Monday, 18 August 2014

The Hidden Price of Insomnia

From time to time it happens to me, as it does to everyone. A night where try as I may, I cannot get to sleep.

Turned over the pillow to the cool side - check.
Fetched wayward cat from the kitchen heating vent - check.
Got a drink of water - check.

It's not so bad if you aren't really tired. Then you just put on the light and read. Extra reading time, yay. That's fine. Or, if you're a writer, hey, no reason you can't get up and work!

It's not so bad, either, if when you wake and can't get back to sleep it's almost morning. Any time after 4:00 I can get up and begin my day. Those quiet hours while the rest of the household remains in torpid slumber are both productive and satisfying. Get an extra 3 hours work done while at the same time you feel smug about being so much more industrious than everyone else. Hard to beat this for an all-round great start to the day.

The trouble comes when you really are tired. So tired that your whole body aches. So tired that even another chapter of the latest James Patterson has lost its appeal. The hours left before you will HAVE to get up stretch out, both horribly long (hours of unwanted consciousness and discomfort to be endured) and terrifyingly short (shrinking opportunity to fit yourself for the coming day).

In this kind of state, it's very difficult to take any positive benefit from being awake. And the other night, when it happened to me, I spent the hours between 2:00 and 4:00 in watching myself. Watching my thoughts. Trying to see what is going on that prevents me from 'switching off'.

It seemed to me, although allowance must be made for a certain lack of objectivity, that it was memories that took over my brain. One after another, memories from the past rose up to occupy my mind, and over and over again I found myself helplessly circling the beaten track of these past events.

As there were many repetitions of this - catch myself dwelling on yet another memory. Sternly wrench my erring mind back to stillness and quiet. GOTO 0010 - I found I had the opportunity to look for common elements in the various things that I caught myself rehashing, and surprisingly, I did find a strong common thread running through the lot of them. Every one of these memories that so forbade my sleep was a terrible one. Deaths of loved ones. Other calamities. Even, I blush to admit, the school bullies who made my childhood a constant misery. I should be over that, surely, at 57. All these things rose up in the night hours to smite me, again and again, as if I deserved some bizarre punishment for having experienced misfortune. Not one of these spontaneously occurring memories was of anything positive, or delightful. When I tried to fix my mind on happy memories, they slipped away like a handful of water.

Further introspection between the hours of 3:30 and 4:00 suggested a possible reason for this. All of the terrible things I remembered that gruesome night were events that had changed me in some way. Bent me from what path I was on towards the person I would eventually become. It occurs to me now that generally, events that have this effect of bringing about a change in a person are rarely pleasant ones. I wondered if it were not the effectiveness of the memories my sleepless mind had chosen rather than their dreadfulness. Instead of trying to focus on pleasant memories in general, if I had chosen life hinges that were actually pleasant, I wonder if I'd not have had a better time. We all have some of those along with the other sort, although they seem to lack the drama of the bad ones. They don't stick up from the landscape of memory in such a violent way, but they are there.

It's now my idea to create in advance a list of these positive life changing events, and keep it in the drawer in my bedside table for use in another such emergency. For this lying in the dark and dwelling on the failures of the past needs to be avoided at all costs, particularly by anyone with any kind of mood disorder. It strips away one's self-image and confidence like a belt sander; one might as well be listening to one's mother. I think there are few more harmful things one can do to oneself. And the more one allows this to happen, the more certain it is to happen in the future, not only on sleepless nights but in the quiet quotidian moments that ought naturally to be a refreshment in one's day, until the carping of the enemy voices of the past may drown out everything else.

And so, my advice to any insomniac is this: First, put on the light.

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