If you’ve ever been awake at 4am, you know. You know the way the darkness seems to hover in the air before you, the way time stretches, the way street lights sneak through curtains. You know the feeling of dread as morning starts to show itself and you know the panic of being on your own in the dark. You know the madness of the night, too; the way your mind can snag on a single thought and think it for hours, over and over. It’s a lonely time, 4am.
Reading Marina Benjamin’s memoir, Insomnia, has made me feel less alone in all that sleeplessness. She has made me feel seen. She could be describing the choreography of my own nights when she writes: "Unable to settle in one position for more than a few beats, I try them all out in turn: the plank, the foetal curl, the stomach-down splat – as if I’d landed on the mattress from a great height. Each of these poses is contrived insofar as it corresponds to an idea of what relaxation looks like." In fits of insomnia, we lose that ability to relax – and certainly, to sleep. Benjamin knows the dull panic of our sleepless nights and she speaks it back to us, which is oddly comforting.
Most writing on the subject of insomnia is about curing it or trying to trick yourself into sleeping. It’s about turning your phone off two hours before you go to sleep, having a regular bedtime, keeping your bedroom pitch black and possibly putting some foul-tasting oil under your tongue. Benjamin’s writing is not like that. Apart from a few mentions of strong herbal or pharmaceutical supplements, Benjamin scarcely offers a medical solution, which is somewhat of a relief. If you’re an insomniac, you’ve likely already googled how to sleep and still it evades you, no matter how rigorous your bedtime routine. Instead, Insomnia is a lyrical, thoughtful meditation on sleeplessness. It’s about Odysseus and Penelope, Oedipus and Athena, Nabokov and Gilgamesh, and Rumi and Robinson Crusoe. It’s about art and literature and mythology and creativity and productivity and peace. It’s not about fixing it so much as understanding it. It’s a book to make you feel less alone.
"The more you chase sleep, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your back on it, it might visit you, like a gift, or it might ambush you," Benjamin tells me. "You will not succeed if you chase sleep. You can’t lie there waiting for it to come. That’s when you fall prey to the crazy mind, the crazy self that comes in the night."
Rather than approaching insomnia as a lack of sleep, I think of it as a violent presence.
This is when insomnia is at its cruellest; when it taunts you with fear and worry and madness. I spend most of my waking nights obsessively thinking, unable to silence a single nasty thought for hours on end. Benjamin grew tired of that particular torture and started getting out of bed, going downstairs, switching the light on, curling up next to the dog and reading or writing – sometimes this very book.
"It’s so unpleasant to lie there, so I started getting up so I didn’t feel like I was a victim of this thing. I wasn’t its prey. I just started to think of it like I was occupying a slightly different time zone or head zone. That’s what led me to accommodate the insomnia. In a calm frame of mind, that’s me making a cup of tea, putting the computer on and doing a couple of hours' work. It was a good way of capturing some of the things I noticed at night: the textures of the night, the colours of the night, the animalistic qualities of the night."
Meanwhile, upstairs, Benjamin’s partner – to whom she refers only as "Zzzz" in the book – sleeps on. Love him though she does, she cannot stand to stay awake beside his sleeping form. This, too, is familiar to me, the alienation you feel lying next to the still, snoring body of your beloved. They cannot help you, they cannot hear you and their slumber seems almost a rebuke.
"I think the loneliness is exacerbated when your partner is sleeping next to you, because you can’t wake them, you can’t reach them, they’re not there. They’re very present, they are a lump, a rock, but they are also absent, they are not themselves." In contrast, she is too present, lying or sitting or turning awake. She is hyper vigilant of her surroundings, of her temperature, of the feeling of her skin against the bedclothes. "Rather than approaching insomnia as a lack of sleep, I think of it as a violent presence," she says. Awake at night and in the early hours of the dawn, we are on a different plane of existence from our snoring bedfellows. This is something Benjamin has, remarkably, taught herself not just to tolerate but perhaps even enjoy.
"The enjoyment comes in thinking of insomnia differently. There’s a beauty in the familiarity with nocturnality that we don’t have unless we are insomniac," she says. "There’s a different wellspring of ideas and thoughts that you can tap into at night. There’s a different vocabulary available, whether it’s artistic or verbal or even musical."
Marina Benjamin has found a way to make insomnia productive, even inspiring. It makes me feel inadequate, lying in the dark, waiting for sleep like I do. But perhaps also hopeful. Maybe there’s a way to silence the nasty thoughts, curl up next to a dog and make use of our surplus hours awake. I’m going to try.