Leaning Into those Constant Loops: Insomnia

Source: insomna.org

“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.[1]

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.


[1] David Benioff, City of Thieves, 2008. Marina Benjamin, Insomnia, 2018.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • darcy Mann
    Posted at 07:31h, 03 May Reply

    I think you can take some consolation in knowing that you are not alone. From my own personal experiences talking to hundreds of people around the midlife range, I would say that about half of those folks probably are in the same boat. Personally I,m just happy to stay afloat…. I will look forward to reading that book. “Insomnia”

  • Lorella D'Cruz
    Posted at 08:53h, 03 May Reply

    This so resonates with me! I too have been plagued by insomnia for as long as I can remember. My husband who could literally ‘drop’ off at the ‘drop’ of a hat, would smugly joke, “Clean living and a clear conscience is all it takes; you should try it some time!”

    Like you, I discovered a few years ago that my literary juices flow most creatively in the wee hours. Up to that point I had tried counting sheep, reciting mantras, and even examining my conscience, my husband’s advice obviously having had some impact. Nothing helped. That’s when I decided to play around with familiar nursery rhymes and try and give them a humorous bent. I don’t think I did too badly – either that, or my friends to whom I sent copies, were too kind to disillusion me.

    Two years ago I sent in an article to the Reader’s Digest (Australasian edition) but heard nothing back for six months, when out of the blue an email informed me that they would be happy to publish my piece. That was all the encouragement I needed. I now freelance for a Catholic magazine in Melbourne, and my finest ideas are born in the quiet hours of the night. Unfortunately for me, those, ahem, blindingly brilliant ideas and words and phrases that strike me like lightning at 2 a.m. don’t seem to always be recorded by my brain’s hard drive; but enough is retained for me to tease out my nocturnal verbal ramblings into some sort of coherent prose. Insomnia cured? Alas no; but my family and friends no longer (or hardly ever) have to put up with my bleating any more.

  • richard grover
    Posted at 09:08h, 03 May Reply

    Thanks Phil.By dipping into what is common to many of us, you find the profound.
    Maybe this is “wrestling with angels”. Or”finding God in all things”.

  • Jeanette Woodley
    Posted at 09:20h, 03 May Reply

    Father Philip, I am a fellow insomniac for about 35 years now. I have read something recently that has helped me in accepting this condition. What if the good Lord has given me this condition to help purify me or make reparation for my sins and/or the sins of others? Every sin has to be repaired, either in this life or the next. I prefer this life.

  • Melinda Hurley
    Posted at 00:51h, 04 May Reply

    Geez Philip….a special place in hell? I think I might have a place there but not because I am a good sleeper (sorry). I do feel for you, though, Philip. Sleep is a wondrous thing! My father used to get mad at us if we slept too much when we were growing up…he always said you’ll sleep enough when you die. Think about that! Enjoy your awake times! I can’t believe a book on insomnia didn’t put you to sleep! There are some good drugs you could take though, I am sure. Good luck…..pleasant dreams!

  • Eileen Curran
    Posted at 08:17h, 05 May Reply

    Believe it or not, this has led me To some reflection. In our house, both my husband and I suffer from insomnia. Not every night, but a couple of times a week. Most often on different nights. When it occurs on the same night we share the burden of it. It is bittersweet after 45 years of marriage to console each other then. When it is me alone, I create lives for myself all over the world if I can, all sorts of adventures. Providing of course that I am not troubled, and then all the demons come out. This is very hard. Sometimes insomnia seems like death. I have a friend who had panic attacks when she woke. So she can no longer live alone…. We must make friends with it, or it will affect our lives. Nevertheless, as a retired nurse, I do recommend discussing this with an MD just to be sure it is not a physical problem.

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