“So count backward, as if launching a spacecraft
and sleep, or count forward
As to start a song, and sleep.”
— A Mutual Lullaby, Yehuda Amichai
Amichai’s words from the poem A Mutual Lullaby conceive of sleep in a beautiful way: counting methodically towards a transition. It is linear, like following stepping stones across a stream, one at a time. As we approach the realm of sleep, each stone begins to dissolve, until you are upon the water, and beneath sleep. The morning welcomes you as a soft, warm thing. A pulse sending moisture down the windows. You are curled up on the blankets like a fossil, or a paper weight pinning the sheaths of day together. You wake, covered in the silken membrane of sleep; shards of dream stick to you like iridescent scales, dropping to the floor and dissolving into daylight as you walk to the kitchen and put the kettle on.
For me, it’s never that easy.
“Sleep bent over me but never took me in. I learned the sighing sounds wood makes at night, the different hues a shadow takes through the shifting small hours.”
I have spent far too many nights awake, stacking the hours upon one another until the curtains are backlit with morning. Often there is someone beside me, which only makes the situation worse. The gentle rise and fall of another’s chest serves as a reminder of isolation.
My insomnia got much worse the year I finished university and was living at home again, often wading through the many shades of darkness until I found myself at work, bleary eyed. My body would be tender to the touch, my head too heavy for my neck, my shoulders hunched and swollen. Sleep bent over me but never took me in. I learned the sighing sounds wood makes at night, the different hues a shadow takes through the shifting small hours. Sleeplessness became a weight I carried with me, oblong, with a strange power to distort my body beyond recognition.
Now, as the nights become longer and the day shrinks to a pebble, I’ve been reflecting on my year of sleeplessness, recovered for the most part. Without wanting to sound cliche, I do think I learned something from it – nothing concrete, no magical tool for procuring eight precious hours – but an appreciation of the transition, of that moment we fall and the unique quality surrounding it.
“Lying in the darkness, I would begin to imagine I was floating upwards, with my head tipped back behind the pillow, simulating the feeling of dizziness.”
I’ve found that the process of falling asleep is one we generally want to delete. A quick google search summons: ‘how to fall asleep in less than five minutes’ or ‘three simple tricks to help you fall asleep fast’. We want to eliminate the transition period, iron out the time spent alone with the shadows. In a world that values productivity above all else, these hours become redundant. Sleep equals recharge. No place for tiredness, no place for waiting. We forget what can be gained by the presence of this expansive, contradictory nothingness – the empty, open arms that swallow us whole.
I have learned to stimulate a feeling of disorientation as I lie in my bed awake, struggling to relax enough to drift off. I have learnt that instead of going over the day’s conversations in convulsions, I can retreat into a mode distinctly physical using my imagination.
Lying in the darkness, I would begin to imagine I was floating upwards, with my head tipped back behind the pillow, simulating the feeling of dizziness. I’d focus my attention on every detail of my body, convincing myself that each limb was becoming lighter and lighter until they drew apart from the bed.
“I take literal walks in my memory. I focus on places I haven’t visited for years – the first primary school I attended, or the house of a childhood family friend.”
The ceiling would dissolve and as I rose I would summon the buildings I know from above, drawing a giant and endlessly unfolding map until my home was out of sight. Or I would try to identify the exact moment the unconscious mind takes over. The gentle shockwave that comes with realising that I am no longer guiding my thoughts, but they are guiding me.
Another technique I’ve developed in the years since my sleep pattern has become more vulnerable to stress, fear and restlessness is to take literal walks in my memory. I focus on places I haven’t visited for years – the first primary school I attended, or the house of a childhood family friend, and I wander through them, completely alone, submerged in the bluish hues of a memory, and urge the details to rise around me.
I would rebuild rooms that had been absent from me for years, amazed that for all this time odd cupboards and wall hangings and cleverly placed clocks were resting, intact, in my subconscious. This is nothing if not comforting. The days saw my mind so crowded that I forgot that these spaces remained and were stored somewhere in the folds of my brain.
“Sleep, I think, with it’s boundless ability to transgress, takes us to a time when guards are down, and the world we saw once, perhaps long ago, can make itself known.”
These methods used to transition into sleep, I think, have led to more vivid dreams. Recently, I found my sleeping self sitting in a cramped cupboard, surrounded by coat hems and a familiar, leathery scent. I looked up, and a thought made itself known to me, in that oblique way they do in dreams: slowly and without precedence. My sleeping mind had taken me to my granddad’s cupboard, a man who died when I was 12 years old. My waking mind could not recall his smell if I tried, but at that moment I knew it was him. It was an affirmation that things lie dormant in our subconscious.
Sleep and the versions of ourselves that flank it serve as a reminder that reality is not necessarily the world that surrounds you in the closest sense, and our daily routines can eclipse a world that matters just as much. Sleep, I think, with it’s boundless ability to transgress, takes us to a time when guards are down, and the world we saw once, perhaps long ago, can make itself known. A richness and a freedom – a homecoming as it were, to the places our minds look after for us.
None of these musings ‘fixed’ my sleepless nights, but the time I spent awake, poking around the recesses of a quiet inbetween world, made me appreciate the ways that we gently process, with a light always on somewhere.
It’s moments like these that remind me that my brain can be on my side.
Imogen grew up in a haunted house in Bristol. She loves swimming and writes poems.
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