Real insomnia is a relationship wrecker, it’s a straight road to madness, it’s a hallucinogen, it’s a soul sapper. So, where’s the fun side?
I sleep about two hours a night from 4am until 6am if I’m lucky. On a Saturday or Sunday I nap from 1pm until 5pm just to get some sleep. It’s been this way for a year now. I’ve tried no end of helpful suggestions including heavy drinking, mindfulness, more exercise, dog walking, heroin, meditation, cannabis-infused butter, giving up smoking, giving up drinking booze altogether, audiobooks, blind folds, magic bean filled “hot boots”, and watching baseball.
I have to report that all of them, bar one has proved to be, at best, of short term effect (drink, butter) or utter nonsense. The efficacious pair resulted in day-destroying hangovers. The outlier, the one that makes me feel less like beating my head on a rock just for some eternal rest, well I wasn’t expecting it. We’ll get to it soon.
Also thrown into the bargain were people saying thoughtful and encouraging things such as:
“I’d love to have all those extra hours”
“You must get loads done”
“Sleep’s just wasted hours anyway”
“Have you tried crystals?”
When you have next to no sleep on a regular basis, you can’t concentrate on anything, let alone anything productive. Seeing 03:58am again and again and again, when you’re not on the Night Bus, or beneath the Eiffel Tower, or in the air looking down on the red centre of Australia; seeing 03:58am without being anywhere interesting except your own head is not to be recommended. It is a shattering, continuing reminder that you’re alone, in the dark at the mercy of your own brain and body.
By genuine, chronic insomnia I don’t mean only getting four hours sleep a night every so often. I don’t mean going to bed and not being able to immediately drop off into the sweet drowse before passing away into genuine, deep, dream-free sleep. Real members of the Insomniac Club would do every kind of damage to everything they respect and hold dear to get four hours sleep a night. A few days of real insomnia means that you get visited by aural and visual hallucinations: coats over chairs in starring roles as your dead parents; the cat coming through the catflap at 3am as the attack of the Martian Ghost Warriors. A few months of this leads to proper, reasonable and sometimes quite enlightening conversations with Dead Dad and Ō0Zarb09 the Martian.
My particular insomnia – bear in mind that everyone’s insomnia is a different monster – is a mixture of physical pain and mental shenanigans.
The former is due to a combination of two very physical changes that happened to me decades apart. The first was a strange waterborne infection I picked up as a very small boy paddling in a shallow pool in a public park in Southampton, a place I took against for ever after but I digress. Insomnia does that to you.
The second cause is neuropathy, better known to fans of horror films more than medical dramas as ‘nerve damage’ and then ‘massive nerve damage’. My neuropathy is largely due to my Type 2 Diabetes, which was diagnosed at least two years too late to save me from that massive nerve damage (I hyperbolise because that’s what is needed at times like these). My diabetes is well under control, in fact it’s very nearly out of the door. However, the massive nerve damage is here to stay.
Look I’ll come clean. It’s not just the diabetes, it’s probably also 40 years of almost constant booze taking (I had a year off in 1986 due to pissing blood… turns out that was a kidney stone). I’d imagine that 40 years of heavy, heavy smoking – I’m talking French Gitanes, American Marlboro Reds, Sobranie Black Russians, roll-ups, butt rescues and more disgustingly, morbidly, suicidally pleasurable inhalations – have a lot to do with it too.
Either way, I have given up (or “paused” as a good friend has it) both smoking and drinking for more than a short while now. There has been no effect on the insomnia.
My particular neuropathy uses my feet for its natural battle ground. It wages or has waged an uncivil, guerrilla war on my small blood vessels, the ones that supply life to my nerve endings. Where it’s not destroyed those nerve endings totally, it has reduced them to demented, uncommunicative body weeds.
They fire off as and when they feel like it with absolutely no deference to what is actually required of them. Some nights my right foot is not only on fire, it is also – and at random frequencies both in time and in size – shoots tiny electrical flares up and down, in or apparently outside my leg.
On other nights my left foot will feel like it’s not only soaking wet, but it’s also freezing cold.
Drift off to sleep and out of the pedal-undergrowth emerge the remnants of a once proud and highly trained set of nerve endings. I imagine them a rag-tag squad of shell-shocked, bewildered and hate filled veterans with stained and torn epineurium. Occasionally, a young, green, wet-behind-the-axon, eager junior nerve ending is thrown into the fight, only to be made cynical and bitter by the veteran funiculi in its weary fascicle.
As drowsiness gives way to full, deep, enriching, nurturing, deathly beautiful sleep: the assault of nerve-shredded madness starts with a sniper in the distant upland of the big toe. And then: Boom! Zing! Peeee-owww! Fzzzzzt!!! Half a minute of tiny, teeny, deeply penetrative, icy, fiery torture begins.
The mental or psychologic aspects of my insomnia are baseborn psychopaths. It’s self-sabotage on a Charge of the Light Brigade scale. My own brain has some exquisitely unpleasant tricks, some real mindbending nastiness. My least favourite came slowly but is now an ever-present. It’s a deep anxiety, and consequent adrenaline flood, as the time clicks past 7pm and the night begins to come in. Night means insomnia and loneliness as all my household compadres go to bed, and are soon asleep.
Night means trying to read, trying to watch or listen to or feel anything that makes the time pass, that relaxes but doesn’t stimulate brain nor body. Stimulation is fatal to sleep. It spooks it so that sleep runs for cover, hiding itself. Before it sends out it henchmen: the charlatan of ‘napping’ or the confidence trickster of the drowse.
Night means stuffing your head into a pillow on the couch downstairs to stifle the occasional and involuntary sobs of frustration and loneliness so they don’t wake anybody else in the house. Occasionally there I hear cries of pain coming out of me.
As for Sleep Cycles and Circadian Rhythms, well those mystical events are legends and epic poems sung only in whispers by my people, by which I mean me because, as all of my Insomniac comrades know: “I am the only one in my timezone who is awake and I have never felt so lonely and meaningless”.
Anyway, earlier in this piece I mentioned that I have discovered something new to me to help me through the dead, empty hours between 10:00pm and 06:00 when my wife and dog wake up.
If you’re bored with Sport with a capital ’S’, stick with what comes next, it says less about the ’S’ word than it does about taking your mind elsewhere for a visit.
For the ever necessary context, I was brought up in England. I was brought up with a cricket bat in my hand from the age of four; I had wicket-keeper’s gloves not normal little boy’s hands from 11 years. I watched all forms of the game, read about its oldest and most recent games with equal pleasure. I would go to bed in my whites, reading scorecards by the light from the landing. I played for school, village, and trialled with the county. In 1976, as a teenager, I saw the West Indies destroy England in Test Match after Test Match, and became a Windies fan for life. In short, I very much enjoyed cricket.
In 1977 I discovered Punk Rock music, cheap cider, fags stolen from my mum, and I was kissed with tongues by a girl called Helen. Cricket began to pale into the uselessness of the past. All pasts are insignificant to teenagers, and rightly so.
Context you see, it’s important for the creation of bathos, and what’s coming next is bathetic to say the least.
I have fallen for baseball and specifically the New York Mets, an organisation formed in 1962 (you don’t have teams in baseball apparently, you have Organizations), The New York Mets. This organization is just a little older than me. To add to its generally comedic behaviours, the current Mets took its name from The New York Metropolitans. This ancestor Mets went out of business in 1887 having played its last few games on the St George Cricket Grounds on Staten Island. So, cricket, there’s a connection, right?
There is no connection. I chose The Mets because, I’ve visited New York and liked it, unlike LA, which I also visited but have never taken too. The Mets are also the favourite organisation of the Seinfeld group on TV, and I’d just finished rewatching that show from start to finish.
As a tributary to this main torrent, I imagine all the Friends characters are Yankees fans, or more probably they only watch Polo.
The Mets are famously, and with great joy, aside from a few very exceptional years, not very good.
As the legendary New York journalist, Jimmy Breslin, once wrote:
“You see, the Mets are losers, just like nearly everybody else in life. This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t manoeuvre himself to lunch with the boss enough.
“It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like. And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a t-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurence Rockefeller?”
You can’t say fairer than Jim.
More how a New York organis(z)ation has made 3am less hellish for a man in York coming soon.
Main image “The author not sleeping but deep in thought” (c) Tim Smith 2020