By Andrea Pascale, psychologist and psychotherapist
"… I am always tired, I never sleep… it must be my damnation. Even now, for example, I could go on all night long…"
There is nothing like a sleepless night to stimulate thoughts of distress and existential fatigue; and there is no better novel to describe this than "The house of sleep" by Jonathan Coe, from which the previous quote was taken.
Often the least academic channels bring us important information to think about and better comprehend phenomena belonging to the human universe. Art and literature always mediate and promote important cognitive and explicative processes. A simple novel can contain the essence of an aspect – in our case the lack of a sufficiently restful sleep – which is extremely critical to those who suffer from it. Who reads "The house of sleep" as well as who watches "The machinist" by John Carpenter can feel the sensations, the emotions and the emotional experiences of those who live in first person the drama of sleeping disorders.
We should not confuse insomniacs with those people who are called short sleepers – people that are able to function with far less than the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep per night. Beyond the subjective element, there is a deeply pathological dimension connected to sleep, particularly in relation to the involuntary lack of nightly rest.
The psyche is totally involved in this process, as origin or trigger as well as the injured party afterwards. It is all too easy to understand that insomnia is always a sign of a problem at an organic level, a symptom which highlights the breaking point of the person's balance, which needs to be considered, investigated upon and comprehended on a very deep level.
The simplest approach – the one that looks for an immediate buffer-solution – is to find in a hypnotic drug the easy way out. I do not mean to say that this is not helpful, on the contrary: many times the pharmacological action is essential because it represents the crutch that allows the patient to get back on his feet. Yet one cannot limit oneself to this.
There are essentially two emotional elements that go hand in hand with this experience: anxiety and depression. There are those who live the delicate transition from waking state to sleep with a thick ensemble of anguishing and distressful thoughts which prevent the entrance into the deepest and most restful phases. The result is a discontinuous and superficial sleep that produces fatigue and stress. Insomnia can even cause depression: serious melancholic states can lead to a hypersomnia – that reflects a closure – but also to its exact opposite: the absence of sufficient and regular sleep which generates psychological exhaustion that can become chronic.
In all cases to face insomnia means to solve a real personal drama: often within the clinical environment we discover that sleeping disorders are connected to traumas that lay deep inside the patient's history, tragic events happened in childhood and never faced nor analyzed and which, during posterior phases, return, carrying with them a massive dose of deep anxiety.
This is the "damnation" quoted by Jonathan Coe and it is easy to understand for all those who lived the experience of even just one sleepless night. Only through a holistic perspective one can really think about this subject. The entire organism is at stake because it lost one of the primordial aspects of its cyclicity and it needs to get it back at all costs.
It seems obvious yet it is worth mentioning that everything must be called back to order: lifestyle, nutrition, physical exercise, posture, breathing and every element that has to do with our psychological, affective or emotional dimension. I do not mean the creation of an austere order nor of an ascetic lifestyle deprived of all pleasures. On the contrary: enjoying the beautiful things that fill our lives is certainly one of the healthiest and most effective ways to recover our existential balance. The main street is not austerity but simplicity: what can be simpler that following the circadian rhythm1 and adapt to it? In the end that's what the generation of our grandfathers was doing: wake up at dawn and go to sleep after dusk; we can still find it nowadays when we visit countries with different cultures and with a lower socio-economical status.
This is obviously not the solution, but it represents its counterpart: surely the life of an insomniac is as complex as the life of all other human beings; yet his life happens to be additionally complicated by a series of different factors that take him away from the lifestyle we all were made for. Simplicity can be a goal, something one can aim to in order to free oneself from entangled and tiring lives; one of the first symptoms of this is the rupture of the most innate and primordial equilibrium: our moment of rest and recovery.
"…It is time for simplicity; nothing could be more useless, misleading and out of tune than complicated intellectual lucubrations…"
Susan Sarandon, "La forza della mente"