Essay | The Art of Lost Sleep by Venetia Welby

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Cover art by Christiana Spens

The following essay is reproduced with permission from the anthology Trauma – An anthology of writing about art and mental health (Dodo Ink, 2021, edited by Sam Mills & Thom Cuell). Alongside this essay, the book contains work from Monique Roffey, Alex Pheby, David Lynch, Kirsty Logan & many others. You can buy the book directly from the publisher here

Venetia Welby


The Art of Lost Sleep

Some way in to my recent trip to Japan it occurred to me that I hadn’t slept properly for twenty years. This hit me because for the first time since my teens, I actually was sleeping – despite the jet lag, despite the novelty and excitement of being in Okinawa, the place I’d dreamed about for a decade. It was a contrast to ill-fated 2005, when I took a job in China and realised I really might never sleep again.

There was a height to the white sky of Beijing in winter and both sun and moon were perpetually veiled in smog. I had left a liminal state – relationship dead, work a disaster, flat flooded – for a surreal one. Living in a dusty bedsit above Sanlitun, or ‘Bar Street’, I was being solitary and literary, determinedly. I was also not sleeping. Not at all, and I hadn’t done so since arriving two weeks previously. Sleeplessness was, of course, no stranger to me. I was familiar with sleep’s vagaries; I knew it as a capricious bastard that I lusted after, conscious all the while it was not to be trusted. Never, though, had it deserted me entirely before.

I ate jellyfish and pigs’ ears. I tutored small children who were also in limbo, staying in Beijing before being shipped off to Harrow School, speaking only what English I taught them. I wrote a bad novel about twenty-somethings escaping real life and starting again. I developed an affinity with panic and loss, walking for miles through the snow around the city, trying to physically exhaust myself. Every night my body would fizz into life, adrenalin surging through me, my mind sprinting to keep up. It seemed the beast was self- perpetuating. Each insomniac night piled one on the next, the cumulative unhinging jitterising effect making sleep the next night less and less possible. A white arrow of unbroken moon cycles, no breaks to recalibrate, recuperate, rejuvenate.

I feared I was becoming Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar:

‘I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next day had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1966: p.135

I was an interdimensional being, exempt from the normal rhythms of humans. You might think that the upside of this is that it leads to some sort of unearthly wisdom. You would be wrong.

Far from the dreamlike state upon first waking where your imagination can fly into real life – the fertile marshland where anything is possible and you can understand the multiverse – rolling sleeplessness diminishes creativity. It is impossible to make decisions, your flayed emotions are too raw, and the energy and optimism required to tell a story are replaced with self-doubt and despair. At no point did I fall in love with insomnia or give it credit for a single word written, as the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran seems to have done. A philosopher and (later regretful) supporter of the fascist Iron Guard in the 1930s, he wrote in On the Heights of Despair:

‘Just as ecstasy purifies you of the particular and the contingent, leaving nothing except light and darkness, so insomnia kills off the multiplicity and diversity of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions. What strangely enchanted tunes gush forth during those sleepless nights!’
— E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 1975: p.83

Looking back on my strangely enchanted tunes, I can safely say they should have been stuffed, immediately, back in. ‘What rich or strange idea was ever the work of a sleeper?’ Cioran scoffed in A Short History of Decay. I’d like to declare my interest in the sleeping camp for novel production – one foot in the real world must surely help.

In the end I presented my wraithlike self to a Beijing pharmacy and was sent away with zopiclone, a prescription-only sleeping pill in the UK. It allowed me to sleep for four hours at a time at the expense of a metal mouth, the taste of munching on nuts and bolts. A small price to pay. It was a far cry from my Chinese travels in 2000, my insomniac proclivities only marked by a short burst of narcolepsy and a sleepwalking episode that saw me jogging naked down a hotel corridor. At least I was asleep. In fact, on this trip I slept like Rip Van Winkle, even in a shack full of spiders the size of plates, trekking on the Burmese border.

When good sleep, assisted, finally returned to me at the age of thirty-five in Japan, I was staying in the rural district of Yomitan, Okinawa, researching a new novel. There was a savage sea to the front of my room and three great womb- shaped tombs at its back. It was the kind of place where I should, traditionally, not have slept at all, given the terrifying Japanese folklore I’d been looking into, given the coming typhoon. Below my window was an eerie green glow from the night fishermen. I tied my doors shut with a pair of tights, just in case the sleeping me decided to go for a wander.

Sleep began to be a problem for me at the age of fifteen. I had a lot of nightmares as a child – the intruder circling the house, the wolf outside the school, the old soldier who is really the devil. I was what people referred to without too much concern as ‘a worrier’. In particular, I used to fret about bad things happening to those I loved, something I was able to soothe by telling myself that this was just my overactive imagination running wild. At fifteen, I experienced the will- she-won’t-she die horror of cancerous decline. And then the all too real black grief, for the first time, as I mourned my adored, magical and too-young grandmother. I realised that bad things will happen to those I love. Imagination has nothing to do with it.

It was at this time that my little sister, aged eleven, stopped sleeping entirely. The school sent her, weirdly enough, to see a homeopath. She was given three different kinds of sugar pill to take in a precisely ordered and elaborate ritual. My sister never had problems sleeping ever again. I wish they’d tried that trick on me. My mother, by contrast, has struggled with insomnia ever since she had us.

There’s good reason why the CIA uses sleep deprivation to torture its detainees. It can really fuck you up. One of the images that haunted me at night was from A.N. Wilson’s Stray, the story of a cat who takes to the road and meets with the worst that humanity has to offer, spending a short, horrific stint in a laboratory. Until he escapes he has been unable to tell why the cat in the cage next to him cries out night and day, ‘I cannot close my eyes! I cannot close my eyes.’ [A.N. Wilson, Stray, 1992: p.125] The scientists, it transpires, have cut off his eyelids and tied him to a treadmill, an experiment in sleeplessness.

Fernando Pessoa’s erratic, disjointed and brilliant The Book of Disquiet mimics the state of the insomniac brain, capturing the vulnerability of the undefended mind at night. He, or Bernard Soares, Pessoa’s, ‘semi-heteronym who… always appears when I’m sleepy,’ [Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose, 2001: p.280] speaks with a kind of venomous beauty of the ‘catalogue of monsters’ that come to those who cannot sleep:

‘They are the larvae of decline and waste, shadows filling the valley, the last vestiges of fate. Sometimes they are worms, repellent to the very soul that cossets and nourishes them; sometimes they are ghosts sinisterly haunting nothing at all; sometimes they emerge like cobras from the bizarre grottoes of lost emotions.’
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 2010: p.37

The feeling of aloneness in space and time is almost boundless. And then, of course, there’s the gaping stupidity of the morning. The jangling overstretched unrested nervous system. The dread; the basic inability to function; the clumsiness. It won’t stop, will it, until you’re dead.

It’s one of those things that’s quite hard, I think, to explain to those who can sleep. It is a fundamental animal thing to do. The idea that you yourself are responsible is pervasive; if you could just get out of your own way. Lavender oil, mindfulness, a bedtime ritual. In the same way that some people think they understand clinical depression because they’ve felt down for a time and managed to snap out of it, so people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.

GPs are wary of the unslept. In we stagger, glassy-eyed, primed to con them out of their limited quota of sleeping pills. I know, I know: they’re addictive, they’re bad for you, they’re not a long-term solution. I tried other things. I attended a Sleep Clinic for eight weeks, the duration of which I spent madly awake: a restrictive ‘sleep diet’ had been imposed upon me, already starving. The rules of the diet meant that I was not allowed in my bedroom, still less bed, before midnight or after six in the morning. These were lenient terms I negotiated; it should have been worse. I’m not brilliant with rules and routines in general and these, at a time when I was on the floor, desperately sleepless, simply added anxiety.

I took a course in Autogenic Training instead, which is rather like a cult in that it has a number of trained initiates who may only pass on the wisdom in a prescribed series of private tutorials. Someone told me that all pilots underwent Autogenic Training and it meant they could fall asleep anywhere, in any position. This is for me, I said, the person who failed to sleep even on a cushy business class flight for work with a full actual bed on board and much of the free bar inside me. I took AT pretty seriously, clearing fifteen minutes three times a day to practise the ritual, which in a nutshell involved informing different anatomical parts of me that they were heavy and warm. And indeed they may have been, but this did not, sadly, pave the way to sleep.

What else? The list is long. In my time I have guzzled tinctures of hops, valerian root, passiflora and chamomile. I have resisted the guzzling of coffee and wine. I have practised yoga and meditation, performed visualisations and diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation and undergone counselling and CBT. I have bought sleep masks and blackout blinds and sampled over thirty different kinds of earplug. I have taken magnesium and 5HTP and melatonin, and a wide range of sedatives including one that rendered my husband insensible for two days but had no discernible effect whatsoever on me. Another gave me aural hallucinations in lieu of sleep. I have had the hypervigilant part of my psyche directly addressed and taken to task by a hypnotherapist and my dreams pulled apart by a Jungian analyst. Reader, I have lain in a gong bath.

The Sleep Clinic made it clear that every excessively wakeful person has this kind of list. The trick, they say, is to ditch all the aids and embrace insomnia, thereby short-circuiting the dependence on external crutches and the worry about not sleeping that perpetuates the cycle. Which would have been fine, if it had led to sleep.

Finally, I tried having a baby. I should make it clear that I got knocked up for better reasons than attempting to solve my insomnia. Nevertheless, I did have in the back of my mind the words of a GP from my youth, who said sagely that ‘all these things’ tend to sort themselves out when women get pregnant. A man, obviously. Anyway, it turned out to be true. For three months I could barely move or do anything other than sleep or throw up. I loved the sleeping part. Unfortunately, this was rapidly replaced with a kind of canine super hearing. I would wake – as if electrocuted – at the slightest rustle, no doubt nature’s way of preparing me for the mandatory broken sleep of new motherhood. Thanks a bunch, nature.

Needless to say, my already fractured sleep did not cope well with the addition of night feeds and cripplingly early mornings. Soon I was back to the Beijing days of not sleeping at all, but also now having to be responsible for a whole new life. The latter in itself is pretty anxiety inducing, I found, but add in wobbly hormones and revolving sleeplessness and it feels nothing short of a catastrophe waiting to happen. I was like Voldemort, living a kind of twilight half-life, feeding from the energy of others – surviving, and little more.

Funnily enough, it was a trip to Thailand that saved me. I knew that here I would be able to buy Valium over the counter or something that might break the cycle and guarantee sleep. To my horror, a new law had just been passed and this was no longer an option. The pharmacist was able to give me something, though, something I’d never heard of. I figured that if it had survived the law it was probably akin to the Nytols of the UK and resigned myself to simply never sleeping.

But I did sleep and what is more, I started to feel better by day, too – a natural consequence of sleep, obviously, and also of being in Thailand, but perhaps more than these. When I came home to London, I could feel life in all its possibilities opening up once more. Imagine what you can do with a bank of sleep behind you. It is nothing short of transformative.

I went to my local GP and he laughed in my face. We don’t do that here, he said. So I began the search for a new doctor and found one, at long last, who was open- minded and sympathetic to the plight of the unslept. He examined my dodgy Thai pills – trazodone, it turns out, an old-fashioned, atypical antidepressant that has been used at low doses, off-label, as a soporific. Different things work for different people, he said. Clearly these work for you. I’ve been sleeping better ever since.

I recently read an article that claims insomniacs can relax: the disorder is not the killer we all fear it must be in those dark wakeful hours. I disagree. It’s certainly not much of a life when you stop sleeping. It’s an issue that deserves to be taken more seriously and investigated with greater care. Doctors could (couldn’t they?) be more open to trying different solutions and acknowledge that there are some things a milky drink ain’t going to fix. There’s a lot of media buzz about the risks of blue light emitted by our many devices, and about what is sacrificed by and for our twenty-four-hour culture. Increasing numbers of zombified problem sleepers are reported alongside the bizarre habits of willfully sleep- deprived Silicon Valley billionaires. We are unwitting initiates of that same cult of productivity that undermines the values inherent in technology itself: to save time and energy, and free up life for the things that really matter.

The phenomenon of cultural lag means we have little idea what the consequences of the tech revolution will be for humanity. I am not hugely optimistic that it will lead to better sleep for more people, but you never know. Maybe there’s a robot for that, one that smashes you with a mallet if you move between midnight and dawn. It’s probably worth bearing insomnia in mind now, though, just in case there’s not.

Trauma – An anthology of writing about art and mental health is out now with Dodo Ink.

Venetia Welby is the author of two novels, Dreamtime, out this year with Salt, and Mother of Darkness. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Irish Times, SpectatorAsia-Pacific Journal and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. She lives in Lincolnshire with her husband, son and Bengal cat.
www.venetiawelby.com


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