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

Column: The nights of an Oxford insomniac

The term is drawing to a close, and all I want is to draw myself into a ball and have a nap. This isn’t new, nor does it have anything to do with the end of term, it’s a constant state of being. What can I say I’m constantly tired and don’t get enough rest. Can you blame me?

Insomnia over the past term has taken its toll. I have to say a huge thank you to my flatmates for putting up with me over not just the term, but the year. Family and friends are often consigned to the forgotten role of the indirect victims of any health struggle, involuntarily taking on the burden of putting up with whatever monster it might produce.

I am acutely aware (albeit belatedly) that when I haven’t slept in far too long, as hard as I try, I am not the most pleasant to be around. Superficial politeness and manners around familiar faces occasionally goes out the window. The same is true of tidiness; I have been branded ‘a hurricane of chaos’ – and that was to my face.

But I don’t have the energy to be neat. Clean, sure – I will always clean, and I deplore obnoxious smells. But other than that, if I haven’t slept squaring up my room is nowhere near a priority. Some days, I want to be asleep the moment I step in the door. A week of this, and there is a trail of shodden clothes leading from the door to the bed.

Rest sleep insomnia
Sumida en el sueño by Felix Revello de Toro

My night-time strolls through the city have brightened a lot lately, as the sunrise shifts earlier and earlier each day. If you happen to have access to a rooftop to watch the light pour over those dreaming spires, it might be the most beautiful thing you see. The oolitic limestone (yes, I Googled that) dyed a burning umber by the first rays of the sun bring a new life to the city.

Devoid of tourists and students alike, the streets are usually silent for a few hours. The opportunity to wander through the city centre unmolested is not one to be passed up lightly. Anyone who has watched The Notebook will no doubt recall the scene in which Ryan Gosling lays down in the middle of a crossroads in the dead of night. Not that it’s something I’ve ever done (you can stop panicking mum), but observing the world around you from an unusual perspective has the power to propel you in a new, unexpected direction.

Insomnia forces a shift in perspective by its very nature. Time as modern culture perceives it is entirely distorted, and all the usual milestones of the day are blurred. When does the day end? When the clock strikes midnight? I doubt Cinderella considered her day over as she fled to palace. When you drift into the land of snore? Every boundary of consciousness is removed and the minutes and hours stretch into eternity.

Insomnia and insanity go hand in hand, but then so does most of modern life. Studies have increasingly shown that sleep is the key to a long, healthy life, and modern culture which strives to defy fatigue by any means necessary is only moving us further from the goal of immortality.

From the light pollution of our environments by our screens and buildings, to the sound pollution of electricity and 24 hour traffic our bodies never get a rest. Work from home means our minds don’t either. Scheduling 10 hours of rest into the day is already a nightmare, and for insomniacs it’s even harder.

Caffeine is an option utilised by many. I write this with a RedBull in hand, following a dozen mugs of tea before I left the flat this morning. But this can be damaging in the long term, hindering our ability to perceive our own fatigue. An experiment often cited involving spiders showed the impact it had on their ability to spin webs. Was a web produced? Sure. Was it recognisable as a cohesive web? Absolutely not. Caffeinated spiders are crazier than spiders on LSD.

Insomnia and insanity go hand in hand

The sad reality is that it doesn’t need to be this way. A 9 – 5 work culture is too rigid to accommodate. As someone who has struggled with disordered sleeping for years and managed to maintain an academic career alongside it, trying to work on a regular schedule and conform to the body clock of those with regular circadian rhythms can feel like dragging through your day, not living it.

I had hoped that the pandemic and the increased prevalence of work from home would have extended into more accessible corporate models which promoted flexibility. Unfortunately this has not been the case. A culture of making your job your life and answering emails at 2am is only sustainable if time is also set aside for rest. I can work any hour of the day, but not every hour, every day.

The feedback I will get from my editors for this weeks column will almost certainly be that it is disjointed, untethered, illogical and rambling. I know this but would counter that it has a dreamlike structure, in that it has no coherent structure at all. It’s a stream of consciousnous composed by a sleep deprived brain, desperately in need of a hard reset. Also they asked me to fill a whole page and frankly thats a big ask with an hours notice.

I generally visualise my life like a dancer, leaping and spinning and moving with a flow, but as I get more and more tired, I lose focus and balance and stability. The more unbalanced I get, the greater the risk that I fall. I can only hope a soft bed of pillows is there to catch me.