When I wrote my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, I would sit at a desk in my upstairs bedroom with sunbirds flitting to and fro from the foliage outside (yes, really, hence the title’s inspiration), type away at my story, and cry. And this wasn’t because of the sometimes grim subject matter of my novel (racism and prejudice in early colonial Nairobi), hard as that often was to stomach. It was because of my chronic insomnia and the deep grief, exhaustion and lack of knowing what to do with it.
I have deliberated over whether or not writing this blog is a good idea, because I’ve always tried very hard to not let insomnia define me. The phrase ‘too much information’ comes to mind. But I realise I can share what life is like for me without it having to define me. I have alluded to it many times before, particularly over on my other travel blog, because insomnia was an issue for me a number of times while we travelled in India. The reason I am writing about it now is because, I suppose, I am at a difficult stage with it. It’s not easy for me to talk about, even with my nearest and dearest, and as writing (as it is for many who write) has always been such a relief and a release, it feels about time I tackle this issue on my writing blog.
The origins of my struggle with chronic insomnia are long and winding, and my alternating quest to find a solution and to accept my condition on a deep and visceral level have been equally convoluted. After many years of living with it, I still I don’t know why I go through bouts of intense sleeplessness. I don’t know why relief for me is so hard to come by, to the point that even strong sleeping pills do not have the desired effect. I can’t speak for anybody else who suffers from the same condition, but this is how it feels for me:
☆ Debilitating ☆Isolating + lonely ☆ Guilt-inducing (bad mother, bad wife etc etc – though I’m better than I used to be about being kinder to myself on this front) ☆ Bad headaches + dizziness ☆ My body wanting to cave in on itself ☆ Confusing (memory has definitely been a big issue through all this) ☆ Low self-esteem
In the past, I have fallen asleep at the wheel of my car and crashed into a bus, crumpling the bonnet (thankfully the children weren’t in the car). I have hallucinated. I have come out of a supermarket and forgotten which car is mine, and had to be led to it by my (then five year old) son. I have been at social gatherings and suddenly felt an urgent, desperate need to not be around people, even when surrounded by good friends. I have taken an emergency flight from Nairobi to London to see specialists (nutritionists, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, herbalists; you name them, I have seen them.) I have driven when I shouldn’t have done and forgotten the school run route. At its very worst, I have thought that drifting away downriver wouldn’t be such a bad option.
It can be pretty grim; I’m not going to sugar-coat it. But life goes on, doesn’t it? The sun rises and sets each day, the moon keeps orbiting the earth and right now, the leaves are falling from their trees, just as they do every year. Frida Kahlo, the luminary artist who suffered crippling pain for most of her life, once said ‘At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.‘ Her words keep me company in the small hours of the night when I would love to be asleep but my eyelids are being propped open with matchsticks. She’s right though. The point is, I wrote three novels with chronic insomnia and am about to embark on my fourth. I’m not about to win any prizes for writing quickly, but there is no rush, and apart from the second novel, I’ve never had to write to a deadline.
So it’s not easy, but I can do it. Somehow, when everything else goes utterly pear-shaped – albeit slowly and sometimes tortuously – I am able to write. In many ways, knowing I have this ability still, when I feel unable to converse or really engage with the world around me, has been my salvation and anchor. It has helped me to feel part of the world still and without my writing, I don’t quite know who or what I’d be.
And that’s not all – there are other things that I feel strangely grateful to my insomnia for. When I come through a bad patch, I feel such a deep gratitude for re-joining the world. I feel the wonder of a child in everything around me, as though I have woken from a long, deep spell: the colours are brighter, the conversations more alive, the natural world speaks to me more clearly and I feel my shared humanity with others more keenly than ever.
I also find it helpful to remind myself that I may be feeling low, but in so, so many ways I couldn’t be luckier: I have a family who loves me and a roof over my head every single night. I do not live in a war zone and I am not dying of an incurable illness. I turn on the tap and water comes out, I have never known true hunger and I am not a victim of domestic abuse; on the contrary, I am surrounded by love and care from my family.
Chronic insomnia has enabled me to feel empathy for others in distress. I think I’ve always been a reasonably empathetic person, but since suffering with the insomnia I truly believe my empathetic skills have deepened. Perhaps not when I am feeling really low, but when I going through a good patch or am just ‘alright’, I can feel the pain of others in my skin. It actually tingles there. I may not have a solution for them, but I can listen and most of the time, I believe that’s what people who are suffering need: an open, listening, empathetic, non-judgemental ear.
And on a day to day level, here are some ways that I cope to try and get through it:
🌿 I go for walks. Recently, I’ve taken to doing the same walk every day, rain or shine. Every single day, I notice something different.
🌿 I rely heavily on others. To not be too proud to ask for help.
🌿 I play the piano. I am currently on p.8 of Einaudi’s epic 19 page piece, Ancora. One day, I may even be able to play it like this.
🌿 I do yoga. Even some simple stretching helps me enormously because when I’m really tired, I have a tendency to hunch and compress.
🌿 No matter how bad I am feeling, I always try to read a story to my children at night. At the moment, we are romping through my friend Virginia Clay’s wonderful Warrior Boy, which is taking us straight back to Kenya, our adopted land for 5 years.
🌿 I practise gratitude. Gratitude has been an integral part of this journey for me and every single night I write down three things that I am grateful for from my day as well as trying to focus on gratitude as I walk.
It’s impossible for me to ‘like’ having insomnia. Perhaps one day it can be in the past tense for me, but in the meantime, sometimes I try to turn it on its head and ask the question of myself:
What is this experience giving me, and how is it helping me grow as a person?
And there you have it. 19th Century French novelist Alphonse Karr said that ‘Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.’
If I look at it like that, insomnia is my thorn, but my life blooms so much greater than that.
Thank you for reading this. If you know anybody else who suffers with chronic insomnia, please do share this with them and help them to know they’re not alone.