Last night I had a horrific case of insomnia. It hits me now and then, but it’s not regular–at least not normally. When I was in high school, I would sneak out through the garage–the front and back doors squeaked–and walk around my neighborhood. I’m blessed by a secure ring of suburbia, so I was never afraid. I watched the cars sail along the road and the televisions coloring the windows.
I descovered a word for it a few years ago: “noctivagant,” night wandering.
The time of an insomniac differs than a day-dweller. It seems to expand when we have nothing to fill it with, like long Sundays or silent miles passing down a long road. It’s looser, less rigid. Free.
Sometimes I picture time like a flag on windy day, straining to break away from its pole. It rips away and glides high and free, untethered. Such is insomnia time.
Some insomniacs watch television. I listen to the nocturnes of passing cars in the dewy night and think. Questions drift through open windows. I find water and ice, cradle my book, and wait for sleep to take me. I know I can’t fight it. Morpheus is a fickle houseguest.
In time, it always comes.
One of my religion teachers told me about long Sundays in the seminary. Wandering the grounds, he felt his humanity stretched out before him, with its contradictions and mortality laid bare, like a void he tried to bury. It gave him new questions, a new depth he hadn’t known. That was when he first thought about life and death.
By Monday, the schedule crowded the feeling out.
These long hours can be a torture: sweaty summer nights struggling to break the heat with a pale breeze of a fan, anxious hours crawling by before a move, too much coffee, loud neighbors.
I read. Last fall, while adjusting to a medication, insomnia hit me each night like clockwork. By three, I woke. I finished four novels before the pattern broke.
But there can be a sweetness, a sense that I’m part of an exclusive club or a joy that I suddenly have a new sprawl of hours. It almost has a magic feel, despite the pain and disruption. A sense of mystery.
We can’t tell others the next day about it. It’s like a journey to Narnia. We brush aside the long hours with brief clauses. “I didn’t sleep well last night.” Or, “I had wicked insomnia.” They’ll never know the torture and the loose void insomnia brings, the strange sweetness, like long Sundays at the seminary.
Perhaps this void lies beneath the structure that ribs our whole lives, an ocean mumbling through a ship’s hull. A thin layer of routine and responsibility keeps us from it, but it breaks through when the system breaks down. The flag is tied to the pole. Then, the structure dissolves, and the flag drags us through the darkness.
It’s suddenly unbound from its own clockwork, and we’re unbound from our own safety, wandering in the night of our own being. I think these hours have a special, private significance that’s uniquely human. They do for me, at least.