There is a man outside my window. It’s about three AM on a Saturday, and he’s standing on our front porch, facing out towards the street. He hasn’t made a sound, but I could feel him there so I knelt on my bed, and cracked the curtain a little. He can’t see me. He’s making no noise, and he’s not looking my way. He seems to be hiding, maybe, or he’s on the lookout. I watch him for a minute wondering what I should do. Then he starts to turn. I quickly move the curtain back, not wanting to provoke him into any kind of action. I hear my bike rattle against the window frame, as he gives it a shake. But the lock is solid and he moves away.
If I didn’t have insomnia, I’d have never known he was there.
It started when I was young, maybe seven or eight. I don’t really remember. I just remember lying awake in my bed, dreaming up elaborate fantasies to take my mind off the fact I wasn’t sleeping. Most nights I sleep from midnight until two, then, I’m awake. If I’m lucky it lasts just an hour. If not the sun will creep in the window as I’m slowly dozing back into proper sleep. It is a rare and wonderful treat to sleep the whole night through.
Growing up there were some benefits to the insomnia. At certain times of the year I would wake and hear the faint noise of the television. My grandmother, whose insomnia was also rampant, would be watching the tennis. I would creep quietly into the dining room, where our TV was, and sit at my Nan’s feet watching Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras battle it out. My family, by and large, aren’t sports fans, but my Nan passed on her love of the tennis in these late night sessions. It was nice, wrapped in my blanket, my head resting on her legs, just the two of us and the glow of the screen. She understood that telling me to go to sleep wouldn’t do much good.
My dentist told me recently that the insomnia could be caused by sleep apnea. It’s not severe. I do sleep; I just don’t sleep a full night through. Sleep apnea interferes with the natural breathing patterns of the body, and can cause you to wake from slumber to ensure you don’t asphyxiate. Basically, your brain says “hang on, where’s the oxygen? Wake up and breathe”. And so you do.
He ordered me to get some scans, to see if his hunch is right. But I haven’t done it yet. I sort of love that time in the middle of the night, when it’s just me and my thoughts. I don’t know if I could give it up. When I do sleep uninterrupted I always awake surprised. “Hang on, it’s six AM? But I haven’t had time to think,” is usually one of my first thoughts.
The night hours are some of the sweetest. It is quiet. The house is still and the air is (usually) cool. My cat, curled at the foot of the bed, is snoring adorably. You can think up wonderful things in that world. Take journeys, plot your own course, write a draft of your life in your head. It is not lonely, because it is filled with your family and friends, as you imagine them, alive in your mind.
On a long drive with a friend recently I asked him if people imagine their lives in detail, having conversations, making plans, drawing in the faces of lovers and children not yet here.
“Does everyone do that?”
I’m sure I can’t be alone in this novelisation of my yet-to-be-lived life. But he’s the first person I’ve asked, and he seemed pretty confident my behaviour was a little bit strange. I guess I knew that already, which is why I’d never asked anyone before.
A severe lack of sleep can kill you. And it can drive you into serious mental instability. The toll it can take on your body is severe.
“Sleep apnea can cause organ problems, weight problems, blood pressure problems,” is what my dentist says as he writes out the order for the scan. He’s sort-of my family dentist (as much as my family has a single dentist or is responsible about oral hygiene) and he says he thinks it runs in my family. He tells me about a sleep lab program that he’d like me to think about.
I put the paper in my pocket and on the bus back into town I think about the time my father slept for 25 hours straight. He was on holidays alone in the gorgeous Queensland town of Caloundra. After a morning walk on the beach he returned to his flat about 11. A little tired, he decided to nap on the couch. He woke at 12 and thought: “that was a good nap”, and went down to get the papers.
It was the next day.
A recent study printed in the European Heart Journal in early March found there’s a link between our sleep habits and our heart health. It was a long study, with participants tracked over an average of 11 years. When they started out none of the participants had heart disease. “After controlling for numerous health, behavioural and demographic factors, the researchers found that having one symptom of insomnia was associated with a 17 percent increase in the risk of developing heart failure. Having two symptoms increased the chances by 92 percent, and having all three nearly tripled the risk.” The New York Times reported.
So it’s definitely bad for your health. Once when I googled insomnia this quote from Leonard Cohen kept popping up, among the many “medical hobbyists” online. (I laughed so hard when Hannah’s dad used that descriptor in the season two finale of Girls, it’s just perfect.)
But anyway, “the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world,” is the Cohen quote. It’s true. Your brain is so wired. So on, all the time. And it’s impossible not to feel like maybe you’re in on something everyone else is missing.
Except you’re not. You’re the one who’s missing out. My ex-boyfriend was usually asleep not long after his head hit the pillow. And sometimes he would just be sitting at the table, or on the couch, or standing at the bench; staring at nothing. I would ask him what he was thinking about and he replied every single time with the same answer.
Which really baffled me. He meant it. He could actually still his mind. It’s a skill I never developed. As a seven-year-old I remember lying on the prickly carpet in my classroom during “relaxation” time as our teacher instructed us to empty our minds.
“How can I do that?” I would wonder. And then I would start daydreaming about something, or thinking about school, or the weekend. I never once achieved that stillness I was supposed to be heading for. And as an adult it’s just as bad.
I’ve largely come to terms with this after so many years of wakefulness. And I don’t know if I really want to sleep through the night. I’d miss the true solitude of it. There is no other time, when you share a house and you work and all that, when you know you can just think, uninterrupted, for an indefinite period of time.
Maybe it’ll kill me. But those lonely late night hours are my oldest, surest friend.