suffering from sub-optimal sleep performance. Maybe that’s why most people pipe up with suggestions. I’ve been told that everything from yoga to vitamins, meditation to white noise, orthopaedic pillows to air humidifiers, will allow me to capture with ease what has eluded me for a lifetime. At a dinner party recently, I was informed authoritatively that if only I would force myself to wake up at 6am every day I would be cured. I’ve tried that: it was miserable.

There may still be some cures out there that I haven’t tried. But in the meantime, all that stretches before me are the long hours locked in my head, and the coming, again and again, of the hated dawn.

This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special