A drawn image of Oxford at night insomnia sleep rest
Credit: Amelia Woon

Column: The nights of an Oxford insomniac

When I pitched this column to Martin and Gaspard, I had only recently emerged from my last bout of insomnia, and expected to spend this term writing about past experiences. As it turns out, my body had other ideas, so this instalment will talk a lot about the last week.

Insomnia more than anything is lonely. I do need time alone to rest and recharge, but most of the time I’m a social person. No one else is up at 3am in the morning, they’re either asleep from natural causes, or passed out drunk. The whole world shuts down and it becomes a very solitary place.

In Oxford this means that all the libraries close, and all the shops. The last entry to the botanic garden (one of my favourite summer haunts) is 4pm, not exactly conducive to a more nocturnal schedule. Shops close, bars close, even clubs close eventually, and the kebab vans head home soon after. 

So if you get hungry in the early hours, and don’t have anything in, you have to starve. If you’re bored there is very little to do. You remember that study that showed individuals would rather voluntarily inflict pain than experience continual boredom? I regretfully discovered this for myself recently – why wouldn’t I wax my legs at 3am? Unfortunately I ran out of waxing strips and nowhere was open at 3am, so I currently resemble something of half-shorn yeti.

Insomnia more than anything is lonely.

Most frustratingly of all, the laundry at my current housing shuts off at 10pm. This may sound like a minor issue (and certainly a first world problem, I am well aware) but last year when the laundry room ran through the night it was probably the easiest way to feel like those hours hadn’t gone to waste. The machines were always free, there was no risk of my washing being dumped on the floor, and the energy required to do laundry is so small, even an extremely sleep deprived insomniac can do it – and look slightly less disheveled in the daytime.

What about the internet, I hear you ask? Well first of all, as any doctor, internet wellness guru, or well-meaning stranger will tell you, looking at a screen before (or during) bedtime is terrible sleep hygiene. Even if you aren’t exactly asleep, it’s good to rest your eyes.

Second, we all know doom scrolling is bad for your mental health, but have you ever tried it for 8 hours in the dead of night? Not that this is something I’ve ever done – as I tell both my mother and my doctor, I work very hard to maintain good habits – but I’d imagine it is draining, and depressing to the point of nausea.

My way of handling this loneliness: podcasts. Preferably a comedy panel show, or couples therapy on air a la Therapy Crouch. If I’m feeling really awake, maybe a lecture recording (if it works in the day…), but really anything conversational that makes you feel like you’re not alone, but that you don’t feel obliged to listen to. Heaven forbid my tutors ever discover that I get most of my news from Andy Zaltzman’s The Bugle podcast, but when you are as tired as I am, anything will do.

Image: Amelia Woon