Waking Up Into the Night: Insomnia and Creativity

I borrowed the phrase “waking up into the night” from a James Hillman quote that I remembered from a column that I read some time ago. I liked it then, and I like it even more now as I was thinking about this quote recently during a mostly sleepless night. Hillman was using the phrase “waking up into the night” as a metaphor for making meaning out of his own personal experience of needing to wake up more frequently during the night to urinate as a result of age and the very common male problem of prostate enlargement. It was his way of embracing and making meaning of an otherwise troublesome symptom. He said:

You experience this thing growing old of having your prostate enlarge and you have to get up in the middle of the night several times to go to the bathroom. Well, you can call this hopeless or you can say you “hope” it will get better. What I prefer to say is that in old age, I “wake up to the night.” Do you see? This is a metaphorical reading of it. I think it is optimistic. It takes care of the problem and gives my experience meaning. (Bostock, 1998)

In my own case, my night of restlessness was related to the suffering of my dog. It was the first night that I had her home after a complex knee surgery. Two months prior to the surgery, my otherwise healthy dog injured her knee to the extent that she had become a “three legged dog.” I decided, after the veterinarian confirmed a diagnosis, that knee surgery was the best possible chance to allow for the continuation of a good quality of life for her which would hopefully include running and playing again.

Anyone who has experienced surgery knows that the first few nights afterwards can be the hardest. In my dog’s case, this definitely held true. She needed to wear a large, plastic “cone” to prevent licking and infection. She also needed to be crated, which was something that she was not used to. The troublesome cone, the crating, and the pain and trauma from the surgery seemed to be a bit much for her. This leads me back to the sleeplessness. She would not sleep. Therefore, I did not sleep. She sat hunched over, with the cone on her head, and cried most of night. Finally, late into the night, I decided that perhaps it would help if I got down on the floor with her and that is just what I did. I made my bed on the floor just in front of the crate so that she could see me through the tunnel of the large cone-shaped collar. Fortunately this tactic helped. She soon quit panting and crying and both of us were able to get some sleep.

But before the sleep happened, I lay awake thinking and worrying about my dog. This is when the James Hillman quote came into my mind. This is how the psyche works. My unique situation with my dog made me think about the topic of sleeplessness and those symptoms or life events that make us “wake up into the night.” Sometimes we need some insomnia as a catalyst in helping us to enter into the realm of the mystery and the dark of the night. Sometimes this is when our most creative ideas come, or we may even behave in ways that we would not otherwise.

Before I go any further, let me qualify some things that I am not saying. I am not saying that insomnia is something that is never serious or never requires more focused treatment. Sometimes, persistent and significant sleep troubles need to be dealt with medically. A good clinician knows this and knows when to refer. Having clarified that, the much more common problems of troublesome and more general sleep difficulties are commonplace in the psychotherapist’s office. I regularly have clients discuss sleep troubles. And I regularly discuss sleep hygiene with these clients. But there is often more below the surface related to the “sleep trouble.”

Sleep issues can be worked with in a manner similar to how James Hillman made meaning of his own “waking up into the night” experiences. The important idea here is that giving his experience meaning helped him to tolerate and endure the troublesome symptoms. And my guess is that for Hillman, making meaning in the way that he did for his getting up at night was even more significant for him than just helping him to endure a symptom. From a Jungian point of view, how we make meaning both metaphorically and symbolically of life experiences can make all of the difference in the world. It can be the difference between a life of meaning and one of meaninglessness. Or it can be the difference in learning to tolerate certain types of suffering or not. With many sleep problems, we can have an avenue through them with helping us to enter into the mysteries of the night.

The dark of night balances out the light of day. It is the opposite of light. There needs to be this balance. There are things we can find in the dark that remain hidden in the light. Sleeplessness may be just what we need, for example, to go for that walk at night down the wooded trail by the creek to hear the frogs, or the owl that we need to hear which helps to stimulate our creativity. Such a walk can symbolically help us to connect to our own darkness which is a place that can be full of creative ideas. It is fairly common for me to hear from clients and others who are writers that they get some of their best work done late at night and after everyone else in the house has gone to sleep. That night of little sleep may be just what your psyche wanted to nudge you into going out to the late night coffee shop to write and work on your novel.

Sometimes, “waking up into the night” has the counter-intuitive result of actually helping us to sleep better in the long run. For example, many times at night when I remember a dream that awakens me, it is only after waking up and writing it down that I am able to easily fall back to sleep again. In another example, going for the walk or drive in the middle of the night may help to give insight into that problem that you have been ruminating about for days. Ultimately, partly related to going with your sleeplessness, the tension that you had been experiencing diminishes, resulting in better sleep on the following nights. In my own case of sleeplessness with my dog and choosing to make my bed on the floor next to her, I was able to enter into a space that helped me to remember a James Hillman quote that stuck out for me and indirectly lead me to writing this new blog post.

All of us will have bouts of insomnia at some point in our life. Your intermittent sleeplessness can be something that gives you cause to examine this more deeply before quickly trying to eradicate what is commonly seen as only a troublesome symptom. Think critically about what your sleeplessness may be trying to say or evoke in you. Consider “waking up into the night” as a gate into a deeper experience with your soul, and perhaps the waking up is purposive for you at this point in your life. Be open to entering the gate into the mystery that might be waiting in the dark.

Bostock, C. (1998, April 11). James Hillman: On Richard Noll, therapy and the image. “Paradigms” column of Creative Loafing.

© 2012, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Waking Up Into the Night: Insomnia and Creativity

  1. Thank you for this, Jeff (I came via Twitter). Neat blog. Yes – symptom as symbol. I used my own distress and anxiety in a similar situation with my dog, who suddenly developed jaw paralysis from an inflamed nerve; on top of serious family illness it knocked the sleep out of me. I used my distress as a prompt for going deeper, and followed threads back through a kind of mindfulness journal. Was v helpful; and as I’m a writer in fact some poetry came out of those dark watches.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Roselle,
      It does sound like we have had some similar experiences with our dogs and writing. It has been hard seeing her in this situation, but thankfully she is starting to improve. Thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate them.

      Jeff

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