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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Why We Have Trouble Getting Back To Sleep

For those of us who have a lot to run away from – and that frightens us – in our own minds, there is a period of the night that presents particular problems and powers the worst of our insomnia. 

During the day, we can cope well enough. There’s so much we can use to distract us: other people, the internet, panicking about a chipped plate or an untidy room, the news… We can – if we do it right – almost always stay one step away from the layer of uncomfortable personal thoughts that lie somewhere in the recesses of our minds. 

Some parts of the night can be manageable as well, the bits when we are fast asleep and therefore usefully walled off from what might haunt us. Total unconsciousness – like total wakefulness – allows ‘us’ not to be with ‘us.’ In so far as we do bump into more personal material, we only need to do so in the form of dreams, which are generously fantasmagorical, holding out insights to us in metaphorical form without forcing them too literally upon us.

The difficulty comes if we are unfortunate enough to wake up at three-thirty or four in the morning. In our night-clothes, in the darkness, perhaps completely on our own, we are suspended somewhere between the rational self-possession of the day and the narcotic unknowing of sleep. This is zero hour. We now have no option but to come face to face with the troubled elements in our psyches, without any of our usual defences. Our pilot selves are sluggish and befuddled. We are without our armoury of distractions; we hardly know our name, how old we are or what continent we are on. We are too weary to be able to stand up and look at matters through the practical, stoic, sensible lenses of the day – but we are also blocked from heading back into the steadying blackness of unconsciousness, trapped instead in a zone of sticky, tar-like anxiety and fear. 

All the primordial dread within us which we are normally so assiduous at escaping – all the sadness of early childhood, the inchoate memories of loss, the cruelty and neglect we can’t pin down to any specific events, the unconfronted emotions of shame and pain, the nastiness we couldn’t make sense of, the cries we haven’t let out, the tears we haven’t wept, the confusion we have been alone with since the start – all of these stir and insist on our attention while the rest of the world sleeps.

We are caged. We can’t get up because we know this would mean a disaster for the day ahead. But nor are we sufficiently tired to be able to dive back into sleep – as we could when the night began, and we were catapulted from awareness into unknowing. We have to try to make our way back to unconsciousness on foot as it were, very slowly and with a backpack, and in the course of the journey, we keep being harassed by an army of mean-spirited, thuggish thoughts that dwell on the bridge between day and night. Every time we want to think of, and be, nothing, a sensation or idea has a different plan for us. We get accosted by ghoulish figures and lack either the resources to look at them in the eye – or the overpowering sleepiness that might spare us a need to do so. 

So the rest of the night goes; a restless futile set of zigzags in search of total wakefulness or complete unconsciousness.

To enjoy calmer nights, there is – fortunately – work we can do in the day. While we still have some power, we should put aside our distractions and travel bravely into to the interstitial 4 am zone, to that bridge where the ghosts dwell and attempt to explore them with curiosity and bravery. In mid-afternoon, we should use gentle music and perhaps the presence of a kindly companion and ask ourselves: 

– What are the feelings I am striving so hard to get away from? 

– What am I truly anxious about beneath the static?

– What am I sad about?

– If I close my eyes, what is waiting for me?

– What have I not mourned? What have I not felt? What have I not dared to remember?

The more of this processing we can do in the light, the less we are likely to be pursued to do it in the dark. Insomnia is a vicious revenge of all the parts of us that we have succeeded so well at avoiding in the day. We should make regular appointments with our unknown sides when we still have the strength – so that these won’t continue to need to pin us down in the early hours and ruin our lives.

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