In 1914, The Lancet reported on a clergyman who was found dead in a pool; he had left behind this suicide note: “Another sleepless night, no real sleep for weeks. Oh, my poor brain, I cannot bear the lengthy, dark hours of the night.”
This short passage resonated deeply with me, as I suffer, of late, from bouts of insomnia.
You Need Your Sleep! CEO
It started in 2015, innocently enough, while I was creating a PowerPoint. As I worked the presentation up into a masterpiece of Prezi-like animation the hours dissolved one into the next and I marveled as the clock registered 5 am and I was not the least bit tired. On the contrary, I was energized! My brain crackled and popped with creativity and dopamine flowed as I pulled my first ever post-college all-nighter.
It seduced me with possibilities. Imagine what could be accomplished while other, lesser mortals, slept? It felt a bit naughty too, to be staying up so late on a school night. Then it felt heroic as I pushed on through and watched the dawn break. I felt like a superhero walking among the masses at work, none of them knowing that I had a new, nocturnal life that felt like an alternate universe.
I thought it was my friend. And then it wasn’t. Because now I cannot control it. And it is a relentless beast. Many people think that the worst part of insomnia is the daytime grogginess. But I suffer most in the dark hours after midnight, when my desire for sleep, my raging thirst for it, drives me to the verge of psychosis. On the worst nights, my mind turns into a feral cat snapping and gnawing at itself.
I look at the clock and mentally calculate how many hours I will get if I drift off in the next 30 minutes. I look again one hour later, recalibrate, and try again. After 30 minutes I am in the basement watching an episode of six feet under with my two dogs, Charlotte and Dash. Surely, they will help me slay the beast.
I lower the volume and turn on subtitles in anticipation of drifting off. I do not want to be aroused by the theme song, which is freakishly louder than the spoken part of the show. I get a drink of water. I make frozen waffles. I let the dogs out. I let the dogs in. Such is my plight for 3-4 days, and then it vanishes as mysteriously as it appeared.
These days I am trying something new. Instead of dreading the night, I think of it as an adventure I’m going on. If I can’t sleep, I get up and do something rather than just lay there feeling like a failure. Fearing it only makes it worse anyway – causing my brain to explode with condemnation and disgust at my inability to behave like a normal person. To do what comes so naturally to most.
But then I remember. I’m kind of a strange bird. Why should I expect my sleep patterns to be normal, when we all know that my brain is often on fire with ideas and possibilities? I bet yours is too. If you suffer from this try easing up on yourself a bit. The reason you are an entrepreneur is that your brain works differently than most. Use the time to try something new because you love a challenge and you hate to see time wasted. Right?
Dave Bayley, the frontman of Oxford art-pop quartet Glass Animals, owes his career in music to insomnia. He only started writing and recording because he had problems sleeping after leaving home to study medicine at King’s College London in 2008.
“It was an inability to switch off my brain,” says Bayley. “I was always working till quite late and it was hard to stop myself from asking questions and thinking about things. Normally I’d fall asleep late and grab two or three hours, but sometimes I’d go back into the hospital with exactly zero sleep.”
Lately, I try to recall every detail of my day. You may find that you start thinking weird, unusual thoughts – this is because you’re on the verge of dreaming. Go with it – don’t worry that you aren’t getting to sleep – just allow your brain to do its thing. Last night I found myself sitting in a theater class with my daughter as a fellow student at the University of Tennessee. Reese Witherspoon was in our class too. Unfortunately, I was jolted awake by another thought before the dream could take shape. But I took it as a sign that my unusual, my mysterious, my extraordinary mind was on the verge of REM surrender. Zzzzzzz.