Unable to sleep, I find myself writing this post at 1 in the morning, while my husband and daughter slumber on peacefully. Let me tell you about the direct relationship between my creativity and my insomnia, which I now try to view in a positive way - including tonight. For fellow insomniacs I'm hoping this might bring you comfort, view sleeplessness with fresh eyes, and see the extra time as a gift. (The sketch below was inspired by my insomnia in the rainforest in Ecuador!).
Welcome to my world of insomnia
Insomnia is individual to the many, many people this condition affects, so firstly allow me to tell you my experience of it. When I was a teenager, I found myself unable to fall asleep over a period of weeks and I began to worry about not being able to sleep. I would start getting anxious about going to bed from early evening onwards, and then lie there frozen, unable to quash my night-time fears. I was unaware of and unable to name it as insomnia - I had no idea at all what it was. I tried to talk to my parents about it but at a time when they were at their most unreceptive, late at night, when they themselves would have been exhausted. They told me ‘awa and nae be fiel’, a Scots saying for ‘away and don't be stupid’. The most helpful response was, surprisingly, the elderly owner of a shop where I worked my Saturday job when I was 13. He told me ‘no one ever died of not sleeping’. Although I don't know if this is true, as certainly insomnia and any sleep deprivation can be torturous, at the time I found it very comforting, and helped put it into perspective.
Now, in my 40s, I have identified that I experience insomnia for a whole host of reasons. Number one is being anxious about something, but also as a result of:
- Overtiredness and stress from ongoing fractured sleep, which many parents of young children suffer, a double whammy (see cute but sleep disruptive child above!)
- Seasonal changes, when the days really lengthen in May in Scotland - my energy levels skyrocket and I regularly wake at 5 a.m.
- Being in a new situation, sleeping somewhere I've never been, and the reptilian part of my brain refusing to switch off
- Hormonal changes linked to my monthly cycle
- And, frequently, when I'm in the middle of a very creative phase, I have lots of ideas and energy zipping around my brain
Creativity and loss of sleep
If I'm at a crucial stage of cutting out a lino print, I can go to bed and spend hours thinking about the technical process of how I will cut out different coloured blocks, and the potential colour combinations. After drafting a design for this bag made from my poppy fabric, when I tried to sleep I ended up thinking through exactly how I was going to piece and sew the bag together. Over the years, I have learnt that it's best to get up, write down my thoughts to capture the valuable information I'm generating, and to give my brain some peace. Once I've done this, I'm usually able to drift off to sleep.
Insomnia gives me time to be creative
Sometimes, though, the cycle switches. Some nights, for whatever reason, I wake up and simply cannot sleep. On these occasions, I use the time to treat myself to working on a creative project. My flamingo linocut which forms part of this fabric design was printed up at 3 a.m. I ended up staying awake the rest of the night and printing up a whole edition of flamingos. Over the years, I have learnt not to panic about my insomnia, and rather, to see it as unexpected free time which you can use to generate something positive. Yes, sleep deprivation can make you feel crummy, but as my old boss observed, you don't die. Insomnia can give you access to a scarce resource - free time - and it is often using the almost feverish energy insomnia produces that leads to some of my best work.
And so it is that I find myself frantically scribbling this post in the toilet of a hotel room, while my family sleeps. All the different factors which cause me insomnia have collided: I'm in a new place, so my brain is on high alert; I'm already slightly deranged from an extremely early start; it's a particular time of the month, and that month happens to be in the summer! But at least it means I've written this blog post, and I derive some comfort that eventually some fellow insomniacs may read it…