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The dreadful purgatory between waking and sleeping

The most depressing sound in the world is the tweeting of the Olive Thrush, Turdus olivaceous. It’s the first bird to wake up for the dawn chorus just before the earliest light leaks over the horizon — and it’s the sound that all insomniacs dread. The mockingly sweet notes mean that soon it will be time to get up and face yet another day of bumbling around like a delegate at a zombie convention, speaking slowly, and staring at a computer screen for inordinate amounts of time as you try to get your synapses to fire.

Actual thinking is a bit like trying to get a Datsun to start on a cold July morning.

In contrast, some of the most beautiful sounds in the world are words like Zolpidem and Zopimed. Say them slowly, taking care to enjoy the buzz of the “z” on the tip of your tongue: Zzzzzolpidem. Zzzzzopimed. Both of them are prescription generics offered by Adcock Ingram, which means that it’s possible to take schedule five sleeping medication and be proudly South African at the same time.

At what point does one who suffers from insomnia become an insomniac? Is there an agreed point at which the inability to sleep comes to define your entire identity? Wherever that line lies, I have long since crossed it. I’ve been taking sleeping pills on and off — mostly on — for more than three years now. I’ve tried lots of other things — Allergex, Melatonin, even a Seagull icebrick after reading about this research. But there are nights when nothing works — absolutely nothing. Last year I tweeted so much about insomnia that people from Michael Mol’s medical show filmed me for a segment on it.

Insomnia is torture. It’s also frightening, because you know if you spend another night suspended in dreadful purgatory between waking and sleeping, you will be even less able to function the next day. You’ll be even slower, even more of your colleagues will say perkily to you, “You look tired” as you walk into the office. I spend far too many days stumbling around in a mildly drunken fug, my eyes too big for their sockets, an electronic whine in my ears, productivity out the window.

Thankfully, I know that I am not alone. Thanks to all those lonely tweets in the darkness — the ones on Twitter this time, not the thrushes in the garden — I know that there are others who suffer from the same affliction. There are others who are only too familiar with the frustrations of not being able to do something that comes naturally to most of the human race, especially MPs during an especially riveting address by some or other deputy minister of something or another.

Mind you, put me in Parliament and I’d probably also fall asleep. That’s the cruel irony of insomnia: try as you might, you can’t sleep at night, but you can pass out during the day without any effort at all. So tonight, I will switch off my bedside light, lay my head upon my Dunlopillo, and lie there in hope that unconsciousness will take hold sooner rather than later, and when the thrushes sing to the last of the darkness, I will not be awake to hear them.

* An earlier version of this appeared on Newstime last year and because it is still very relevant, I thought I’d repost it.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.