by Abigail Allan | May 16, 2022
I would love to tell you of the softness of the night. I want to write of the way the sky shifts through a thousand velvet, silken blues, the pinprick stars drifting through its infinite expanse like fish through the ocean, slowly spinning around me. I want to write about how the cast of moonlight brushed against the ground illuminates pawprints pressed into my garden path, revealed for the first time as if I had wandered about the days with my eyes pressed firmly closed. And above all, I want to tell you of the sudden chill just before the dawn, when the air is sharp and clear, luminous in my lungs. I want to tell you that I feel alive.
But for days I have sat, blank page before me and a growing sense of despair, bile rising in my throat to compete with the fog that sits dull and heavy in my head. My eyes are full of grit, of glass ground beneath bare heels. Everything is static-scratches and the harder I try to think, the more words slip away, like sand poured between my fingers.
I wish I could resent how beautiful the night can be. It would be easier, then, to hate it for taking sleep away from me, for forcing me to spend too many hours alone in the silence with nothing but my own thoughts. When the trains thrum in the distance, I’m suddenly transported to my grandparents’ house, stood before their smeared plastic window, rattling every half hour to the tempo of the train timetable. I’m taken to a time I know I can never have back, grief smashing against me over and over and over again like waves against a sea wall, salt on my tongue. I am faced with the night’s poisonous ugliness, its soft stitches stretching as the sky grows larger and larger until it is too heavy above me, too close, pressing down upon my screaming skin as I lie still in my bed, until –
The click of a lighter outside my window, the slide of the bathroom latch, the sudden low hum of the boiler jerks me awake, iron-rust in my throat, adrenaline-heart. My blood beats about my eardrums and the inside of my skull is hot and red and raw. I want to go back to how things were before, when I could see the subtle shifting of the night’s translucent veils. I want to fall helplessly and effortlessly into nothingness, yet all I can do is press against the opaque barrier between waking and sleeping, stretched thin but unbreakable like the skein of my intestines. I cannot resent how beautiful the night can be, because now I know its absence, I yearn for it. What if the ugliness consumes the beauty, like lava churning the mountainside, grass and greenery replaced by smoke and fire and ash?
In the middle of the night, I think – I think – perhaps I am being punished for something. It’s not fair. The injustice chokes me, catches in my throat, stings my eyes. I can tell you the exact night the insomnia started, and I can tell you exactly what made it stay: in my first year of university, I worked too hard, too much, every inch of brain space occupied by texts and art, the ephemera of Greek and Roman lives. When I do sleep, I dream of disembodied Greek words floating across my vision, echoing sounds of alphas and omegas round in my mouth. Statuettes of tiny gods and horses and ships haunt me, follow me, roughly carved wood rubbed smooth by centuries, the grains large and fat beneath my fingers. I think I am being punished at night when I have already sacrificed the day. It isn’t fair.
Rosy-fingered Dawn comes too fast and enrages me. I think I hate her. She no longer brushes the sky with soft, blissful light, but bleaches it, sucking it dry of depth and comfort: another day of hollow eyes, razors in my throat, ice picks driven through my temples. Everything will be too loud, too bright. Sunlight will sting my skin like jellyfish tendrils wrapped around my arms.
I become obsessed with sleep-aiding lavender, devour anything containing it – shampoo, body wash, tea, essential oils, sleep sprays, moisturiser. I rub aromatherapy oils into my temples and wrists until I feel my tendons flex beneath my fingers and I burn candles every twilight, always extinguishing them by smothering so the smoke doesn’t interfere with the lavender. I bake lavender into cake. I want lavender sprigs tattooed onto my ribcage; lavender captured in my skin, ink sunk in and lavender mixed with blood. I want the edges of my vision to turn purple if it helps. In the late summer, I snip sprigs of it from my garden and delicately lay them in folds of paper, carry them around in my pockets and bags. I embroider images of lavender onto my pillowcases, a talisman safe next to my head. Some nights, sobs wrack my body into exhaustion until I grind slowly into gritty sleep. When I roll over, my tears smudge the lavender on my pillow, mixing like damp ash with the day’s mascara I never fully removed, optimistically eager to sink into the bed as soon as possible. I want to choke on lavender, stuff it into my throat, scream and beat my fists against the walls, fling my head against them, too. Lines of weariness are etched into my bones like the marks rivers carve into the sides of mountains, but I want to make my punishment corporeal, visible. I want to complete the hurt.
The lavender fails me and I go to a doctor, who gives me tablets I’m scared to take in case I’m admitted eternal sleep. When the hours stretch thin and the night feels at its most fragile, I am surrounded by the endless pantheon of Greek gods, a spirit for every object, feeling, and phenomenon. They surround me in infinite circles, iron sentinels with long, cold, expressionless faces. I think of Death and his twin brother Sleep, two faces of the same thing. Would I know if I never woke up? The insomnia has already tricked me before: whenever I’m ill with a sickness that would make other people unable to stay awake, suddenly I’m able to sleep properly. Exhaustion balances me, tipping the scales away from insomnia’s favour. Off the tablets once more, the doctors tell me about ‘sleep hygiene’ but their information is accompanied by a growing frisson of dread. My bedtime becomes a routine starting hours before nightfall, numbers filed together into mathematical lists charted in my head: no caffeine less than six hours before bed, no exercise less than three hours before, no water less than one hour before. Another ritual to keep me company. My days become fractured into neat, tidy hours counting down to nightfall, when I lie as still as I possibly can, willing each limb to fall asleep independently of my brain. In the mornings I take Prozac washed down with scalding, bitter coffee before I stumble through the distorted days.
The night’s ugliness becomes total, eclipsing any semblance of good. It becomes a monster, vast and total, inseparably entwined with the insomnia. I try to trick the insomnia, plotting the ways I can deceive it. I set alarms for earlier and earlier in the morning, trying to force myself to be so tired by the time night comes that I can do nothing but sleep. I run for miles in the day, crashing through muddy fields until my knees burn and I taste the familiar rust in my throat, wet hair plastered against my face and rain in my eyes. I create physical exhaustion to match the mental exhaustion; to feel a dull ache in my joints like the dull ache in my skull. The insomnia’s revenge is apt: when I do sleep, the shadows in my bedroom merge into a boundless, pulsating mass; the night becomes something solid, a half-formed man who runs closer and closer to my bed each night as I lay unable to move, eyes open wide but shoulders forced down and heavy against my pillow. This is something new, at least, something to alleviate the boredom. I develop another ritual: in every place I live, I attach a bolt to my door and make sure to check it two, three times before bed, anything to keep the half-man away. Sometimes I get into bed and then a sharp sliver of panic, a sudden stomach-stab that makes my heart ache, compels me back up to check the bolt one last time. Finally, one of my obsessions works: the closest the man ever came to me was wrenching off my duvet as I tried to jerk awake, and then – no more. He never came again.
It is malicious, this nebulous thing. I can feel it crouching in my stomach, seething with ill intent, pulsating, alive. I am certain it hurts me deliberately, wants me to always be aware of its presence – it is not enough for it to be my constant companion through the long nights, it must show itself during the day, too. I see it when I look in the mirror: my skin feels like cold, raw chicken, with a soft green patina creeping across my neck and jaw line, onto my face and towards my dull eyes. The insomnia stays, but perhaps I deserve it.
So I cannot yet tell you about the way the full moon sometimes makes the pillowing clouds around it glow intensely with lavender, or how the stars stretch infinitely away from my fingertips, about how I feel tiny and insignificant but in the most glorious way, hope blooming warm in my chest, but one day, I hope to be able to. And one day, I hope to love the dawn again. ∎
Words by Abigail Allan. Art by Rachel Jung.