Getting to sleep is not a problem, it never has been. There’s usually a pleasing weariness in my mind, bones and muscles at nighttime, a satisfaction and relief that I’ve made it through another day. I might try to read but I never get more than a few pages before the words begin to swim and my drowsy eyelids become like lead.
Then I sleep. Usually one of the last things that goes through my exhausted brain is a hope that I can make it through until the morning and the comfort of daylight.
Sometimes I do, but often I fall short.
I wake suddenly and am afraid. I’m unsure of my surroundings and am anxious for a moment that there’s an intruder in the room. There’s not, apart from the unwelcome one inside my own skull.
I sit up and check the time. I’ve been asleep for less than two hours but my previous enervation is now a distant memory. I’m utterly alert and I know that rest is far away now. My wife and son are dozing in the bed beside me. It’s so dark that I can’t see them but I’m aware of their presence, I can sense their breathing. I’m terrified.
I go through the routine. A visit to the toilet, making sure the lights are turned off in the other rooms, checking the news and sport headlines on my phone. Then I return to bed and put my head on the pillow again. I squeeze my eyes tight as if that may force sleep closer. I turn onto my back, then my side. Then my back again.
I know that the attack is not far away and I try everything I can to divert it. But the workings of the mind can flow like a great river which is impossible to divert. The thoughts come. Why am I not good enough? Why do I mess up everything I do? Wouldn’t it be better if I wasn’t here?
Then the process starts to deepen, giving substance to the abstract. I’m not making enough money. I’ve failed in my career. I’m a terrible father and husband. I can’t accomplish any task. Everyone would be happier if I wasn’t here. The conclusions are the same as before.
My breathing is irregular now, short and panicked. My guts are churning. Twisting. A physical manifestation of what goes on in my brain. There’s a tremble in my fingers under the blanket and a line of sweat on my spine. It’s the normality of this which is the most terrifying thing, the fact that every day is followed by a night.
There’s no reason I understand why existence should be so much harder in the dark, why problems are magnified and I’m infested with self-loathing. But that’s just how it is. Not always, but often. Take away the comfort of the day and its routines and I’m left naked, in this primal state. I worry that this is the real me, when the insulation of civilisation is stripped away. Pathetic and afraid.
I turn over again and again. Towards my family, towards the ceiling, towards the wall. Hours can pass like this. If I could just sleep it would be over, but the more I will it the further away it seems. It feels like I will never sleep again.
Sometimes I might go downstairs and watch telly, or read my phone, or, like tonight, compose a story. A story about exactly what goes on in my mind after midnight. That way, when I write about it, I take back control of the narrative, remind myself that however rogue my thought processes become, they are still part of me. And I’m worth something.
Eventually I get my breathing under control. The short, hurried gasps are replaced by long sweeping inhalations and exhalations. In through the nose, out through the mouth, just like I’ve been taught. I start to fill my mind with things of my choice. Tonight I do counting, not any specific object, but just bald numbers. Counting higher and higher. I’m able to lie still now.
I’m not sure if it’s still the same night or the next morning when I eventually lose any sense of myself again. I don’t know if I’m sleeping but I must be because my mind seems empty now and my limbs feel weightless. The rest is as welcome as rain on a parched field.
It’s not very long before my son is stirring beside me. And when he’s up, that means I’m awake again. He climbs over me, eager to meet the day head on. He has no experience which tells him that such challenges should be met with caution, eased into.
I get up and make his breakfast and a cup of tea for my wife. I sit beside him while he spills Rice Krispies on the sofa. I think about what needs to be done. Get him washed and dressed. The school run. Catch up with work. Write down the story from last night about not being able to sleep. Pick him up from school. Make dinner.
There’s plenty to do. Before I begin I take a moment to myself, consider how I’m feeling about the day. Then I push ahead with it because the routine is what drives us forward. It’s inescapable.
And so is the fact that tonight, or tomorrow, or soon, I will have another sleepless night. The maggot worries will swarm all over me again. I will feel the despondency and the sense that I don’t deserve to exist anymore will be keen.
And I will suffer. And then it will pass and I will move on, as before. When the dark is at its most absolute I will keep telling myself that the next morning always comes. The sun always rises again.