The Perils of Insomnia
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.’
One of the questions that often comes up when talking to other writers about insomnia is, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’
In my case, I find that my brain computates problems for me in the midnight hours. This is tremendously useful when I’ve been working on a manuscript and I’ve gone to bed thinking about a problem in the narrative that needs to be resolved. Suddenly the solution drops into my mind, forcing me to wake up at around 3.00am-5.00am. Scrambling around for pen and paper, I’m usually knocking things over so I can quickly write down the solution. Otherwise by sunrise I’ve forgotten what the hell it was.
One of the funniest occasions was when I’d been working on a fiction manuscript before going to bed. I distinctly heard my main character address me directly at about 4.00am. My eyes snapped open and I was instantly very, very awake. It seemed that Sasha Torte (world famous Tasmanian pâtissier) was furious that I’d misrepresented her. And she demanded I fix it immediately. I went back to sleep feeling chuffed, because it meant she’d taken on a life of her own.
According to researchers, John Peever and Brian J. Murray (Scientific American Mind), our brains are still active even while we sleep. Sleep clears waste from the brain, energizes our cells and plays a role in regulating our appetite mood and libido. It also assists memory and learning.
Shakespeare knew a lot about sleep, especially insomnia. I suspect he was often awake in the midnight hours. The Bard often alluded to the fact that sleep is crucial to our wellbeing; a nourishing sleep is essential for restoring both body and mind. And while we sleep the brain sorts out our tangled thoughts and soothes us.
In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s guilt about Duncan’s murder escalates to the point where rabid insomnia gets her by the throat. Hallucinations and nightmares haunt her, she obsessively washes her hands, becomes irrational, rants, raves, cannot bear to be alone and sleepwalks.
In 1904 Sir James Sawyer M.D. of Birmingham published a small book titled ‘Insomnia: It’s Causes and Cure.’ He was a serious gentlemen with a penetrative gaze – that’s our physician in the portrait above.
Sawyer makes several suggestions about curing insomnia. He firmly believed in fresh air, sunshine, exercise, gardening, fencing with foils, reducing work overload and the soporific benefits of alcohol, morphine, chloral hydrate and opium. Oooh, yes please.
He did however state that the physician should, ‘Never allow the patient to dose himself with hypnotics. Keep the matter quite within your own secure hands.’
How that worked out for him we’ll never know.
The chopping up of one’s firewood – as did Archbishop Whately – was also highly recommended as a cure for insomnia. I immediately pictured the Archbishop in his vestments, madly splitting logs at 3.00am and enduring the righteous wrath of his neighbours.
Sawyer also held that there was nothing like fresh cold air in the bedroom to aid one’s slumbers. A thermometer should be used and it was advisable to keep a thermometric register to get your bedding temperature just right. He then went further and stated that there was nothing like a good sousing of one’s neck, head and hands in icy cold water to induce sleep.
I suspect Sawyer had very meek, obedient patients who never objected to his harsh treatments: ‘The patient’s self-control, loyal cooperation, and obedience to your directions are essential to your curing the case.’
In closing, Sawyer noted approvingly that Charles Dickens successfully came up with a cure for his insomnia. Dickens would get up out of his cosy bed and stand around getting nice and chilly, while also exposing his sheets and blankets to London’s cold night air.
Each to their own I guess!
Don’t let the bedbugs bite.’
Photograph: signed 1904 portrait of Sir James Sawyer M.D. Senior consulting physician to the Queen’s Hospital Birmingham England.