The Curious Comforts of Insomnia

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I’ve painfully learned that insomnia is not rectified by sleeping earlier, destroying my dependency on caffeine, or consuming melatonin supplements — all for a futile attempt to adjust my “body clock”. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Emil Cioran, the philosopher famed for his sleeplessness, describes insomnia as monstrous yet rewarding. In 1986 he wrote: “Insomnia… dooms us while it delivers us: an ambiguity inseparable from the experience of the night.” The twofold nature of insomnia revealed itself to me in the silent nights spent wide awake and incessantly longing for my pre-lockdown life.

Back in 2018, the Philippines was identified as one of the countries that experience the shortest amount of sleep, a little over 6.5 hours compared to a maximum of 7 hours and 45 minutes in New Zealand. More recently, the app called Sleep Cycle studied how the pandemic affected the sleep quality of its users across the globe. It was found that the shift to working and studying from home has heavily impacted age groups 18-24 and 25-34 as their sleep quality took a severe decline. Being in this age group, I recognize the experience behind these numbers.

I used to believe it was just a few nights of bad sleep. It wasn’t until the sight of the sun seeping through my clouded blinds started feeling familiar that I considered the possibility of insomnia. I blamed it on a multitude of reasons I knew I couldn’t control: inescapable anxiety, energy overcharge from a late-night workout, or the looming doom of what awaits me when the sun rises. Instead of falling asleep at the same time my side of the world does, I was troubled with the endless noise inside my head that I was hopeless to suppress. Every night felt like a nightmare I was made to experience awake as I lie on my bed and play witness to my body’s desperate plea for sleep that my mind cruelly denies. I’ve painfully learned that it is not rectified by sleeping earlier, destroying my dependency on caffeine, or consuming melatonin supplements — all for a futile attempt to adjust my “body clock”.

When my regular 9-to-5 days as a marketing executive were suddenly relocated to our living room, my life had changed drastically. I wanted to resist everything this work-from-home transition had entailed. I was forced to say goodbye to the isolated routines, the environment I had found myself most productive in, and was left unprepared to handle the emotional labor that staying at home precipitates. While lockdown has given me the privilege to spend extra time with my family at home, it also took away the focus and energy I had originally allocated for work. Every day, my mind tries to be in two places at once, yet somehow ends up feeling like it’s nowhere at all.

“People your age can be so overreacting. It’s just work.”

Overwhelmed by the preempted exhaustion, I close my eyes and allow my mind to be blank. I’m interrupted by an abrupt and urgent request that I accept but appeal, “Okay, give me five minutes.” Before I am able to just enjoy a few more moments of mental and mindful rest, I’m nudged and dispelled as lazy.

At work, I have mastered the art of stifling stress, anger, irritation and all sorts of reactions in the attempt to not seem too “emotional” because I’ve been conditioned that it is the professional and proper way to behave at work. I never used to have to do that at home. Tucked away in our snug joint apartment, I felt free to be myself. At home, I was free to do what I felt I needed to do to express my frustrations and joys that took place in the world outside of it.

The shift to working and studying from home has heavily impacted age groups 18-24 and 25-34 as their sleep quality took a severe decline.

These days, I feel like I’ve lost the right to feel exhausted or unhappy because the comfort and safety that my home offers me has rendered it void.

“You know, you should just be grateful instead.”

Emotional labor introduces itself as a request but feels more like a demand.

Coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, emotional labor pertains to the demanding and conscious effort to make yourself feel a certain feeling—which could sometimes mean suppressing another. The unpaid labor of trying to be “happy” and “grateful” all the time clouds my thoughts to the point where I am rendered unable to focus on anything else. Set in the forgotten refuge that I used to have at home, one part of my mind is trying to silence my emotions, while the other is desperately trying to replace them.

I was exhausted from filtering through the noise just to hear only faint sounds of what my thoughts were trying to conjure. The lines that separated what I like about my job and what I love about my home are long gone. They’re now replaced with an indistinguishable feeling of dread and uneasiness while the only aspect of my life that had remained the same was my insomnia.

And then, a subtle change.

In the hours that my room is dimly lit and enveloped in silence, I start to feel a sense of comfort.

The silhouettes formed by my subdued nightlights find themselves in indistinct shapes on the grayish white walls of my bedroom. My spacious bed has three mid-sized pillows, my warm and delicate comforter, and me. The square-sized glass on my desk mirrors the back of my laptop as I bring work to bed and my heavy duty lip balm and lavender-scented everything occupy my bedside table. What once was merely a familiar place I was meant to sleep in now felt like a space that felt completely my own. My room had cocooned me with an invisible bubble of personal space that I had tried so hard to look for in the day.

In these muted moments, the disconcerting voices in the day that extinguished my own disappear as soon as night comes. Slowly, I have regained the ability to hear the sound of my own mind. I discovered that what I found extremely difficult and almost impossible to do during the day, I could comfortably finish in the ungodly hours of the night. My unwavering insomnia has granted me an unusual experience of peace as my thoughts, senses, and mind were allowed to just simply be. This loosened state allowed my mind to regain its ability to speak without the fear of being silenced. In the stillness, I could hear my most articulate thoughts, the debates between the yes, no’s, and maybe’s of my own wits, and the simple condition of my mind being able to unhesitatingly say, “I feel...”. As a writer, I could recreate my reality of choice in simple and clear sentences.

I still suffer from the same exhaustion and lethargic state when I am forced to exist in the morning—that much of my insomnia remains unchanged. Do I think I could write about my life the same way if I could bring myself to be awake in the morning? Perhaps not.

Sprawled on my bed, I unfold my portable and bed-friendly work desk just above my lap. The blatant light of my laptop’s screen awakens me and I return to the tabs, programs, and drafts I left open. The soft clacking and tiny thumps of my keyboard persist and the world I had missed starts to build itself around me. The debilitating sensation of trying to be two halves has abandoned me and I am rescued from an unwinnable battle against the enemies of my own emotions. I am left alone with a quiet that grants me the permission to exist in whole again.