“O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee. That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”—Henry IV, Part 2
Every so often, my brain explodes.
It hits like an express train: a sudden noise, impossibly, cataclysmically, apocalyptically loud. It sounds like somewhere between a detonation and a burst of TV static, as if somebody has plugged the base of my spine into the electric grid and flipped the switch. At the same time, my vision flashes blindingly, like the pure, impossible brightness of the sun.
What feels like an infinity lasts a quarter-second, then flees to air and is gone. The world fades back in. The echoes of the light fade, burning swiftly through a Polaroid-flush of color that dims to red and then to black. I hear the blood pulsing in my ears, my heart thudding in my chest, my bloodstream humming with adrenaline. Every muscle in my neck is clenched taut as steel cable.
What I’m experiencing — sometimes weeks will go by without it, and sometimes it happens multiple times in a few days — is technically called an episodic cranial sensory shock, but it’s more popularly known as exploding head syndrome. It’s alarming but not actually dangerous in itself; it is a parasomniac condition, rooted in a dysfunction in one of the many complex mechanisms by which the brain transitions to and from sleep. It’s part of a disease I have, one that has shaped my life so completely that it is impossible to imagine who I would be without it.
That disease is insomnia. Something, somewhere in my brain, in the system that triggers sleep, is broken. My condition used to be called primary insomnia: lifelong, chronic rather than acute, not linked as other insomnia experiences often are to anxiety, depression, or a wide range of other factors and causes. I’ve had it all my life.
The longest I’ve ever gone without sleep was 11 days, which is roughly the same as the official world record. That was particularly brutal, but going three, four, five, or six days without sleep is a pretty common occurrence for me. Without reliable pharmaceutical assistance — and I didn’t find anything even mildly effective until I was well into my twenties — I will sleep, on average, three or four nights in any given week. The rest of the time, I will just be lying there, locked in my head, in the dark, for hours.
It’s unpredictable. Some weeks I might sleep okay, the next barely at all. Some nights I struggle from midnight until dawn, and then finally sleep, staying under for 18 hours or more. Other nights I drift off in a relatively brisk two or three hours, only to be woken minutes later, irreversibly and in exasperation, by a noise from outside.
For as long as I can remember, sleep seemed to be something that other people could attain with an ease that made me sizzle with jealousy. It struck me as unfair how it always escaped me. I have never once fallen asleep, as the cliché puts it, the second my head hits the pillow. I have never really had a nap, either. Going to sleep, for me, entails hours of mental battle, a cornucopia of pills, or both. Sometimes nothing works at all.
When I’m lying in bed trying to force or cajole quiescence from my mind, it races and spins and fills with white noise. Snatches of music heard during the day play endlessly. Meaningless loops of nonsense words, which I am powerless to stop, pulse through me. My teeth grind, making my jaw ache. A time-lapse video of me over the worst such nights would show me thrashing around like a landed salmon, or spinning around on the bed like a propeller blade, tying the blankets into intractable knots.
There is little noticeable correlation between how tired I am and how easily sleep will or will not come. Mental or physical exhaustion, a long day, having had no sleep the night before or even the night before that—sometimes, none of these matter. I can go to bed a walking zombie, and still sleep might simply fail to materialize for hour upon lunatic hour, or at all.
By the time I turned 18, I worked out at one point, I had spent the equivalent of two years in solitary confinement, alone and awake in the dark, locked in silent battle with my brain. I know my mind inside out the way a prisoner knows his cell, every blemish and scratch. Inside my head at night when I try to sleep, I am like Malcolm McDowell strapped to the chair in A Clockwork Orange, my eyes forced open, loops of video and snatches of Beethoven’s Ninth or whatever echoing over and over and over and over. Every thought I’ve ever had has churned in my mind a billion times, repeating into meaninglessness. I’ve seen madness in those nights alone.
I think that’s why the idea of meditation has never attracted me. In fact, I have a near-pathological aversion to silence and boredom. The way I figure it, I have already spent enough of my life in forced introspection: I want no more of it than I have to endure. So I fill every second of my day with mental activity: listening to podcasts, conversation, reading, work, television, going out, Twitter. It’s that my brain must always be occupied, because silence is the preserve of the sleepless night. Silence is where the madness waits. Silence is death of the mind.