We’ve all had those nights when we wake up in some dark hour and can’t get back to sleep no matter what method we use to try to trick ourselves back into unconsciousness. I’ve found watching a good nature or outer space programme can often lull me, but sometimes nothing works. Although I occasionally go through periods when sleeplessness plagues me night after night leaving me exhausted and bleary-eyed throughout the workday, I’ve never considered it to be a serious or chronic problem. But other people experience more severe cases that are seriously debilitating – such as my partner who has tried many different treatments.
Most books about insomnia offer advice or methods for overcoming it, but what I appreciate so much about Marina Benjamin’s short, impactful and beautifully-written book “Insomnia” is that she approaches the condition from a more philosophical point of view. It’s a deeply personal account because she’s someone who has suffered from insomnia for years and tried just about every scheme out there to sleep better. But rather than write a guidebook she offers a different kind of solace in how we’re all unified by sleep or the lack of it. She draws upon references from mythology, psychology, art and literature to illuminate how we often have an uneasy relationship with our night time selves.
I enjoyed how the author gives such a radically different look at the condition and the meaning of sleep itself. She challenges the conception of sleep as a peaceful state noting how the body can often be restless during the night and a realistic version of Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t keep her name if she were pictured snoring and sweating. She’s also mistrustful of viewing mindfulness as a form of tranquillity when she sees it as a tragic kind of stasis: “It leaves the world unchanged.” These observations are really helpful at encouraging us to rethink how we consider and relate to sleeping.
She also raises many good points about the portrayal of women in relation to sleep in fairy tales and mythology. She draws upon a dizzying range of fascinating references, but they remain in context and illuminate different ways of considering sleep. I was most drawn to her reflections about the odd loneliness which accompanies insomnia but she observes how “Imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness, insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective… No doubt we could easily spew a textbookful of shared anxieties. Yet we cannot commune with one another.” It feels like this relates to ideas (central to this blog) about how reading is such an essential lonely activity, yet it also unites us in a cultural conversation. Any solitary space where we can consider ideas with such concentrated intensity seems to come attached to a feeling of melancholy because those ideas won’t ever flourish as fully in the blunt arena of normality.
Marina Benjamin playfully refers to her partner as Zzz (because he often is asleep while she’s still awake.) It creates a unique sort of estrangement being perpetually awake while your partner is asleep and this adds another dimension to the loneliness of insomnia. She observes how “Zzz is next to me, but miles away. In those lonesome hours when I fear I might drown in a well of unspecified longing, I sense a danger that my most intimate space might also become my most alienated. Estranged from the night, I am locked out of my own rest. If I reached out to Zzz would I even find him?” It feels only natural that the overactive sleepless mind becomes consumed with paranoias, fears and poetic turns of thought. Being exposed to too much night we think of the daytime and night time self as being two distinct states of being, but this impactful book does a lot to creatively bridge the space between them.