writing

Insomnia

What keeps you awake at night? When I was growing up, it was the threat of nuclear war. I don’t think my mum had any idea how terrified I was about that; she’d just shrug and say it would probably never happen. But I didn’t believe her. I’d  go to bed and stare at the ceiling, thinking that at any moment, someone would press that red button and BOOM: we’d all be toast. Or vaporised, even. Unless you had the foresight to hide under a table.

The Protect and Survive leaflets and public information films scared the hell out of me

When I was about eight, a friend told me that because I’d just swallowed some gum, I would die. I believed her.

A couple of years later, I saw a science programme that explained how eventually the whole solar system would get burned up by the sun. I somehow overlooked the part about this not happening for millions of years, and all I could think of was the coming apocalypse.

It’s hell having an overactive imagination: yes, it means you can be good at making up stories, but the downside is ALL THAT SCARY STUFF. That’s why I’ve had a lifelong sleep disorder. As a young child my method of getting to sleep would be to repeatedly bang my head against the pillow. It was pretty annoying for my brother, with whom I shared a room.

I still don’t have the answer. I worry less. I think there is a lot of wisdom here:

But lately I’ve developed Restless Legs Syndrome…the truth is, sleeping like a rock doesn’t come naturally to me, and it probably never will. And since it’s often at 3am that the best ideas come to me, then if I’m honest, I prefer it that way. It’s my Magical Hour. Just don’t ring my doorbell at three o’clock in the afternoon, because the chances are, I’m making up for it then. Oh, and I have the most bizarre dreams, every night. They’ve become weirder and more frequent in recent years: it’s brilliant!

As this blog is read by a lot of creative people, I’m interested in whether you have an overactive imagination that keeps you awake at night – and if so, what sort of things trouble you. How do you deal with it? Do you think it’s all part and parcel of being creative, and you just have to learn to live with it? Or do you think it’s something we can and should be trained out of? Perhaps you’re one of those people who’s out like a light from the moment your head hits the pillow, right through till morning? Maybe you think this whole creativeness/sleeplessness equation is a load of rot, and you needn’t be neurotic in order to write good books, compose music, make art…? Let me know!

21 thoughts on “Insomnia

  1. Getting to sleep? No problem. Staying asleep? Arggghhh! Do I think I write better while exhausted? No way. Do I wish someone would tell me how to fix it? Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes PLEASE!!!

    • Hi Joan: EXACTLY. It’s the wakings in the night that plague our overactive brains. When my RLS was diagnosed a year ago, I had to do three months of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) alongside the medication, because it had been waking me 3,4,5 times a night. The CBT was hell but got me sleeping 7 hours straight through; however I then got ill and had to sleep more, so the whole routine went off kilter. I could have re-trained myself in just two weeks, but I didn’t want to: now, with the medication, I am much better. I don’t mind waking just once in the night (and it’s not even every night any more). I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t wake when I switch on the light and read, and I do relish that guilt-free reading time. Fortunately, I don’t stay awake too long; if it was hours, I’d be a wreck! And I’m freelance, so I’ll work to whatever schedule I damn well please. The pattern suits me: my CBT therapist would be horrified, but I see no reason why *everyone* has to do the one chunk of 8 hours in every 24, nor is there anything more ‘natural’ about that.

  2. I haven’t been sleeping well recently and suffering from middle-of-the-night plot-solving scenarios. But does it affect me during the day? No way! I’m bright as a button and ready to go! (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…)

    • Hi Karen! Well, if you’re suffering, then you might actually benefit from a bit of sleep training! (see my response to Joan’s comment). You wouldn’t even have to see a therapist; you can do it yourself. But perhaps it’s just temporary. I find it’s good when I wake in the night and my brain is clear from all the daytime clutter, and the answers just fall into place; what is not good is when the thoughts go round and round in your mind, stressing you out and leading nowhere. If I found that was happening, I’d seek help – possibly hypnotherapy. But perhaps I’m reading too much into your use of the word ‘suffering’!

  3. Thanks, Fiona, for the reassurance that I’m not alone in that 3am – 3pm thing. My friends and family still can’t understand why my brain shuts down around tea time, even when I explain it’s been running, full-tilt, since before dawn. Oh, and the bizarre dreams thing too. Weird but amazing! I wouldn’t have it any other way either. Having just given up my day job, I’ve at last got the chance to indulge my topsy-turvy body clock, sometimes sleeping in the afternoon or getting up to work at 2am if I want to. Heaven! I’ve found the trick is not to stress about it. Cx

    • High five, Cathy! I do think this is very common among creative people. I’m just so glad not to be the neurotic wreck I was as a child/adolescent. It’s not worrying that keeps me awake, just ideas. Congrats on giving up the day job! You can tell your friends and family that there are plenty of others out there just like you. 🙂

  4. Hey Fiona! 🙂

    BOY! I’M the one who carn’t get to sleep at night or wake up at 3-4-7 AM with my dreams!

    Glad i’m not the only one! x

    • Hi Laura – unfortunately the school system isn’t at all understanding or accommodating where people like us are concerned! If I worked in an office, I’d like to work for Google, because they have a nap-time in the afternoon. Very civilised and enlightened, in my view! I hope your sleeplessness doesn’t disrupt your life too much. 🙂

  5. Fiona, I was exactly the same re worry about nuclear war. I remember looking out of the window, seeing the sky was purple and thinking it was the first sign the bomb had gone off… somewhere. Yes, overactive imagination is great in some ways, terrible in others. I think the 3am horrors are quite common too – I get to sleep easily, but if I wake up in the early hours, I can work myself up into quite a state, unfortunately. (Often I’ll be worrying about things that *could have* happened, but didn’t – overactive imagination again.)

    • Hi Keris: ha! Purple sky, yes, I’d have thought the same thing. I guess the present day equivalent would be global warming, and the calamitous weather it’s causing. The difference is between concern and worry: as adults, we inform ourselves and act on our concerns. We do what we can. But when you are a child, all these awful things that adults and out antecedents are responsible for are by and large beyond our control. So of course that it ten times scarier. Throw in that over active imagination, and you’ve got one traumatised kid. I refer back to that diagram, and hope it helps!

  6. Nuclear war – yes indeed – and then one night there was a fire at a calor gas depot several miles away which set off a series of big explosions… I thought that was it! I suffered from insomnia all the years I was trying to function in the 9-5 world of getting the kids to school etc, but now I revel in it! I love the organic way my life follows its own patterns, which often include toast at the computer at 3am and a dribbly snooze on the settee after lunch. Delish!

    • Welcome to my world, Jen! God, that calor gas explosion must have been terrifying! Well, there certainly seems to be something in this link with creativity…have yet to hear from a sound sleeper amongst GHB readers. Still early in the day, though – let’s see.

  7. Hi. Once I heard my footsteps on the landing outside my bedroom,and I thought it was a robber. I stayed awake the rest of the night,hoping the robber didn’t have a gun. I eventually woke up my sister to have something to take my mind off the ‘robber’. It was really my dad. I felt so stupid! My mind is very imaginative during the night!

    • Ha! Typical creative person, imagining the least likely scenario, rather than the obvious! Actually Aoife you’ve just reminded me of another nocturnal childhood fear: the number of times I looked at clothes draped over a chair, and convinced myself that a stranger was sitting there. And I remember staying over at my grandparents’ and being unable to sleep because the floral pattern on the curtains had faces in it.

  8. I used to have awful sleeping trouble, and it went away, but I think it’s coming back again… 😦 I know this is totally crazy and unrealistic, but I always think that theirs a murderer or kidnapper hiding in my house, trying to get me :O I know, it’s ridiculous, but when I’m in my room on my own at night, I just convince myself of that…

    Awesome post, nuclear war is a VERY scary thought!

    • Thanks Cliona…I think the threat of nuclear war now is nothing like it was in the 70s/80s, when it felt very real and immediate. As I say, climate change has taken over now as the thing most people fret about. But worrying is a terrible waste of energy! I wonder if you are watching anything on TV that gets you thinking on the murderer/kidnapper track, Cliona? Whatever the source, I hope you manage to exorcise it – that does sound horribly disconcerting! Maybe write the story, and then it will transfer from your head to the page? It’s like those monster-under-the-bed fears that little kids have; you will outgrow it. I just hope for your sake it’s sooner rather than later. 🙂

      • That’s a good idea – write it down and make it happy a happy ending! 😀 I can’t think of anything on TV to be honest….although I did watch The Woman In Black a while ago, and that can’t have helped!! 😉

  9. I’m one of those annoying people that will lie down in bed and go out like a light. I then sleep through until morning unless there is a thunderstorm – for some reason that is the only thing that tends to wake me. Otherwise it’s sleeping through.
    I do have very strange dreams though, so maybe that’s my crazy over-active imagination at work.

    I used to worry as a child, when they said the world would end in 2000 I was only 11 almost 12, and I was convinced we were all going to die, the world would explode or implode or disintegrate or vapourize. Really freaked me out. Still does when the talk about 2012 but try not to think about it.

  10. I’m one of the world’s worriers with the added complication of an over-active imagination, and I keep a diary of my fears and dreams which does help me to keep a bit of perspective; but its easy at night to let the fears take control and I was particularly bad at controlling my worries when I was younger. When I started living on my own I never had any trouble sleeping in my own flat, but when I used to visit my parents and stay over I had very restless sleep, mainly due to the sinister Doorstop in the shape of a rabbit dressed in human clothes which my mum liked to hang on the banister at the top of the stairs! Probably my exposure to ridiculous horror movies as a teenager didnt help, Chucky springs to mind as one example!.Now I am old and wise enough to know what I can handle and if I dont put the book down or turn the tv off before its too late I just have to accept the consequences!

  11. Ever since I was a baby i have had trouble sleeping.When i was little i used to check underneath my bed.. I wasnt scared of monsters or things like that but i was always scared of kidnappers and murders. Even now it takes me a few hours to fall asleep. Last year when I was 12, I had what I can easily say was the worst week of my life. That week I could not sleep. I remember going to bed in the night and still being awake when the sun went up. I remember at 3am lying in bed so physically exhausted i couldnt move yet i couldnt sleep. in the daytime my head pounded and my eyes hurt and by the end of the week i could hardly string a sentence together. That went on for days. then gradually I got abit more sleep and then a bit more until things were back to normal. it was horrific!
    sister falls asleep.
    My sister falls asleep the minute her head hits the pillow…..its so unfair!!!!

  12. In that case, this kind of question should not be taken from any show telecasted in specific country.
    I believe my exact words were “I don’t want to be your dirty little secret. The Bull’s Head Pub, Bangkok.

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