Staring at Ceilings, Cursing at Walls

The following post will be especially shabby as it has been written after a night containing just 15 minutes sleep. So I thought I’d write about insomnia. George Bernard Shaw wrote something about every man being proud of his insomnia, but then he wrote a lot of things, including some quite unpleasant recipes for vegetarian puddings. I have no pride in my insomnia, I just want to stop staring at ceilings for so much of the night. (warning – some of this was written at 5am)

For anger, loathing and sudden fear of imminent death, insomnia is a great provider. How ludicrous it is to lose the knack of falling asleep. Do hibernating hedgehogs ever find themselves lying awake through december, then rolling around into angrily in January, and eventually giving up all ideas of sleep by February, before falling into a deep sleep for just one day in March? 

There are many things I can accept not being very good at, I am swimmer who looks like they are drowning with a vague a sense of moving forward as well as down, I cannot drive, and my eyes briefly lose the power of sight if a ball flies in the air towards me. But going to sleep, surely any idiot can do that? To not even know how to go to sleep is a level of idiocy beyond even the most basic marsupial. 

If you’ve never had insomnia I am sure you will consider it a ludicrous idea, “get over yourself and get some sleep”. People will suggest doing something else with your time if you are awake, but all you want to do with your time is sleep (a similar sentiment crops up in one of the better films in the sleepless genre, The Consequences of Love). “why not just do something with the time?”, but by the 52nd hour of being awake, your capabilities are limited to staring, twitching and failing to find the names of zoo animals in word search magazines designed for the under 6s.

Once you are on a roll of wakefulness, it becomes a tiresome obsession, but not so tiresome it can knock you into sleep. You end up spending much of your bleary eyed day wondering if you’ll sleep when night comes, fully aware that by obsessing about it in daylight hours, you are exacerbating the problem. When you cannot sleep, all you can think of is sleep. 

When others found out you are experiencing insomnia, and they will, because you start blethering on about it far too frequently, you will be offered a plethora of advice on how to sleep – teas of all description, Hungarian breathing patterns from TB clinics of the 1920s, fumes of licorice twig, imagined cosmic traveling, carefully considered knee positioning, toe counting, and so it goes on. 

There are many reasons you can’t sleep. It might have begun with coffee, a virulent blue cheese, or just worry. Mine was intermittent. It would usually only kick in if I had to be up early for a radio show or similar. “Hmmm, better go to bed at 11pm, so I can get a good 7 hours sleep”. Knowing no alibi or snooze button is available you are viciously aware that you must go to sleep NOW, that’s right, immediately. And that is where the problem begins. You start to concentrate so much on getting to sleep, that you are kept awake by your attempts to sleep. You must never look at a clock. The moment you check the time and see that it is now midnight, the horror of knowing that now it is only 6 hours of available sleep creates panic adrenalin then takes away the next possible hour of sleep. 

Then your senses sharpen, and all focus is on the vague gurgle of en elderly piece of lead plumbing. The sound would be imperceptible to most sane humans, but to you it is like the beating heart of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. How can I sleep at Glastonbury, in a slim sleeping bag with the constant beats of dance music, yet the whispering of an ancient pipe is enough to make me punch a wall. 

I am not sure doing two hour shows of wild shouting and waving and excitement about red-lipped batfish is the best thing to do shortly before bed, but that is what I do. Perhaps I should slow down my delivery and add more of a DJ Shadow soundtrack to the performance.

There may be many reasons for your insomnia, and they may be different to mine. I know it is my self-sabotaging mind. The same mind that if I sit in the middle of a row at the theatre or on a plane that is about to take off says, “oh no, you really need the loo. No really, feel that sensation. Oh my, imagine the shame, as halfway through Samuel West’s soliloquy, you have to excuse yourself and bang against a military parade of angered knees”

My insomnia has worsened as my wish for perfection has increased. I want my shows to be as good as possible, I don’t want to disappoint. The sense of shame and letting people down is fiercely raging at the front of my mind. This is not just for them of course, it’s for my own shoddy ego too. By 330am last night, tonight’s audience in Newcastle were in my thoughts. Should I cancel the show? It’s no good just telling people you are a bit sleepy. Then I worry about what the tiredness will do to my health? what if I rage on stage and my heart says, “you haven’t had the necessary sleep to scream and pump blood, goodbye”.

And then all the other narratives spin around and around like a cheap true life TV movie until the sun is up and another failed night is noted. 

Silly human mind, silly imagination, now where can I get some fuming licorice sticks and toe counting equipment? 

My tours are off to Liverpool, Norwich, Salisbury, Reading, Eastbourne, Uckfield and plenty more places. All dates and that sort of thing are here

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12 Responses to Staring at Ceilings, Cursing at Walls

  1. Completely know where you’re coming from. Especially with the “self-sabotaging mind”. If I know I’ve got a big day ahead of me, and I Must sleep, that’s it. Lying in the dark with my mind on LOUD. It’s a mind that wonders to frequently into the realm of blog a few days back, about imagining all the bad things. Oh Dear. Usually I listen to Utter Shambles or Monkey Cage actually, that makes being awake quite a bit better 🙂

  2. sam says:

    I don’t think twitter and the internet are good for peoples health, they never sleep,and it bombards you 24hrs a day. Try walking 8miles a day or more if possible, or ride a bike for a hour a day, or do some digging in the garden, chop up some wood. You need to get you’re body really tired.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Sam, while there’s evidence to support your statement, it is not a quick fix or a guarantee. As someone who has suffered with insomnia since childhood, I now avoid alcohol, walk 6 miles a day and swim everyday and it has helped, but it takes about 4 months (according to the studies I have read) and I still don’t sleep particularly soundly. I still have nights where my room is a prison, but they are mercifully fewer.

  3. Nick says:

    I’d just switched the light back on after an abortive attempt to sleep when I saw your tweet about this post. Spooky, eh? Glad it’s not just me that gets these nights, turning over old failures and new ones lurking around the corner. Thanks for the post; made some of the time until my mind finally gives in hugely more bearable.


  4. rose says:

    I’ve had this also and the over the counter drugs don’t work like simply sleep made by Tylenol nope doesn’t work. I went to the doc and got something that did work. I don’t have insomnia to much anymore.I like to have the pill ready for a busy day like my sons wedding took it the night before slept fine. So really tell your doctor about your problem.

  5. Mel says:

    Been there so many times. For years. I don’t think you ever get “cured” of insomnia but the following three things have made a huge difference for me: CBT to sort the mind out (the book The Chimp Paradox is great for people whose career is based on performance); Exercise (e.g. Couch To 5k) to help you get to sleep at night and give you more energy during the day; and getting up the same time each day every day – without fail. You probably think this is tedious and won’t work for me blah blah blah. Those thoughts are bullshit until you’ve tried these things for at least a month. Now stop venting and start doing 🙂

  6. Alie says:

    Ugh, the mind, it plays nasty tricks.
    Whenever my mind starts racing because the alarm clock is set, I just try to think of a plausible scenario (in exact detail) of becoming a ´succesful’ photographer. I’ll drop off in a matter of minutes.
    Tsch, the irony.

  7. Pingback: A Twit With Some Sobriety | Robinince's Blog

  8. Stealthy says:

    You sum up so eloquently how I’ve felt for the last six months! For the last three weeks or so, I feel like I’ve recovered a little, getting an average of about 4-5 hours sleep a day. Before that, it was months of barely 2 hours a day on average and finding that nothing, from exercise to prescription sleeping pills worked. I ended up with violent tendencies by the time the fifth person suggested I try camomile tea. People who have never experienced severe sleep deprivation should not be allowed to advise anyone on insomnia cures.

  9. Oh dear, I can relate too much to this. The number of times I’ve been told to have hot milky drink and put some Lavender under my pillow….

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