Wakefulness, darkness that comes with the inability to sleep, “the silent realms” (as Virginia Woolf calls it).
A romp through literature, culture, and her own bed, Marina Benjamin’s memoir Insomnia found me in the deep hours of the night, plagued by the pursuit of sleep. Not chronic insomnia, that awful mistress that so many suffer from, but it’s a hyper awareness of my body, of my health, that keeps me awake at night – because my lungs continue to collapse.
They call it spontaneous pneumothorax.
It began five years ago, sitting at my desk, I felt the air escape my chest and I was unable to replenish it. And again a month later as I woke winded on a wintery dawn. And again, and again, until they operated. That was my left lung.
Three years later my right went down, I knew what it was, that dull ache. I drove to the hospital, dizzy with breathlessness. Then quiet for two years until, on the other side of the world I sat, once again at my desk, and I knew. And just yesterday, two months since then, in the poetry section of the bookstore – so on brand I joked as I walked into the emergency department, not really knowing how else to cope.
They ask me to rate my pain on a scale of one to ten. Relative to what? I think as I try to assess the world’s pain and how it might compare to mine.
Alert they write on the glare of the computer screen. Fumbling over the spelling of my surname, trying to match my accent with my name with my location. They never get it. And then blood drawn into vials and put in cases just incase they need it. They won’t. They leave the needle taped into the crook of my arm. They stick squares all across my body for an e c g – electrocardiogram. You’ll need an echocardiogram too they say. But it’s the echo of the squares left on my skin I see in the mirror as I step out of the shower. Squares of red raised all across my chest. They ask about my tattoos.
And then the xray. Not pregnant I tell them before they even have a chance to ask, they raise their eyebrows and nod, moving onto the next question. Date of birth. Address. I know it all by heart now. But it’s not my heart they’re looking at.
On the screen there I am, and my lung’s pulling a blank as the ghostly haze ends and there’s just black. See how it ends? they point. Yes I see. I can feel it too. The end, the edge of my lung not being where it’s supposed to be. But I don’t see how it ends as they pack me up and send me home. Take it easy they say, we’ll make appointments.
Home to slowly slowly re-inflate with the knowledge that I’ll be back – because no one can explain it.
So this is what keeps me awake at night. Not just the pain and the dull ache, but the rearranging of my day tomorrow, my week, my life. The calls to make, emails written in my head, informing my world that once again I can’t do anything. I can’t yawn, sneeze, laugh, talk without hurt or helplessness. My mum wants to call but I can’t; I forget how much air is needed to carry a conversation. I can’t grind coffee or carry the pot of water from the sink to the stove. I have to sit down in the shower so I don’t faint. And reading? I can hardly hold a book.
But there’s not much more I can do, forced to rest and doped up on painkillers. So it’s been poetry and novellas and small slim softbacks. Everything else is too heavy. I’ve read Woolf and Plath and Lavinia Greenlaw and Sophie Collins. I’ve found faith in Fabers and solace in Smith. And then there’s Insomnia. Coming in at only one hundred and thirty three pages I can hold it and not feel the strain or the ache of anger in my chest.
This memoir, this cultural exploration around chronic wakefulness is lyrical in its lamentations. In the margins I wrote there seems to be an overwhelming desire to romanticise our maladies by forming the perfect prose – a coping mechanism? A way to make sense of the world around us? Ironic now, I know. But as lonely, as alienating, as harrowing as insomnia is, Marina Benjamin knows the beauty that can be found in the velvety blankness of a night that “takes on a different hue”. She speaks of a “taxonomy of darkness, and with it, a nocturnal literacy” that I find myself learning as the endless nights go on. Wakeful with worry. Worry that my body won’t work as it should. At night my mind is “fleet and light and connective. It opens doors and pushes through colourful prisms. It noodles, it trips, it blushes. And it roams: respecting no boundaries, it transgresses.”
I do my best and my worst thinking in these moonlit hours, ideas that I remember with giddy glee the next day, and ones I forget and spend the morrow uselessly reaching after. Like Benjamin, I “yearn for the replenishment provided by sleep”, and ironically it’s what I need the most, as sleep is the body in rehabilitation. Sleep should knit my scars together and slowly return my lungs to their natural state. But it eludes me and instead I spend the time wandering the “silent realms” and writing this in my head – turning phrase over phrase and tying the threads of it all together.
And I read Insomnia, watching the silver gilt wink in the inky darkness, and waiting for what comes next. I wait for the unmistakeable ache, the breathlessness that comes with sleeplessness, and the sleeplessness that comes with breathlessness.