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The midnight ramblings of an insomniac

The midnight ramblings of an insomniac

In popular culture, the inability to sleep is associated with a psychological condition known as love. Urdu literature is teeming with men and women afflicted by this malady. The sufferers are usually found pacing on rooftops, gazing at stars in the middle of the night.

For me, unfortunately, sleeplessness has not come packaged with love.

For the past three years, I have experienced insomnia in all its manifestations and I am contemplating writing a book titled, Fifty Shades of Insomnia. When published, it will be catalogued under “Horror”, and placed alongside Dracula and The Exorcist in the bookshops.

While some of it has been educational – as I have learnt a few things about ghosts and spirits – it has mostly been suffering of the worst kind.

For me, the best manifestation of this suffering is when I am fully alert when awake at night. While I can perform tasks like reading and writing or surfing the net, at the other end of the spectrum is a tug of war between the body and mind – the body is begging for sleep, but the mind, though equally tired, is not willing to release its stranglehold on the body.

In such a situation, it is impossible to find reprieve in moving eyes across paper, or even in keeping them glued to a TV screen, as both the mind and body are simply too exhausted. Torn between the sleepiness and wakefulness, the body becomes extremely agitated and restless.

Read on: Insomnia: Snooze blues

On nights like these, the restlessness is so overpowering that I cannot stay in one position for more than a few seconds. Often, while tossing and turning in bed, I smash my fist against my thigh or chest. Next day, I find bruises on my body. One night, a punch directed at some invisible enemy landed on my wife, who was sleeping soundly and caused her much distress.

When it becomes impossible to stay still in bed, I get up and walk around the apartment like a man possessed. Sometime, I stumble against furniture and get bruised, fall over the coffee table, or walk straight into a framed picture. What is happening is that I am falling asleep for very brief moments while pacing around. At times, I repeatedly hit my head against a wall to bring relief.

What has kept me going is that I am able to get some sleep in the afternoon. The few times I could not get that relief, I started hallucinating the following night. Every object in the room took the shape of something living. The chair morphed into a cat or the table into an alligator. I found myself talking, often calmly, to the cat to leave me in peace. At such times, there was not an iota of doubt in my mind that there was indeed a cat in the room and that it was perfectly reasonable to talk to it.

Once, I got lucky. I stepped out of the bedroom and noticed an attractive woman with long black hair standing in the open door of the bathroom along the corridor. I distinctly remember asking her who she was and what she was doing there. In a few moments, she melted in a haze and I went back to talking to the less desirable creatures. When I looked out of my living room window at my car parked outside, I was often convinced that there was someone sitting in it.

Explore: Battling anxiety: The Pakistani Ironman's story

I have tried everything possible to go to sleep; listened to music, read a book, ate cereal, laid flat on the bare floor, slept without a pillow, slept with two pillows, turned on the air conditioner, turned off the air conditioner, moved to the second bedroom, moved to the third bedroom, come back to the original bedroom ... I have changed my position on the bed to every angle between zero and 360 degrees; sometimes within the space of an hour.

Nothing has worked.

It is only around 6am that the primitive body mechanism takes over and I drift off to sleep. It would not be so bad if could sleep late into the morning, but the need to get up and go to work affords no such luxury. At work, it needs a herculean effort to concentrate.

One time, unable to sleep, I got into my car and drove off to Sea View. I found myself dozing off at the wheel. I was lucky not to run over a bicyclist, who had appeared out of nowhere. Chastised, the next time I stepped out in an ungodly hour, I chose to go on foot, unsteadily walking towards the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine.

On the road median and on the footpaths, dozens of people lay around, sleeping peacefully. I envied them. I made friends with a taxi driver who seemed to think I was a madman. He offered to take me for a ride to get some fresh air, but a flicker of rationality in my sleep-addled brain told me not to take him up on his offer.

For me, this experience was as a reminder of how tenuous our hold on normalcy is.

It had not taken much to reduce me from a skilled professional and a responsible father and husband to the ranks of the unfortunate who roam the streets of Karachi in rags, sleep in the streets and get their meals from charity.

I have consulted both medical doctors and psychiatrists. They say that the problem is most likely due to the lifestyle change resulting from my return to Pakistan after nearly 30 years in Canada. This is quite plausible, as I have slept very well every time every time I have gone on a vacation abroad, but the issue has come back on my return to Pakistan.

Also see: Cell phones giving sleepless nights

The wise doctors have prescribed both medicine and good sleep hygiene. Well-meaning friends have offered everything from yoga to little pieces of paper with sure-cure duas and wazeefas written on them. Some have told me not to have any tea, while others told me to have a dozen cups. Most treatments have not worked and some have worked to some extent only. Sometime I have a good run for a few days and get decent sleep; then there is a relapse. And so it goes.

I have found strategies that mitigate the problem. The latest one is to go off to sleep at whatever time of the day I feel sleepy and sleep for however long I can keep sleeping. Last night, I was reading a book and my mother was sitting on the sofa across me. It was 11pm. Next thing I notice is that the lights are out and the clock read 3:30am.

I am delighted to have this surprise bout of long, uninterrupted sleep. I know that now I will not be able to sleep anymore, so I go back to my bedroom, switch on the computer and start writing. As I write these words, it is close to dawn and I am humming under my breath:

Sitaroo, tum to so jao, pareshan raat saari hai

“O stars, you should go off to sleep, so what if the night is restless.”

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