Insomnia: To Pursue Sleep So Hard You Become Invigorated By the Chase

Insomnia is not just a state of sleeplessness, a matter of negatives. It involves the active pursuit of sleep. It is a state of longing.

At the velvet end of my insomniac life I am a heavy-footed ghost, moving from one room to another, weary, leaden — there, but also not there. I read for an hour, make myself a cup of tea, and sit with the dog.

We stare at each other with big cow eyes and I marvel at his animal knack for sleep. Curling in beside me on the sofa, he is out within minutes, legs splayed like bagpipes, his warm little body rising and falling. If I so much as twitch he snaps awake instantly but without any sense of alarm; he just lifts those liquid brown eyes toward mine, wanting to know if the world is unchanged.

On nights like these I leave a trail of evidence behind me to be discovered and remembered in the morning: my reading glasses upturned on the coffee table, carelessly cast off like a pair of party shoes, an open book facedown on a chair, food crumbs on the kitchen counter. Sapped by fatigue, I stand in the middle of the living room in the dusty light and pull my dressing gown around me. I am trying to puzzle out the clues so as to reconstruct the events of the night before, but I keep blanking. The mise-en-scène of morning starts to resemble the scene of a crime. All that is lacking is the body shape outlined on the floor: the missing body, wakeful when it should be sleeping.

There are also luminous moonlit nights, lurid nights, when everything feels heightened and I jerk awake with a fidgety awareness, my mind speeding. In the grip of an enervating mania, I creak my way down the stairs and switch on the computer, scrolling for bad news from places where daylight reigns: an exploding bomb, the wreck of human carnage, floods, fires, terrorist traps. Ordinary disasters. I pace and fret, railing at the dumb news, racing with emotion. I feel held back by the night because I am convinced that the hidden mystery of our beautiful existence might be found in its very bowels. I am looking for insight, for a nugget of value to carry across night’s border into morning.

When you cannot get sleep you fall in love with sleep, because desire (thank you, Lacan) is born out of lack. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship here, between the degree of lack and the corresponding degree of love. How much do I love sleep, I wonder. And can sleep love me back? The medieval Islamic poet Rumi seemed to think the relationship might be reciprocal. In “The Milk of Millennia” he wrote: “every human being streams at night into the loving nowhere.” I find it comforting to think that we might stream beyond our bedroom walls at night, like a crystalline liquid (or like data), as though our avatars were flowing toward, then alongside those of others in surging formation while our bodies were at rest. I find it reassuring that nowhere can be a loving place. Although when I am revving in the night hours, Nowhere does not feel especially loving.

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