The History of Insomnia
Created | Updated Nov 15, 2007
Tired Nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep!
He, like the world, his ready visit pays
Where fortune smiles; the wretched he forsakes
- Edward Young 1683 - 1765
We tend to blame our insomnia on stress - the product of our modern society. However, the problem probably stretches back to the beginning of time. These introductory words, penned by Edward Young, are from a collection of poems called Night Thoughts, the very title of which indicates that he too was a sufferer. We all have difficulty sleeping at one time or another, but the worst aspect of insomnia is worrying about not getting enough quality sleep, with the result that we tend to become moody and irritable with those around us. We become obsessed by rituals and bedtime routines in order to ensure true repose. There are probably as many cures as there are insomniacs because what appears to work for one person, never seems to work for another.
Churchill, Dickens and Benjamin Franklin all felt that their nocturnal wakefulness was somehow connected with the beds in which they were sleeping. Winston Churchill had twin beds and when he couldn't fall asleep in one he changed to the other one. This may have worked for Churchill but for Charles Dickens the position of his bed was a vital factor in reaching the dormant state. He could only sleep in a bed that had its head pointing due north and then only if he was lying exactly in the middle of the mattress. He used to check this by extending both his arms out sideways and then wriggling until he was exactly in the centre. Only after this ritual could he begin to enjoy his slumber. Benjamin Franklin was more concerned with the temperature of his bed. He would get out of bed when unable to sleep and let it air and cool down. Then, when the sheets were cold, he would get back in to try again.
Many sufferers resort to drugs in order to induce a relaxed state conducive to sleep. Marcel Proust was convinced that Veronal1 was the answer and Evelyn Waugh used bromides - although he was more often plagued by hallucinations instead of achieving the suspended consciousness he craved. Some people are driven to maintain a perpetual drug-induced haze in order to calm their nerves and secure a peaceful night's sleep. Marilyn Monroe is said to have been taking up to 20 Phenobarbital a day by the end of her life; and we all know what happened to her... Of course, there are those that prefer not to take drugs and emphasise the use of herbs and other healthful alternatives. But even these can be taken to extremes. Vincent van Gogh could only descend into that blessed unconsciousness if he smothered his mattress and pillow with camphor2 - presumably to clear his head of all his strange thoughts.
It is difficult not to become so obsessed by lack of sleep that we allow it to govern our lives. The Earl of Rosebery (Prime Minister of England 1894 - 1895) was driven to resign because of his chronic insomnia. He wrote, 'I cannot forget 1895. To lie, night after night, staring wide awake, hopeless of sleep, tormented in nerves... is an experience which no sane man with a conscience would repeat' - a sentiment which all too many of us share.
Many famous people have used their additional hours to good advantage. Napoleon Bonaparte learned to live with the fact that he was only existing on three or four hours sleep a night and got on with his grand schemes. Thomas Edison used to make up for his lack of night-time repose by catnapping during the day. One of the most creative insomniacs was Alexandre Dumas. He produced enough words to fill 1,200 volumes and claimed to have fathered 500 children - certainly something to think about in those unasked-for extra hours.
One way of dealing with sleeplessness is by employing unfocussed background noise. Many say the best way is to dismiss it from your mind and get on with life. One thing's for sure - insomnia is not going away any time soon.