Friday 3 November 2017

The Insomniac Writer: cure or endure?

by Teri Terry

I often have trouble sleeping - it isn't anything new. In fact in a weird moment of synchronicity, here is a memory Facebook threw up at me from five years ago, just as I started writing this blog. 

I can actually remember the first time I had trouble sleeping. I was in year ten at school and there was a big maths test the next day. Some kids were stressing about it and our teacher said those immortal words: 

The most important thing is to get a good night's sleep. 

I call this the curse of Mrs Lutz. It began a lifelong pre-exam/pre-job interview/pre-first appearance at Edinburgh etc inability to sleep.

The curse of Mrs Lutz - the can't-fall-asleep-because-of-worrying-about-something-reasonable-to-worry-about sort of insomnia - isn't the most dominant sort for me now, though. 

Most of the time I fall asleep easily enough, sleep for about three hours, and then ... wake up. And often that is it - for hours. Butterfly brain flits and races in so many directions! From things I plan to do the next day - usually my nighttime list is beyond anything reasonably attainable - to past events - and almost always: my current work in progress. Plot tangle? Character issue? You name it, I'm on it. I'll be awake for two or three hours and then fall asleep for another one or two. The problem that comes is if I can't have that last hour or two because I have to get up for an event or to let in electricians or any other pesky matter of real life - then I get in a too tired to think sort of state where I'm not much use to anybody.

From comments on Facebook and Twitter it seems apparent that trouble sleeping is a writer thing: another area for collective comfort.

The insomniac writer is nothing new:

There is a really interesting article by Greg Johnson published in VQR in 2003, "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" that catalogues a long list of literary heroes and their battles with insomnia. From D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Walt Wiltman, insomnia seems to be a badge of honour, sometimes loved, often hated - a creative time or a hell of self-doubt and insecurity. And is it a case of not being able to sleep, or refusing to allow sleep to come in and take consciousness away?

Here more recently is Debi Gliori from brainyquotes, one I really relate to:
There are whole months at a time when my head is so full of ideas that I wake in the middle of the night and lie in the dark telling myself stories. There are also long, dark nights when I just know I'll never write another word.

Sometimes I'm so desperate for more sleep that I'd do anything ...

Is there a cure?

I went to a talk on sleep and dreaming at the New Scientist Live exhibition recently by psychologist and author Richard Wiseman. He gave top tips for better sleep, so here goes:

1. Napping: 
It is part of our biology to have a dip in alertness around midnight and around noon. If you nap when that dip occurs midday it will improve your memory and alertness and decrease heart disease! Sounds good. The trick is only about 25 minutes: any longer than this then you slip into deep sleep and feel worse instead of better when you wake up.

2. Get the length of sleep right: 
Sleep cycles - of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (dreaming) - last about 90 minutes. For good health it is essential to go through these cycles: in light sleep you process psychological matters, in deep sleep you heal physically, and dreams work through your worries and concerns. You need to wake up at the end of the cycle to feel refreshed. So go to sleep in factors of 90 minutes, with about 15 extra to fall asleep. 

For e.g., if you go to bed at 10:45 pm, so hopefully are asleep by 11 pm, plan your wake up time at either 5 am (ouch) - giving 6 hours of sleep and 4 sleep cycles; or 6:30 am, which is 7.5 hours sleep, 5 sleep cycles; and so on. If you wake up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. you'd be in the wrong stage of sleep, and get that jarred awake feeling when the alarm goes and feel more tired.

I found this interesting because my nighttime bouts of insomnia always seem to happen about 3 hours after I go to sleep; and if I get more sleep later in the morning about 90 minutes seems to be about right.

3. Alcohol:
Having a nightcap disrupts deep sleep and dreaming. Avoid for 2 hours before bedtime.

4. Phones and laptops:
Don't use screens for 2 hours before bedtime: light disrupts melatonin and sleep. Ten minutes on your phone before bedtime is equivalent to a two hour walk in bright sunshine.

5. Reverse psychology:
If you can't fall asleep, try to stay awake instead! Keep your eyes open and you'll soon fall asleep.

6. Music:
The right sort of music can promote sleep. He suggests something called Night School Music which he said can be downloaded for free; I couldn't find it on line so I'm guessing it might be linked in his book. Personally I find when I'm staying in hotels if I can't fall asleep in different surroundings, I put Mark Knopfler on low and it helps me drift off.

7. Distraction:
If you wake up and your mind is racing, distract it. Do something like an alphabet game (where for e.g. you name an animal or a piece of fruit for every letter of the alphabet in your mind), or read. I used to play scrabble on my phone as I found it does the same sort of thing, but - whoops - no screens, no. 4 above.

8. Get up:
If you're awake at night for more than about ten minutes, get up and do something in low light for a while - e.g. read, do a jigsaw puzzle - something that takes your attention. The reason to get up is to avoid associating bed with sleeplessness.

Cure or Endure?

There are some great tips on the insomnia battle there. I'm not much of a napper but I'm with him on 2, 3, 4, 6, and occasionally (if I have to get up early the next day) can make myself do 7, though it is a battle of willpower to make myself do it. But I can't convince myself to try 8. And somehow I think I've finally realised:

I don't actually want to. I like being awake, thinking, in the middle of the night. I may regret it the next day, but I don't want to let it go.

I'm not alone:

In it's early stages, insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge. 
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

I have patches of insomnia, and I'm fascinated by the otherness of the world at night. The stillness. Daytime preoccupations fall away, standards change, thoughts change. It's a canvass for reinvention ...  
Morag Joss

I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia
Antonio Tabucchi

p.s. I would have sprinkled in interesting images through the blog but I'm SO tired after missing my later sleeping slot to let in the electricians at stupidly-early-o'clock, I just couldn't manage it ...

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