What The Dickens

Insomnia is the curse of depressives everywhere.  Whether it is difficulty falling asleep in the first place, or waking up in the small hours, and finding it impossible to nod off again Sleep Hygiene, as the professionals like to call it, is a key factor in maintaining good health, physical and mental.

Charles Dickens suffered a bout of sleeplessness, and cured himself of it by walking around London, only returning home at sunrise exhausted, and ready to sleep.  He wrote an essay about his experiences on the streets of London at night in which he refers to depression in the most telling way.

‘The first strong external revelation of the Dry Rot in men, is a tendency to lurk and lounge; to be at street corners without intelligble reason; to be going anywhere when met; to be about many places rather than at any; to do nothing tangible, but to have an intention of performing a variety of intangible duties tomorrow or the day after.’

The image of Dry Rot Dickens used resonates with me because this is exactly how I felt in 2001/2.  I can clearly recall sitting at the top of the stairs in our house in Poet’s Corner in Hove doing up my laces.  I lifted my head and as I did so I felt my brain cave in; as though the wooden beams and supports, the walls in my head, had come crashing down; I was rotten to the core.

These days, I know that it is the chemicals sloshing about in my system that affect my ability to sleep, to concentrate, and even to eat.  My concentration levels have been shredded by a daily dose of 60mgs of Citalopram.  The medical wisdom for insomnia is straightforward – get up and do something, don’t lie there counting sheep.  In my case, due to my poor concentration, I generally manage a modest amount of housework, and then read a few lines of poetry, or amble along the back lanes of the World Wide Information Super Highway for a while.

How does this chronic lack of sleep, and poor concentration, affect my cycling?  Strangely, it doesn’t seem to.  Somehow, the combination of movement, speed, and the need to be alert on the road, keeps my brain prickling with concentration across the Sussex landscape.

Since my mind is playing cat and mouse with itself, in the manner of bug-eyed track cyclists, I am going to free-wheel off for now with some lines that most of us, whether poets of the pedals or not, willl recognise all too well.

Even though the house is deeply silent

and the room, with no moon,
is perfectly dark,
even though the body is a sack of exhaustion
inert on the bed,

someone inside me will not
get off his tricycle,
will not stop tracing the same tight circle
on the same green threadbare carpet.

It makes no difference whether I lie
staring at the ceiling
or pace the living-room floor,
he keeps on making his furious rounds,
little pedaler in his frenzy,
my own worst enemy, my oldest friend.

What is there to do but close my eyes
and watch him circling the night,
schoolboy in an ill-fitting jacket,
leaning forward, his cap on backwards,
wringing the handlebars,
maintaining a certain speed?

Does anything exist at this hour
in this nest of dark rooms
but the spectacle of him
and the hope that before dawn
I can lift out some curious detail
that will carry me off to sleep—
the watch that encircles his pale wrist,
the expandable band,
the tiny hands that keep pointing this way and that.

By  Billy Collins (1941-)

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