Leaning Into those Constant Loops: Insomnia
“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”
Those words are from David Benioff, author of the historical novel City of Thieves, and, incidentally, a co-creator of Game of Thrones. Insomnia! One of my close friends! I’ve read a few excerpts from Insomnia, by Marina Benjamin. The book is sitting on my desk, waiting to be picked up in its entirety.
It took me a long time to come out as an insomniac. I have been one since as long as I remember. I think that I come by it quite naturally. My mother and I share plenty of common experiences with sleep and its opposite.
As I find myself firmly in midlife, I finally have a sense that regular sleeplessness is not going to go away. I used to lament this and try everything to will it away. I would cringe in envy as others could close their eyes and fall asleep. People who could take a power nap had a separate place in hell as far as I was concerned.
Others speak about how they were asleep before their head hit the pillow. How nice! I’m happy for them. I would have loved to have that gift. I recall hearing someone use the line, “sleep is for losers.” Yes, I thought! And I am not among the losers. My mind is in constant motion.
I remember after my first brain tumour was diagnosed, seeing a billboard advertising a national newspaper. It showed a brain that was lit up and in constant motion, the presumption being that reading that paper could keep my brain in constant motion.
I almost yelled at the billboard, “No! That constant motion is the problem.” I would have dearly loved the staff of the all-night factory in my head to turn off the lights and go home.
Finally, a few years ago, I had an epiphany moment. I realized that I have to treat it like winter. I hate winter and would dearly love to hibernate for a few months. I finally realized that I have to lean into (as they say) winter. I have to see the positives and not to lament winter so much. I have to see the genius of this season. That winter epiphany may have occurred when I acquired a Canada Goose parka.
Insomnia! I have had all-too frequent bouts of wakefulness for most of my life. I was quite young when I first recognized this. I spent a long time trying to figure out why I couldn’t get to sleep. Is it too much caffeine or some other substance? Am I worried and anxious about a deadline or work I dread? I would lie in bed and try to be still and quiet so that I wouldn’t disturb others. I was grateful when I eventually lived on a busy street and could watch vehicle lights darting across the walls of my bedroom. The constant motion was outside of my head!
Benjamin is basically saying that I have to lean into my sleeplessness. “Tune in to its sounds. Discover its creative potential.” It’s interesting that that is precisely what I’ve been doing for a few years.
Many of my creative ideas, such as writing for this blog, are partly composed as I lie awake. I don’t get up and write. The basic words and phrases are saved for me by the hard drive of my brain. My thoughts range from the mundane to the profound. I re-live the events of the day. A phrase from a book or film can occupy much of the night. I compose e-mails in my mind. Thoughts of sex are always a good time killer.
God help me if I have something that really worries or angers me. There is what Benjamin describes as “the insomniac whose mind is polluted by looping dark thoughts and sudden lurching panics.” Other times, the “loop” is a scene from a film or a line from a novel.
Benjamin uses an idea from a French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, who suggested that insomniacs leap into the night. That isn’t so easy. Night-time can be scary. All your senses are heightened at night. Am I dreaming this? Or did someone slip me psychotropic drugs?
I used to be ungrateful for the insomnia. I’d still prefer that it wasn’t something in my life. But now I can befriend it. I have experienced that there are some creative moments in the course of that long night.
If my Canada Goose helped me to befriend winter, perhaps a powerful drug has the potential to give me a restful sleep, but I’m not sure that I want to give up control. Besides, there are moments when the sleeplessness can reveal so much that is helpful.
 David Benioff, City of Thieves, 2008. Marina Benjamin, Insomnia, 2018.