An Insomniac's Death Wish: The Travesty of Bankrupt Mornings and Restless Nights


“Sleep is the most innocent creature there is and a sleepless man, the most guilty.”

- Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena

Another failed day. I've been wrestling with insomnia for years now. But this most recent bout with the sickness is something much more severe, I fear. It's been a good three months since I've had a truly meaningful, restful sleep. I've been trying to make sense of it, through its various medical, scientific, and literary investigations, and no amount of information on the matter has comforted me. The only thing I can concur with at this point is that this disease's only natural conclusion is, in fact, an early death.

It can be quite the paradox: to stay awake means to reclaim some absentee wonder from a spiritually bankrupt day; and yet, to sleep poorly only facilitates that same bankruptcy in a way. Before you know it, you're living days that never seem to begin and nights that never seem to end neither. The anguish of such vestigial throbbing is a riddle I just can't crack. It is as sickening as it was when it first starts. But I just can't get enough of it.

I forget when and why it all started. Perhaps it began in my childhood. Mama was a prisoner of wakefulness herself. My mother (god bless her) rarely slept a good sleep. She had this nasty habit of sometimes never sleeping at all if it was one of those evenings. Overcome with mountains of bills to pay, domestic accounting to do, the anxieties of a working woman juggling two jobs and holding a family together, and gout, I'd see her working from her desk late at night rather frequently. Whenever I went out to pee at around 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m., I'd pass by her desk and see her sitting there, just staring at the wall in silence. I'd ask her what was keeping her up and she'd give me the same response each time.


"Oh you know..." she'd tell me. "Now go to bed."

Like a good soldier, I did. Even if I didn't get the implication. At least not then. I always had this feeling that she spent most of her adult life feeling lonely. The detachment. The distance. The isolation. I'd only come to understand these things much later on. I truly am my mother's son, they would tell me.

"The records of literary history validate this. Insomnia, they say, is the great malaise of the writer."

Perhaps it's a Filipino predisposition somehow. There is data that suggests that Filipinos suffer the worst cases of sleep depravation in all of Asia, according to a somewhat-older 2016 Healthy Living Index Survey. The study concluded that 46 percent of Filipinos don't get enough sleep while 32 percent say that they sleep for less than six hours, which is less than ideal, considering the kind of fresh hell this country can be for its citizens. Maybe we can argue that our collective insomnia is about the fallacies of living through the third-world absurd? Yes? But then again, it may well be a universal thing. The Sleep Foundation says that roughly 10 to 30 percent of adults combat chronic insomnia elsewhere.

Perhaps it's the depression? Various studies, one of which comes from Johns Hopkins Medicine, have already validated that depression and sleep problems go hand in hand. People who suffer from insomnia have a tenfold risk of developing depression. People with depression are also 75 percent more likely to have trouble with their sleep. I might just be another forgettable statistic in the grand scheme of things, after all. It's a sort of chicken-and-the-egg situation.

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It is believed that 30 to 48 percent of older adults experience some form of insomnia.


Perhaps it's the prevailing egotism that comes with being a writer. We christen ourselves with these beautifully twisted inner worlds and god complexes and retreat to ourselves in our quiet clandestine spaces to reflect and conquer the annoying bugs in our brains. The records of literary history validate this. Insomnia, they say, is the great malaise of the writer. Shakespeare wrote one of the penultimate insomniac passages in Macbeth's farewell to "innocent sleep." Franz Kafka's writings in Metamorphosis and Letters to Milena, among others, reveal to us the burden of restless nights; as one of the great chroniclers of insomniac writing, he once wrote to his friend, Czech poet and memoirist Gustav Janouch, “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death. Perhaps I am afraid that the soul—which in sleep leaves me—will never return.”


"On most nights, I think to myself that this sleeplessness is just the manifestation of the guilt from being alive in a lifeless world, marked by a lack of humanity and sincerity in our jobs, our relationships, and ourselves."

Meanwhile, Sylvia Plath’s “Insomniac” shows us her desperation for slumber on the nights she lay awake. It would become a death wish, but was still the only real remedy for the “white disease” that is daylight and consciousness, as Greg Johnson puts it in the essay, “On the Edge of an Abyss”: The Writer as Insomniac, published in 1990. Emily Dickinson was practically addicted to sleepless nights, as observed in her poems. She had thought of sleeplessness as a state of (un)consciousness that facilitates some control in our realities.

Perhaps it's also because of how cures are few and far between. Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman would go on nocturnal walks out in the wilderness just to humor themselves. F. Scott Fitzgerald was quite literally an addict who needed his heavy does of barbiturates just to have a few hours of a relatively decent rest. Ernest Hemingway was the same way, but in the place of narcotics was alcohol.

So did I. I've gone through the sleeping pills, the booze, the downers, and the other fun things not to be written about in a corporate setting. All that just to find a "cure" or whatever. Of course, I found nothing to answer my sinner's prayer. 

Perhaps it's, well, the world. On most nights, I think to myself that this sleeplessness is just the manifestation of the guilt from being alive in a lifeless world, marked by a lack of humanity and sincerity in our jobs, our relationships, and ourselves. Look around, left and right, up and down, all we are can be summed up to: greed, status, reputation, ego, targets, and other superficial things. We are needlessly cruel to each. We thrive on excluding people and belittling others for a fleeting moment of power. The chaos around us has only gotten worse and so has the violence of the times. We suffer from the great blah that comes from too much useless information on our algorithms. Christ, we can't even be properly bored these days. We need to be stimulated even if the stimulation is as meaningless as the last outside shell of a sunflower seed we disposed of last Sunday. Where's the great rapture when you need it, eh?

Jean-Paul Sartre said something like, “If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.” I believe him.

Photo by UNSPLASH.


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The wakeful night, at the very least, offers some resistance to all this treachery. Going through the anatomy of my neurosis, I've sensed a pattern to the infrastructure of my insomnia. At 1:00 a.m., I watch cartoons to try to fall asleep. If these don't work, then I read. If that still doesn't work, then I masturbate. If that still won't put me to sleep, I get out of bed and worry about my expenses. Then I'd think about how I'd do this differently if I had the chance. That's the first wave of regret. Midway through the hour, I practice the jokes I'd say in a hypothetical exchange. As soon as 3:00 a.m. hits, the tremors start to come. The trembling comes from a certain degree of nausea that only shows itself when the dread of the daylight starts to ease in. Coincidentally, I find this to be the best time to write. In my half-dream-half-awake state, the lucidity of my writer voice comes to me. I'd write my poems and my short stories, even if it means just a line or paragraph or two. By 4:00 a.m., I end up hating myself and the world and all the things that make it bad and the people who make it even worse. Seething, I can find solace that I, indeed, am still myself. I can't seem to find this semblance of humanity elsewhere during the daytime. This frustration only dissipates when the first sight of daylight comes, which appears around 5:30 a.m. or so. That's when the second, much more profound second wave of regret comes in.

"That was only when the village would become 'world where men could still sleep and remember.'"

To mitigate my remorse, there's a bargaining that happens and this is how I frame it: in the captivity of our wee hours, we can somewhat be free from the shackles of modern life. Oh, the quiet. Ah, an ounce of peace. At long last, the boredom. How I long to beat the ennui of the day I had earlier. Insomnia afflicts me as much as it nourishes my soul, so to speak. I can't chalk it up to simple escapism. Escapism would mean that I hate my life. That is just not the case. It's just that the world is too ugly and this sorrow comes from living an examined life, which most people don't do. "Life may be sad, but it's always beautiful," Jean-Paul Belmondo's character in Pierrot le Fou says. That's gospel.

For the record, I don't think of my sleeplessness as a fear of death, like how Kafka put it. I'm not afraid of dying. That's something I found out after a near-death experience a long time ago. If my soul doesn't return, so be it. We're all going to be forgotten at some point, after all. There is nothing to fear. Such is life. The thing I hate the most about insomnia is not necessarily the intrusive thoughts. They can be quite the creative well-spring at times (a writer in love with his torment, go figure). What I'm really scared of, as I battle this insomnia, is forgetfulness. I mean, who are we without our memories? That, I don't want to find out. That, the people of Macondo would come to learn the hard way.


Sleep is a state that's just one step closer to oblivion, allegedly.


In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude (a personal favorite of mine), we read about a Kafkaesque plot in the third chapter. We learn about the village of Macondo suffering from communal insomnia. At first, the townsfolk looked at the situation as a good thing, having been more productive with the extra waking hours. But soon enough, they'd realize that they'd been “living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words.” They'd grow more forgetful as the days went on. A sign goes up in the town that reads, "GOD EXISTS." However, some villagers, in their kooky state, would enter a new realm where they fall to "the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves, which was less practical for them but more comforting.” A visitor ends up giving them a special potion in the end. That was only when the village would become a “world where men could still sleep and remember.”

"It makes me think of that excerpt from Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea that asks: 'Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?' Maybe that's it. Maybe I'll learn that, too, in time."

See, an insomniac's day just doesn't register like with a normal person. The cycle blurs our vision, time, and the lines between reality and delusion. In our confusion, we just forget. Three half-baked naps could lead to a Thursday, when it was only Sunday yesterday. Did I ever pay Earl back for that dinner we had three months ago? What was that thing my mother said to me when I got in trouble for smashing that lightbulb in grade school? What day did tita die again? What was that clever sentence I wanted to add to my screenplay? Where was I when Yolanda happened? Should I believe in god? Where's my birth certificate? Everything sort of becomes this giant mush of unreliable memory—feeling, revisiting, rearranging, revising, distorting, distilling, then, ultimately, forgetting.

But then again, perhaps this perpetual wakefulness is just a Wordsworthian or Sisyphean thing to bear. It was William Wordsworth who advocated for insomnia as a form of suffering that the writer must endure for the craft. Albert Camus, on the other hand, would probably suggest that we must imagine the insomniac happy, I suppose. Another task to never be done. Like I said, there is no consolation nor conclusion to this sickness. Only restlessness and indecision.

All this is just to say that, objectively, I've learned to live with it somehow. I might just be one of those people. I've reconciled these things, as awful as that sounds. Insomnia hasn't really affected my productivity at work nor has it affected my banter with people (so I'd like to think). I'm a fully functional adult that just isn't getting sleep. I could be one of those people who is just more productive during the night. Pablo Picasso would paint from 5:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. everyday, rest, and start his days again at 11:00 a.m. But yeah, we can't all be Picassos now, can we? It's not like I'm going to paint the next "Guernica" or anything. I wish.


Hence, the trap of perpetual anxiety. How do I end the cycle? With a thunderous applause? Death at 40? With eyebags the size of Jupiter? Probably. Probably not. I don't know, really. What I do know is that, chances are, this insomnia is only going to get worse from here... Or will it? Maybe I should try harder, the way papa did all those years.

Contrary to mama's horrendous sleeping schedule, my father's was always consistent (odd couple but they've always made it work). He would sleep at 10:00 p.m. and wake up at around 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., doing so for the better half of his life now. He's a farm-strong man, so I guess this level of discipline is something that he's always known growing up in the province. But I can see that, having entered his senior years, waking up early has taken on new meaning for him. He's actually waking up even earlier these days. It makes me think of that excerpt from Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea that asks: “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?” Maybe that's it. Maybe I'll learn that, too, in time. Hopefully, I say this, because my mother never did. And sooner or later, no matter how much we ought to deny it, we all turn into our mothers eventually.

Just this morning, my partner asked me that same question herself.

"What kept you up last night?"

"Oh you know..."

Yeah, mama. I think I finally do.

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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