It’s too beautiful to sleep here tonight. The wind is restless and roaming the garden, slipping in through open windows to creak and sigh the doors.
I have little shorthand explanations of things that often help remind me of approaches I’ve found useful in the past. For insomnia it is this: I can’t sleep when my mind decides there’s something else I need even more urgently than I need sleep. If I can figure out what that is and meet that need even in just a small way, sleep will come.
Often it helps. It could be pressuring trying to figure it out, lying in bed exhausted and confused. That would be incredibly unhelpful. For me it’s more an invitation. It changes the problem from one of distress without meaning, something difficult and frustrating that just happens without cause and that I can’t control, to something that makes sense and is meaningful where I have power and influence. My mind and body for reasons unknown to me have prioritised something above sleep. What is it?
Sleep hygiene is important of course. It helps when you understand that melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep, needs sunlight in your eyes for you to build it, preferably early in the morning. So insomnia can be helped by sitting in the early morning sunlight and helping your body build enough hormones to restore sleep routines. It helps when you learn that teenagers tend to have very vulnerable sleep routines that get out of whack quickly and need more sleep than they did as kids – and that some adults retain this and find that one late night means not being able to get to sleep at their usual time for days or weeks. Understanding the way blue light from phone screens interferes with sleep is very useful. All that biological stuff is good and important and sometimes it’s sufficient.
Sometimes it’s not. I’ve had terrible trouble with insomnia at times, and when there’s been other things going on no amount of sleep hygiene would help. Severe nightmares have made sleep a terrifying thing. I’ve stopped sleeping at times for weeks, heralding severe dissociation or psychosis. Very few sedatives work on me so there’s little help from that quarter.
So for me I’ve needed to find other ways to approach it. Thinking of insomnia as something that happens when something is wrong paralysed me. Thinking of it as something that happens when there’s something I need more urgently than sleep was useful. When I can’t sleep, I use the time to tune in and notice what’s going on. I might journal or write to a friend online and chat (it’s useful to have friends in different time zones for this reason). Sometimes I need to think about something, feel something, express something. Sometimes I’m too buzzing with excitement and need to do more to settle and calm my mind. Reading fiction often helps me, on a phone app with a blue light filter and the screen set to black and the text to white I can read in the small hours without disturbing roommates.
Sometimes Narnia is calling me, the night, the wind and stars, poetry beating in my blood. The ordinary world fades away with the dark, and for just a few hours I can taste my own soul, feel the wings at my back. Sometimes that’s a call I need to answer, more than rest, more than sleep. To creep away from sleeping household and stand under stars or paint with inks by lamp light in the silent house.
Some needs are bold and strong as lungs demanding air or stomach craving food. Others are incredibly quiet and can only be heard when the world is asleep or we are alone and without responsibilities. Questions we need quiet to ask or contemplate, trees that need to be breathed in. The dead remembered, the dreams counted. Sometimes it’s only at night the tears can come, or the poems, or the hope. And then it’s a blessing to be awake, that they do not slip past us unnoticed as we forget that the daylight world is not the only one we can walk, and that who we are in all those roles is not the whole sum of us.