Whenever I seek assurance that my insomnia is not something that arrived with adulthood or even with adolescence, but rather much earlier in life, I return to a poem my father once dedicated to me: ‘El insomnio empieza en la cuna’ (‘Insomnia Begins in the Cradle’). My sleepless nights began long before I knew the ailment had a name. My parents would look into my darkened room and see me standing in my crib, gripping the bars and peering over the rim, waiting for something or someone to come and save me from the desolation. Decades later, I experience that same old resistance to laying the day down to rest.
In my family home in Mexico, to which I still return twice a year, night remains magical and mysterious, infused with a childhood reverie that has yet to expire. All it takes is a trip down to the kitchen at two or three in the morning, past the masks on the walls and the Indonesian puppets staring out at me – in every corner, a watchful eye – to be reminded that everything harbours a hidden inner life. These artefacts are more awake than any member of my family, and I feel abandoned by the living, who are, at that moment, incontestably farther away.
Night also defies the passage of time. My old bedroom still holds the same familiar configuration of bed, bookcases, desk and closet as it did when I left home, and in the darkness the decades are instantly erased. The thoughts keeping me up may differ, but in that space – in that darkness – I am back to who I was at sixteen.
During various periods of my life I have succumbed to the siren call of sleeping pills. It is hard to resist their promise: one tablet, and your night will be purged. Your brain may be in overdrive, its receptors working away, hungrily awaiting more images and information, but like a computer it is forced into another mode. Yet the little white disks with a dent down the middle are no panacea; whenever I take one of these thought guillotines I feel trapped in a grey zone, seesawing between mid and shallow slumber, mind and body dulled but not of their own accord. I sleep, but it is nearly always a vacant, songless sleep, as if I were even more distanced than usual from the apparatus that generates dreams.
It was in early 2003 when I moved to Berlin, a city dense with its own spectres, that my insomnia intensified. Night felt stranger, more enigmatic, so laden with signals it was hard ever to fully shut out. My senses were aware of some kind of continuum existing between the material world and the imaginary, the fantastical and the banal. Loping shadows, lights buzzing at empty tram shelters, a gauzy sheet flapping over giant scaffolding: the possibilities of projection were infinite. Close your eyes, and you’d miss them.
At home in my fourth-floor flat in Prenzlauer Berg, night held a dreamy and tranquil stillness, a silence that remained for the most part undefiled by disembodied voices and the distant murmur of traffic. From my window I’d gaze out at the moon gently rocking over the courtyard, the silhouettes of trees, the darkened windows of my neighbours, and feel part of a greater act of contemplation. I sensed that if ever my night were to turn mystical, it would happen there.
Even the paintings in museums seemed to contain a more penetrating night, especially at the Alte Nationalgalerie, where I would return again and again to the room of Caspar David Friedrichs and fantasize about entering every moonlit landscape. The figures in these paintings all have their backs to the viewer, a reminder of how private and solitary those hours ultimately are, regardless of whether one is accompanied.
Sometimes I would venture out into the city’s other ambit, the one galvanized by dusk and driven by a much more frenzied tempo. Berlin is of course a generous city for night owls of the social variety too, and there was never any shortage of activity. I could meet friends for a drink at midnight, see a band play at one, head somewhere else at three. Introspection had no place there; night meant action and camaraderie, a lively negation of its quieter impulses.
Yet whether I stayed home or ventured into the city, my sleep remained shallow, broken and hard-won.
There’s a term in German, Kopfkino, which means the imagination left to run wild, often magnifying the disturbing, unpleasant thoughts best kept at the mind’s edge. The image offered by its literal translation, mental cinema, is what I envision takes place each time I lay my head on the pillow: the projector switches on and the reel starts its endless loops, a whirring machine that comes alive just as I feel ready to shut down.
More and more, I began to feel the negative effects of insomnia. At night the contemplative moments receded, drowned out by the constant inner din. And by day it became harder to function – mood, memory and concentration under an unshakeable pall – and I often experienced vertigo as I walked down the street. The lifeless detachment I’d sunken into only seemed to mock the hours of oblivion for which I longed.
In this mood, I went to see my local doctor, discussed the issue with numerous friends. More than one person mentioned the sleep clinic at Charité, the esteemed university hospital in Mitte, so after a series of especially vexing nights I took an afternoon off work and headed over.
On the tram journey I began to feel calm, telling myself that rest would soon be within reach, that I was going to hand my nights over to someone else, let them solve the problem.
Once I arrived at the sprawling hospital complex I followed the signs reading Schlaflabor that led away from the sound and movement of the street and into Charité’s great clinical silence of red brick. At reception a laconic woman handed me a form requesting basic details. After I’d filled it in, she showed me to an anteroom and asked me to take a seat.
Like the fraternity of smokers, there’s a fraternity of insomniacs, the disquiet betrayed by dark crescents under the eyes, pale faces exposed to too much moonlight, or something altogether less visible yet somehow perceptible to fellow sufferers, a kind of low, tired crackle beneath the surface.
Yet here I encountered a less romantic version. Around me sat bleary-eyed, mostly middle-aged men and women, nearly all of whom were nodding off in their chairs. Some were alone, others with an attentive spouse on whose shoulder they rested their heads. I found a seat, pulled out the book I’d brought with me, and tried to read. A mobile phone rang in someone’s pocket; its owner, asleep, didn’t react. Someone nearby shifted. Someone else sighed. At one point a man arrived with a small suitcase, presumably to spend the night, and was quickly shown into a side room.
The entire time I sat there, not once did I see anyone look anyone else in the eye; we were like souls in purgatory who, despite enduring the same torment, preferred not to associate with one another.
Finally, after two hours during which I read most of the book I’d brought with me, every now and then glancing up to check on the others, came my turn.
A door opened and a stocky man in a white coat appeared and held out a hand, introducing himself as Doktor Blau. I followed him into his office, bare apart from a cat calendar on the wall, and took a seat across from him. First a few questions, he said, and then we could discuss options.
How long had I suffered from insomnia, he wanted to know.
Since birth, I answered, which was more or less true.
He then enquired whether my problem was falling asleep, staying asleep or nightly wakings up. And whether I ground my teeth, napped during the day, took exercise regularly or smoked.
After a ten-minute litany of questions, during which I felt increasingly impatient and unsettled, Dr Blau informed me that the cost of a three-night stay at the sleep clinic would be in the region of two thousand euros – yet a few openings remained for a free trial they were conducting the following week. I could sign up. He suggested a night. I accepted. He added my name to a list and asked me to return to the clinic by six p.m. on the agreed day and to bring a few garments and whatever else I might need.
In the anteroom, no one glanced up when I walked past.
As the tram glided through the city’s dusk, past the bold glow of shop fronts and cafes, I reflected on how much insomnia had informed my work, both my fiction and more academic ventures – and on how much night had, in general, seeped into nearly everything I’d written.
I thought back to one of my earliest forays into fiction, written in my early twenties, a series of loosely strung vignettes entitled Memoirs of an Insomniac. I can no longer find the manuscript nor open the files on my computer, written in a programme now obsolete, but this is probably for the best. Yet I remember how necessary it had felt at the time, my first attempt at addressing whatever it was that had me in its grip.
I then thought about the stories I’d written so far in Berlin, some eventually published. My first piece had been about a Museum of Night housing, among its exhibits, a terrarium filled with enormous black flowers whose petals turned into moths (Nachtfalter, ‘nightfolder’); a nocturnograph, a device for measuring night; and an installation by Hamburg and Humbug Holograms & Dioramas Ltd. called City of Dreadful Night, A Victorian Night Walk as Experienced in Nineteenth-Century London, inspired by James Thomson’s haunting poem. All were like materializations of the nocturnal energy that seemed to inhabit me so strongly.
By the time the tram neared my stop, the shadows of dusk had deepened and consolidated and I realized how pervasive a theme both night and insomnia had been over the years, the immediate tropism I’d feel, whenever I sat down at my desk, towards the nocturnal. And though I’ve probably worked through at least some of it by now, to this day I cannot imagine ever having a central character who is a good sleeper, who misses out on the godless hours and is unfamiliar with that very particular current of despair.
And I too am so used to the script, I cannot imagine it any other way. The thought of approaching bed with a sense of calm and genuine fatigue seems tantalizingly foreign.
That evening after my visit to Charité I began writing ‘In the Arms of Morpheus’, a story about a young woman who spends the night at a sleep clinic with disappointing results, and in the process I finished convincing myself that a session there would somehow be detrimental.
The following morning, despite not having slept well, I rang the clinic and cancelled my appointment.
I remember a Hungarian writer friend being astonished when I told him I had never found myself entirely alone in a forest – how could one fully become a writer, or any kind of thinker, without this experience he seemed to suggest, for this represented the ultimate confrontation with the self – and I suppose I feel similarly about insomnia.
The friendship between Goethe and Friedrich apparently suffered when Goethe asked Friedrich whether he would help him in the classification of clouds. Friedrich promptly answered no, explaining that this would signify the death of landscape.
For me, likewise, night would be disenchanted by the scientific explanation of phenomena that may instead be felt as magical, mystical or simply mysterious. And I can’t help thinking, finally, of Kafka’s aphorism, ‘A cage went in search of a bird.’ Free up a space in the mind, and another obsession will come occupy it.
We are, to a large extent, our own jail keepers. Our conditions define us, add contours, accents, drama to our lives. And the longer they accompany us, our so-called afflictions, the more years we spend together, the harder it is to part ways.
Photo by Juan Lupión