The Lost Art of Sleep

by Janet Chisnall


Katherine had always had trouble finding a routine, even before extreme insomnia set in: nights when she stayed up reading until four o’clock in the morning, snatching a couple of hours’ sleep before she dragged her weary body into work.

And then there were other nights when she would go to bed at eight o’clock and sleep right through until ten the next morning. She would be awakened by the telephone and the tight, furious voice of Mr Welter, the senior manager, demanding to know if she actually wanted to keep her job or would she be sending them a postcard from the Bahamas, since she must have won the lottery, obviously.

But the real problems had started when her doctor had referred her to a sleep specialist.

Dr Grimes was well-meaning and genial but utterly incompetent. He had once diagnosed life-threatening appendicitis as ‘stress,’ and for a while he had been convinced that her ear infection was a brain tumour.

Mostly, she eschewed the miracle of modern medicine and took her chances with a good diet and lots of exercise. But her sleeping pattern, or absence thereof, had become too much to endure.

With the tumour episode in mind, she researched as much as she could on the Internet before she made the appointment with Dr Grimes, and found that a sleep specialist was the thing she needed.

Dr Grimes had been quite offended that she already knew what she wanted when she arrived at his morning surgery, but after much um-ing and ah-ing, and after offering her sleeping pills and Prozac, which she refused, he finally made her an appointment with Dr Woozle, consultant specialist in the sleeping arts.

Dr Woozle, when she eventually got the appointment some eight months later, first said that he probably wouldn’t be able to help her because of the brain tumour.

‘But that was a mistake, a misdiagnosis!’ Katherine had said, feeling the ominous Kafkaesque weight of the medical profession pressing against her on all sides.

‘Nonetheless...’ Dr Woozle had replied in a troubled voice, ‘It is on your medical notes, in black and white. Can’t argue with that.’

‘It was an ear infection!’ she said. ‘It cleared up after a week of antibiotics!’

‘Hmmm,’ said Dr Woozle, because the facts didn’t really come into it in his opinion, which was a medical one and therefore trumped all other opinions, right or wrong.

But Katherine held firm, and after two more appointments she finally persuaded him to admit her to the inner sanctum of the sleep clinic, where she was given three counselling sessions with Dr Malachy.

Dr Malachy was a woman. Dr Malachy was sensible and brusque and no-nonsense.

‘This won’t help,’ Dr Malachy said to her at the first session. ‘Because of the tumour,’ and she had looked at Katherine as though she believed that Katherine knew this full well and was a time-wasting hypochondriac.

Tired of fighting and tired in general from broken sleep, Katherine simply smiled at Dr Malachy in a way that implied that on the inside she was not smiling at all.

And so the treatment began. In the first session, Dr Malachy had told her about the importance of keeping her bedroom tidy and neat, of cracking open a window so that the air didn’t become stuffy, and of sticking to a routine.

Between the first and second sessions, Katherine was to keep a diary of all the sleep she actually had, including naps. It averaged out at about four and a half hours a day.

This was nothing to worry about, Dr Malachy had assured her. Lots of people did very well on just a couple of hours sleep a night. The important thing, she said, was to get those four and a half hours at the same time every day and to never, ever take a nap.

For four weeks, Katherine diligently followed the ‘sleeping plan’ that the doctor had drawn up for her. She spring-cleaned her bedroom and slept only between the hours of midnight and four-thirty.

It was an absolute revelation to her how utterly and completely exhausted one could be without actually dropping dead.

The final session was short. ‘This is just a debriefing,’ said Dr Malachy. ‘You have your plan, and you tidied your room, I take it?’

Katherine had summoned up the strength to nod, though speech itself was far beyond her.

‘Good. Just remember that our perception of tiredness is psychological. If you think you haven’t had enough sleep, your brain will automatically behave as though you are weary, but in fact we can all function perfectly well on very little sleep.’

Katherine had left the sleep clinic feeling somewhat cheated, and gone home for a nap.

It was the middle of the afternoon, and she had drunk three large buckets of latte from the coffee house next door to the clinic (which Katherine had thought was an excellent business strategy when she first saw it). She dozed fitfully and dreamed in a tangled fashion of Malachy’s words. We don’t need sleep to function. Tidy your room. It’s all psychological. Don’t nap.

And since that nap, Katherine couldn’t remember having slept a single wink. Not, at least, until much, much later.

With or without coffee Katherine couldn’t drift off into the land of nod, but without it she tended to wander into busy roads and forget important things like going to work, so she bought several different coffee-making machines and placed them strategically around work and home.

She had an Italian mocha pot for first thing in the morning; an espresso maker to get her through until lunch; and in the afternoons she brought out the big guns: a filter coffee pot that produced a thick lava that made her eyes very nearly spin in their sockets. Evenings were given over to a French press, and night times were simple powdered instant.

Malachy had been right, in a way. Katherine forgot about sleep, and the whole business ceased to matter. Sometimes her heart would flutter, and occasionally she would try to go up a down escalator when for a moment she would lose all perspective of relative motion, but on the whole she managed extremely well. Better than well, in fact: she became a prodigy.

Her timekeeping and the quality of her work improved in leaps and bounds. Indeed, with so many more hours of the day to fill, she became a model employee, arriving at dawn and staying as late as the security guards would allow. If the office building of her employers hadn’t closed completely at ten pm, she would have pulled all-nighters. She gained promotion after promotion for her diligence and general devotion to her job.

Her friends marvelled at her newfound energy. She would go straight from work, very late in the evening, to meet them at ‘Jinx’s NiteSpot’ and then after a few hours of dancing and laughing she would head back into work as the sun was coming up. Unable to keep up with her, they began to take it in turns to meet her and keep her company.

Her house fell into an unkempt state of disrepair, but her bedroom stayed spic and span, unused as it was.

For old times’ sake, she would make an effort once in a while and lie on her bed willing sleep to come, but she was unable to catch it no matter how much meditation or relaxation she practised. Sleep remained at large and, she thought mournfully, perhaps forever beyond her grasp.

Her appearance changed dramatically the more she went without sleep. She had become very neat and well groomed since she now had both the time and money to devote to herself, but when she looked in the mirror she saw how hollow-cheeked and wild-eyed she had become.

Something very like depression but more of an absolute awareness of reality, settled over her. Around the time that her nightly ventures into dreamland had ended, her daydreams had also stopped.

She would give a half-hearted attempt to conjure up a scenario involving Kevin, from Marketing, on whom she had once had a small crush, but the cold and undeniable knowledge that he was a fool and an idiot robbed her swimming thoughts of their charms. His habit of wearing odd socks, once so appealing, now seemed slovenly; and his boyish manner was now simply irritating and strangely pompous.

Her friends, too, were becoming annoying. In Jinx’s, she realised that they weren’t listening to her or each other but were transfixed by the men who roamed the establishment, sniffing out fresh meat. And their laughs and other expressions of interest were directed not at their conversational partner but at some perceived but imaginary audience.

Television no longer held any delight for her at all, since she saw right through the tricks and deceptions of drama, the bias of news, the deep shame of politics, and the viciousness of comedy. She saw the exploitative nature of documentaries and the opiate edge of a happy-ever-after. Movies were manipulative, and facile reality shows trapped in digitally filmed amber the mortification of the poor, desperate souls who were drawn in by the promise of fame and fortune.

She would have turned to the bottle, but without the ability to sleep it off she would be trapped for hours in a waking nightmare stupor.

She set up a website to tell her story, hoping that it would attract people with the same problem and hopefully someone with an idea of how to solve it, but she quickly realised that the dozens of people who flocked there were lightweights who in fact were getting a luxurious hour or two of kip a night.

She did not long for sleep, as such, it was just that absolute clarity and unbroken days of unvarnished reality were getting her down. She had once loved to meet new people, whom her mind would overlay with a glorious projection of wit, wisdom and style. And she missed old friends, who had once seemed so warm and comfortable but now, she saw, were cold opportunistic charlatans.

In the evenings, to break up the monotony of work, she took classes in literature, history, languages and science, but although she passed them all with distinctions and praise, she found them childish and meaningless. She cracked the code of the ancient language of Linear A, but told no one since she felt that the world was not ready for the astonishing secrets it hid.

She uncovered the base code of the Universe, which explained everything and made a mockery of quantum physics, but again she kept this to herself.

She travelled to Tibet but was disappointed to find that the peoples there had no deeper understanding than she herself did. Her trip to Paris in the springtime was a washout after she saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and suddenly understood that Da Vinci was simply a man with good brush control.

She tried to paint and write and compose, but although her efforts were lauded wherever she put them in the public eye, they left her unfulfilled because she knew that it was only laziness and apathy that prevented anyone else from producing even more startlingly original and beautiful ways to pass the time until death stopped the merry-go-round.

She even placed herself in the most dangerous situations she could find, taking a week’s holiday in Johannesburg and wandering the streets looking for robbers, muggers and drug lords; but her extra-keen wits and unfathomably lightning-fast reactions meant that she spent the whole time clearing the streets of vicious criminal detritus and reducing the crime rate to its lowest point in over a hundred years.

Nothing was a challenge to her.

Except sleep.

She tried a vegetarian diet, and then vegan, and then fruitarian, but, apart from a mild iron deficiency, they did nothing for her, and she returned gratefully to the taste and smell of animal blood and flesh.

Both religion and atheism were preposterous to her, since she knew that both were wrong. Philosophy was laughable.

She continued to turn up for her dull and pointless job because it kept alive in her the flame of hatred, which was the only link she still had to any kind of emotion.

Recalling Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ she packed a small case one Friday evening and caught the train.

It was winter and long after the commuter hour, and she had the carriage almost to herself. The rumble of the metal-on-metal wheels-on-track soothed her as she stared out of the dark windows seeing nothing but the bright flashes of occasional stations as the express service flew past them.

She awoke when a cleaner shook her arm and said with some annoyance, ‘Last station: Euston, love. You need to get off.’

It didn’t register until she got to her hotel room that she had actually, for the first time in over a thousand days, slept.

She felt refreshed and excited. The world was new again, and her brief oblivion had provided the break she longed for. Eagerly she made her way down to the hotel restaurant and ate with relish the wonderful meal that was presented to her. She had several glasses of fine and expensive wine to celebrate, and some hours later she went to her room and lay down triumphantly, closing her eyes and trying to gently recall the slow glide into nothingness that she had so lately enjoyed on the train.

But despite the warm buzz of the wine and her newly lifted spirits, sleep eluded her.

She sat up all night, waiting impatiently for the late winter dawn, and then she checked out of the hotel and made her way to Kings Cross station, bought a ticket and boarded the service to Aberdeen, a journey that was almost eight hours long.

She was roused only once, by a conductor who wanted to stamp her ticket. The rest of the journey she spent in the black velvet darkness of sleep.

In Aberdeen she found a nearby hotel, booked in and had an evening meal, and then sat in her room furiously searching the Internet on her iPhone for long train journeys.

She felt reborn. She had even managed a conversation with the waiter as though he were just an ordinary human being. As though she were an ordinary human being.

She went to work elated on Monday morning, having shuttled her way, asleep, across the country all weekend.

She found that to sleep during the week was impractical, because she had to be back for work every morning. But weekends and holidays were her own, and she devoted them to travelling and not seeing the world.

As soon as she left work on Friday afternoons, she would head straight for the station, to go to Aberdeen, or Penzance, or London. Or else she would catch a plane to France or Amsterdam or Germany and ride their rails for hours at a time on long and seemingly pointless journeys.

Within weeks she found that she no longer needed the hatred her dull job provided, and she quietly handed in her notice. The ongoing royalties from the books she had written and the artworks she had produced during her long sleepless days would keep her in train fares and hotels and food for years to come.

So she travelled and travelled and slept and slept. She no longer had a crystal-clear grasp of reality, and her brilliant flashes of insight now seemed to her to have been thought by someone else entirely. But she felt free.

The media, of course, wanted to know what had happened to that incandescent prodigy who had appeared from nowhere and had vanished back to obscurity just as quickly.

She had given a short and distracted interview to someone from the Guardian in the hustle and bustle of Kings Cross station and had left him standing there bemused when after ten minutes she dashed off to catch a train to Inverness.

She died on the train from Toronto to Vancouver, a journey of more than four thousand kilometres and over eighty hours in duration. The medical team said that it was heart failure due to dehydration, since she appeared to have fallen asleep within minutes of boarding and passed away three days later without having woken up to take food or drink in that time.

But a passenger, who was the last person to see her alive, reported that she woke once, very briefly, gave a stunning and beatific smile and then slumped in her seat. He would swear on his life, he said, that she died of pure and peaceful joy.


Copyright © 2013 by Janet Chisnall

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