During this year’s National Novel Writing Month… I struggled… I mean, I really struggled to get over the 50k mark. It’s my seventh successful year, I’m no novice, I write two novels a year, yet this year I struggled. I just want to tell you why… It’s because I suffered from debilitating insomnia!
Now, for many years before I became a full-time writer, I worked shifts (6-2 and 2-10) with an occasional week of nights thrown in, and sometimes 12-hour shifts, so I’m pretty used to interrupted nights and my circadian rhythms were more or less destroyed by those years. But I can tell you that during all those years I never suffered from insomnia like I did in November 2020.
Insomnia is one or more of these:
- difficulty getting to sleep (that’s not me, I drop off easy)
- difficulty staying asleep (yes, I wake up after an hour)
- waking up too early (yes, I write best early in the morning) so I get up regularly around 5am
Some sufferers have called insomnia an unwanted shadow! And that’s exactly what it is. You desperately want to sleep all night (you long too) but the more you feel anxious about sleeping, the more you screw it up!
I guess many people have been suffering from insomnia during 2020 and, as I say, I didn’t worry too much about it for myself because of my experience with shift work (getting up at 4 in the morning for example, to get into London for 6am) so I didn’t think that worry about sleep would affect me. Well, I am wrong. I admit it now. And it almost ruined my attempt at NANOWRIMO this year. What happened? I had six sleepless nights. Yes, I had six sleepless night on the trot. That’s right not one, not two, not three… SIX consecutive sleepless nights. What was it like? What did it feel like to be an insomniac?
- drowsiness and fatigue during the day
- constant state of daze and slowness
- punch-drunk and less sociable than usual
- thinking all the time about sleeping
- other negative thoughts creeping into my brain
- it felt like my body was fighting with my brain
- trouble concentrating on writing
- trouble concentrating on routine tasks around the home
- trouble paying attention
- lots of trouble learning
- lots of trouble remembering stuff
- feelings of guilt that I am disappointing others
- worst, for me, trouble visualising, and FANTASIZING. In other words, I couldn’t write creatively. Truly, I was out of “creative action” for at least SEVEN full days.
- Not only worrying about insomnia, also worrying about missed deadlines, all the other work that’s being left… so it soon turns into a cycle of worry and insomnia
- Tension headaches (and how do I ordinarily heal them? I go to sleep … Grrrr!)
And please don’t talk to me about what a person can do about it. Because the answer (for me anyway) is nothing. I did all the positive things:
- I cut out heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine (I don’t smoke)
- I didn’t take any medicines or treatments
- I did breathing exercises, meditation, yoga
- I listened to soothing music
- I cut down on screen-time before bedtime
- I had a warm glass of milk
- I changed the temperature of the room
- I changed blankets, light levels, air quality, pillows, smells
- I read/didn’t read and experimented in between
- I limited, and then cut-out naps
- I had a good exercise regime
- I did all of that herbal teas nonsense
I think it’s because of a generalised anxiety about the state of the world (I don’t have any specific personal anxiety at the moment) and I also think that’s why it’s a common occurrence right now. One morning (I’m talking about 4am here) I walked along the towpath of the river where I live here in Surrey and noticed that many people were up and watching TV, reading or sitting quietly (yes, I peeked through their windows while I was walking… though I’m not a peeper) and even though it was early… I came across at least three dog walkers who were humming and trudging along. Is this normal? I suppose it’s not. I think the state of the world is causing this…
Anyway, I don’t have a magic pill for insomnia. I didn’t wave a magic wand, and it all went away. I moved into the guest room and used a mattress that I had never slept on before. I felt like I was on holiday, you know, like staying at an Air BnB. And even though my sleep wasn’t perfect, and even though I still had the three main symptoms of insomnia: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking up too early… at least I had some decent episodes of REM sleep on the strange mattress.
I’ve read that REM sleep (dream sleep) sends electrical bursts known as PGO waves surging through the brain and I guess this deeper sleep helped me perform better in my daytime tasks and helped restore my creative dynamism and it helped reduce my anxiety… the anxiety I was experiencing about insomnia.
My only suggestions are these：
- Do not be afraid
- Do not suffer in silence, share your experience
- Be proud, it is common among creative people
- Find/phone a friend to talk about it
- Keep strong
- Resist pills and medications
Final thought (courtesy of Groucho Marks)
Q: What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?
A: Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog
words: @neilmach 2020 ©
Help required? Talk to me! tweet @neilmach
Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.