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29 January 2020updated 30 Jan 2020 5:45am

The insomnia problem

A vivid and disturbing memoir sheds light on our cultural anxiety about sleep.

By Sophie McBain

In the summer of 2016, around the time of the Brexit referendum, the novelist Samantha Harvey had trouble sleeping. At first she merely woke up early, disturbed by the traffic outside her house. Then she began struggling to fall asleep, too. By early 2017 she rarely slept more than two or three hours a night, and frequently went without sleep for days. She was gripped by a frantic, feral energy at night and suffered nocturnal panic attacks; during the day she was exhausted and subdued. At times she longed for a breakdown, if only to be able to submit fully to the care of others, to relinquish responsibility for herself. She tried prescription drugs and New Age cures and everything in between, and agonised over why insomnia had struck her, seemingly out of the blue, in her early forties. Why was she unable to sleep? Why had she become so preoccupied with death and so fearful of dying?

Until she began to suffer from insomnia Harvey knew “nothing about sleep (in the way fish know nothing about water)”, she writes. She contends that the well-rested cannot begin to understand true sleeplessness, though The Shapeless Unease, her account of a year of not sleeping, offers a disturbing, vivid account. The prose is urgent and wild, but also dazzling in its precision. This is what it must be like to try to keep hold of a brilliant mind that is threatening to unspool.

The Shapeless Unease is cubistic, the fragments of text – conversations with her friends and her doctor, amusing early-hours ruminations about the naming of TV shows and caravans, an essay on the Pirahã tribe whose language has almost no words to depict time, a short story about a bank-robber – fit together perfectly to reveal a subject that is there all right, exposed from every angle, but also just beyond reach. It’s a book about sleep and wakefulness, but also about life and death, and the liminal spaces between them. It’s about motherhood and childlessness, love and loss, writing, rage, Brexit. It’s a dark, seductive book about fear and madness and their allure.

“What an unlikely wonder is life, that it holds in itself the whole wildness of death – those bacteria didn’t come into life at the point of death, they were always there and they always wanted to eat you, and your cells always contained in them the enzymes that would assist your rotting,” Harvey writes after seeing her cousin Paul’s embalmed corpse, one of many sentences I underlined because it sent such a terrible, thrilling chill down my spine. When she writes with admiration about an evocative line in a Jack Underwood poem, “I can feel my socks being on”, it strikes me that her writing can possess the same physicality. Who even knew it was possible to feel aware of one’s own microbiome, to sense its inevitable betrayal?

Harvey cannot fully explain why she found herself unable to sleep. Her cousin’s death was one of several that shook her, and she was worried for other members of her family. She became tormented by childhood memories of her dog dying and her mother leaving. And then there is her anger at Brexit, the “great national con”, “an almighty, extravagant, eternal show of shit”.

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Harvey rages against the “rip-off of our values. The insult to our nationhood, where by some horrible trick our self-assurance has been swapped for arrogance, our tolerance for superiority, our power for meanness, our natural trepidation for outright fear.” But for someone who otherwise possesses such talent for dissecting and assessing her emotions, she seems less self-aware, or perhaps less curious, about her political anger. Feelings can be such an unreliable guide in politics. Who is this “our” she writes about, whose lost nationhood, lost tolerance, lost power is she lamenting? If many ardent Brexiteers are hoping to restore some imagined national greatness, isn’t Harvey also mourning an image of Britain – as some noble, cosmopolitan, outward-looking nation – that never truly was?

When Harvey writes of a speeding driver “you fucker… I bet you voted Leave”, she surely intends to be humorous – The Shapeless Unease is wry and funny as well as angry – but in this instance her flippancy feels tiresome and depressing. Has this kind of unexamined prejudice just become normal now?

The Shapeless Unease is one of a number of books reflecting our cultural and political anxiety about sleep. In recent years there has been a plethora of soporific self-help books, spearheaded by the publisher Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution, as well as more thoughtful, literary explorations such as Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia and Alice Robb’s Why We Dream.

Sleep has become a government concern in Britain, where a third of the population now reports suffering from insomnia. Public Health England notes that poor sleep is costing the UK economy £30bn a year, an emphasis that suggests that the recent vogue for office sleep pods or advice about “power napping” is less motivated by benevolent concern than by the desire to create fully “optimised”, ultra-efficient workers.

Sleep has also become big business. The industry for sleep aids – luxury mattresses, silk pyjamas, “intelligent” sleep masks, noise-cancelling headphones, tracking devices, blue-light filters, blackout blinds, herbal pillow spritzes, meditation apps – is worth as much as £100bn by some estimates. Yet for all the (genuine) anxiety experienced by the kinds of frazzled city workers who populate boutique sleep hotels and high-end yoga retreats, the greatest predictor of poor sleep is economic deprivation. The chances are, Harvey won’t be the only person losing sleep over Brexit.

This very real sleep crisis has been subsumed into the broader “wellness” movement, the realm of pseudoscience and faux-moralism, where political ideas are neutralised and repackaged – self-love as a bubble bath, strength as a diet plan – and social ills are recast as individual failings. (Is the climate crisis keeping you up at night? Maybe you should try meditating.)

Harvey’s sharply observed interactions with her doctor offer a powerful critique of how women’s suffering is too often dismissed or seen as self-inflicted. Women’s symptoms are more likely than men’s to be diagnosed as stress-related, she notes: “by stress it’s meant that women are complicating and compounding their experiences in a way that could be avoidable if only they did breathing and gratitude exercises and stopped being surprised by the inevitabilities of their lives”. A few of Harvey’s reported conversations effectively skewer popular advice about “sleep hygiene” (one of those nonsensical, superstitious terms like “clean eating”):

“Have you thought about a blackout blind?”

“I have one.”

“Blackout blinds are really worth thinking about. Earplugs?”

“Have I thought about earplugs?”

“If noise bothers you –”

“Maybe that’s my problem, that I don’t think enough about earplugs.”

Of course earplugs could never be the answer. Harvey’s insomnia was as much spiritual as physical, not a problem that can be solved with a simple life-hack or the right kind of pill. She found that wild swimming helped her by stilling her racing and tormented mind, and some of the most beautiful passages in the book describe these swims. Reading The Shapeless Unease can feel not unlike dipping into strange, unchartered waters: it is by turns bracing and soothing, with a dark undertow and glimmers of light at the surface, and one emerges from it with an altered perspective, a sense of time having slowed down.

Harvey’s insomnia, which ended as mysteriously as it began, was as unknowable as life itself. “This is the cure for insomnia,” she writes, “no things are fixed. Everything passes, this too.” 

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping
Samantha Harvey
Jonathan Cape, 192pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out