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Sophie Grenfell: 'Beauty Sleep'

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Photo: Annie Spratt

One evening, driving late but feeling fully awake, I realised I was approaching 80mph and the central barrier of a dual carriageway. Moments from impact, my eyes were open - they just weren’t on the road. I swerved, and drove home on the adrenaline.

I experienced insomnia from before I could name it, or realise it was anything other than normal. This is the only time I ever felt unsafe on little sleep, but I know that these micro-sleeps, lapses in participation in reality, happened for years. In the middle of conversations, cooking, lessons, lectures, parties, sport… even sex.

It shames me now, but narrowly avoiding splattering myself and my car across a concrete bank, potentially injuring others in the process and devastating everyone I knew, wasn’t the moment where I accepted responsibility for resolving my insomnia. It was six years later, when someone asked what was stopping me from seeking the help I clearly needed. Not in the form of another medication (of which I’d tried many), but in therapy. Was it pride, or an unspoken belief that insomnia made me interesting? It was both.

I’m not sure exactly when I began to fetishize my own sleep disorder, turning it from an experience into an identity, a label that somehow defined or explained me. But I do know that fiction is full of fetishized insomniacs, usually men, who are wildly, destructively interesting. They’re frantically typing out poetry in the small hours of the morning; they’re starting fight clubs and financial anarchy on the outskirts of the city. They’re chain-smoking, eye-twitching, gaunt and handsome and intense. They’re fuelled by manic energy (or amphetamines) that leaves them with twice the time. I think I wanted to be the kind of person for whom sleep was a waste, and therapy useless. Tyler Durden: an unusual role model for a prepubescent girl.

In fact, my role model was more likely Jo March. At 11 years old, I wanted to be a writer. But as your average happy, coddled 11 year old (and 15 year old, and 23 year old…), I hadn’t done anything interesting, written anything worth reading, or experienced anything worth writing about. Insomniac was a label that guaranteed I was interesting despite this. Of course I was creative, inspired, energised - I was so intensely all of these thing that I had a recognised medical condition. From Kafka and Kerouac, to Dickens, Dickinson, Fitzgerald, Shelley, Updike, Conrad, Hemingway, Wordsworth, Whitman, Woolf and Wharton, the sleeplessness of the writer-insomniac endorsed my own authenticity.

Cycling through ineffective tablets as I grew older only confirmed to me that insomnia was an inherent part of my character. But none of those doctors, who were so happy to prescribe highly addictive medication, mentioned that going to them for drugs didn’t mean I wanted to be ‘cured’. I’m not recommending this policy be adopted by the NHS, but instead of asking whether I was experiencing a period of stress or drinking coffee after 3pm, in my case they should have asked if I perhaps suffered from an incurable case of narcissism.

I’m mostly joking. I’d like to think it’s understandable, that after enduring a sleep disorder for many years, I eventually embraced it as something I could love about myself. But none of the coping mechanisms I chose expressed self-love as much as self-indulgence. I went through a teenage phase of drinking whisky before bed from a cut glass tumbler. It made me feel like Oscar Wilde. Later I took up running, exhausting myself physically each day to catch at best another hour or two. After a few months of this I developed tendonitis in both knees. Instead of stopping, I took painkillers. Genuinely, why was I so stupid? Of course, I tried all the other, more sensible suggestions too. Squeaky-clean sleep hygiene. Regular bed times. No naps. No screens. No caffeine. No alcohol. No drugs (other than those prescribed). No cheese or dark chocolate. No food at all before bed.

I feel guilty admitting it, but there were many times I did love the experience of restricted sleep. By university, I’d long learnt to ‘function’ on fewer than three hours. There’s a filmic trope that exhaustion colours everything grey. But anyone with tired eyes knows light becomes brighter - too bright. If we were eating dinner under fluorescents, friends got used to me wearing sunglasses. Sensory experiences were more vivid, not less. Sometimes, if I’d stayed up all night for a few nights in a row, I’d experience a kind of high, where everything became funny and my heart beat harder, as if I were excited simply by the prospect of being. I’d race through essays and write reams. For me, it was a period of time when life was beautifully absurd, and the emotions of others very far away.

Insomnia gave me the feeling of a rich, creative interior life, full of semi lucid dreams and perceived productivity. It also exhausted my capacity for engagement or, to an extent, emotion. People often commented that I was cold - an ice queen - reserved… antisocial. I was all of those things. Quick to judge, slow to forgive, unswayed by or unsympathetic to what I felt was the overly dramatic. I hope I was always kind, but I also know that empathy was more often an abstract than it was an experience. I didn’t enjoy groups, because without the forced focus that talking to one person created, I’d drift between being present, and somewhere else. I didn’t mind. It was a pleasant feeling of separation. I think I often felt superior, as if caring less was a product of a strong character, rather than chronic exhaustion, accumulated over years of denying myself enough of a basic need to even notice what I lacked. I don’t know what first caused my insomnia, though research suggests sleeplessness is a symptom, not a disorder in its own right. I think, originally, I just hated the self-oblivion of sleep. I know that it’s not my fault. But I was complicit in extending this condition long after it could have ceased.

The sad thing is that sleeplessness did often make me more interesting. People wanted to know more. Exactly how many hours did I sleep each night? There was an obsession with the number. This is weirdly similar to writing. The first thing strangers ask is how many words I write a day. Would it matter if it were thousands, but every sentence was all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy? I’m obviously not criticizing the many friends and family who asked because they cared, but there’s definitely a morbid interest in mental health conditions that adds a layer of complexity to seeking the adequate help.

The irony is that insomnia is also incredibly boring. When I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t escape myself. I had the absolute monotony of my own company for days on end, days sometimes literally without end. No one can be interesting for that long. And when eventually I did engage in all the habits that helped me sleep, most of those were boring too. If I couldn’t nod off, I had to get out of bed, make myself a cup of herbal tea, and try and sit still, thinking about nothing. Some nights I did that for hours.

The year I moved to London, I reached some kind of tipping point. I don’t know whether the missed sleep finally caught up with me, or whether it was something else, but now I wasn’t only exhausted, but deeply unhappy in a numb kind of way. I caught myself taking a sleeping tablet and setting my alarm an hour later, reasoning that was one less hour I’d have to pretend to be awake. This no longer felt beautiful. Therapy, when I eventually admitted I needed it, helped. Or more, admitting I needed it helped, I think. I only went twice, and the nice man that handed me tissues and watched me snivel wasn’t actually that useful. He did tell me something valuable though, that sometimes I still repeat to myself before bed: sleep is a meaningful and productive part of being alive.

I’m 25 now, and I still don’t think I’ve written anything worth reading. I sleep a lot more. It feels like an indulgence. But something that was both embarrassing and liberating was that literally no one cared. Those labels that I’d clung so closely to - insomniac, writer - were things I could let go of, without admitting that I didn’t want to be the person that I was. By failing to live up to my expectations, I’d disappointed no one. I’m no longer an insomniac. I’m not sure if I’m a writer. I’m not less interesting for it.

For every minute of productivity I gained from lack of sleep, I lost in the times I spent staring in to nothing, believing myself awake and present. For every flash of inspiration I had at 3am, I missed the genuine depth of emotion that makes existing as part of a connected world so rewarding. But learning that I am a person deeply touched by others has been a humbling, unpleasant experience, and there are weeks where I miss the distance that exhaustion afforded.

I’ve cried more in the last two years than I did in the twelve before them. Whilst some of those things have been worth crying about, either for my own sake or in sympathy with others, many of the things I’ve teared up at have been mind-bogglingly inane - a PlayStation advert, a particularly poignant Harry Potter meme, a cute father-baby duo, or an inexplicable, unjustifiable feeling of melancholy and loneliness. Apparently this is normal, but I have never been so subject to the whims of my own emotions. I can’t remember a time in my teenage years when I felt something before I could rationalise it, or felt something I couldn’t even rationalise. I can’t explain the person I now am.

Usually, when asked, I present my regular sleep as a positive development, and it is. But learning to do this normally wasn’t a process of fixing a problem, of curing a condition, or of overcoming something simple, and simply bad. It was a process of abandoning an identity I’d clung to for all of my adult life and most of my childhood, and accepting that some of the personality traits I most value in myself are also the most destructive. I miss the excited, manically energised person I was. Committing to sleep has felt like committing to loving myself a little less. With insomnia, I never felt tired.

Sophie Grenfell is a freelance writer, and is finishing a Master's at King's College London. She spends her time journeying between Birmingham and London, both of which are home.