DRMacIver's Notebook

Being a brain at night

Being a brain at night

Look, I think we can just take it as read that the slightly traumatised writing will continue for a while. It's useful for me to write, and it seems to be useful for other people to read, so I'm going to do it.

Anyway, I've been having panic attacks at night recently. Not every night, but maybe about once a week, and the edge is there on other nights.

This sounds more dramatic than it is. They're not full blown panic attacks. Not really. It's very easy to stop them, all I have to do is open my eyes and distract myself. It's not an irrecoverable panic attack, it's just that I close my eyes, try to sleep, and am filled with a formless dread as if I'm drowning.

I think the most likely cause, as well as generally having been in a terrible mood due to general depression and the whole global pandemic thing, is that I'm getting to experience something that I have rarely experienced in my adult life: It's bedtime and I'm not caffeine withdrawn.

I quit coffee about a month ago. As the joke goes: Quitting is easy, I've done it loads of times. This time I think it might stick. I've had a few coffees since quitting, all rather small, and frankly it's been awful.

Among other reasons it's been awful because it seems by far the easiest way to trigger this problem. I don't need coffee to get a panic attack at night, but I get them 100% of the time I've had coffee in the last few weeks. As far as commitment devices go to break a habit it's a bit extreme, but it's hopefully effective.

(If this seems at odds with the claim that the problem is about not being caffeine withdrawn, the reason is that my caffeine tolerance is now mostly reset so although there's still less caffeine in my system by night, there are no withdrawal symptoms because I don't have the dependency, and what caffeine is still there is much more effective)

I think when people hear you can't sleep because of anxiety they imagine that it's because of racing thoughts. Lying there awake thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, the things you did wrong, reminders of all your obligations.

This is not like that. It's almost the opposite. It's an absence of thought, coupled with a feeling that something is terribly wrong.

Have you ever read Flowers for Algernon?

I'm planning to reread it soon, to see if I can exorcise some demons, but every time I remember the book exists I flinch. I don't know if it's meant to be a horror story but, for me, it is.

I am, like most smart people, probably over identified with my intelligence. I'm sure there are all sorts of reasons why I shouldn't be, and I do try to braoden out, but honestly I have no idea how to be me without my intelligence. It is pretty close to being a core feature of who I am - it's not all I do is think, but my thoughts are so central to what I do that a dramatic loss of intelligence would fundamentally change who I am. Flowers for Algernon's account of intelligence slipping away was extremely hard for me to handle.

(I am, naturally, similarly viscerally afraid of Alzheimers. Alzheimers is much scarier than dying to me, and I very much understand Terry Pratchett's support for assisted suicide)

What makes this particularly tricky to deal with is how much I experience my brain as a collection of black boxes. I've described the process of writing before as just reaching for the place where words come from and then letting it do its thing. What happens when the place where words come from goes away?

Anyway this is what seems to be happening to me at night right now. I think this is likely to be perfectly normal tiredness and not something to worry about - it's normal to have trouble thinking when tired - but in the moment it sure doesn't feel like nothing to worry about.

Part of the context for this is that when trying to fall asleep I often tell myself stories. Not particularly good ones, the goal isn't to craft a masterwork, it's just to construct some narrative to hang my thoughts on - often more worldbuilding than pure story. The current one is about a magical research team working on trying to improve a kingdom's crop yields, if you're curious.

On nights when the panic occurs, this very much doesn't work, and is likely to be a trigger. The problem is that I reach for the place where words come from and they're... not quite absent, but sluggish, and blocked.

It's like a sudden feeling of claustrophobia, when you're trapped and can't move properly - someone's lying on top of you, you're tangled in the duvet, some situation where you know intellectually that everything is fine and you're safe but oh god you have to move now and if you can't you very rapidly get frantic. That, but the things I can't move are my thoughts.

This probably shouldn't be scary. I suspect this is just what sleep is - the gradual disintegration of your mind as it shuts down for the night - and maybe all that's happening is that I'm more acutely aware of it now. But regardless of whether I should be afraid of it, the fear response is fairly primal. I've always considered "Do you die each night and a new person takes your place in the morning?" to be an annoying piece of philosophical pedantry with no real content, but apparently some part of me very much disagrees.

The first night this happened I stayed awake until 9AM until some combination of exhaustion and coincidence allowed me to figure out my first workaround, which is to just watch Slay the Spire videos on YouTube as I fall asleep. It gives me something to focus on that isn't the contents of my own mind. It works as a backstop, although it doesn't result in good sleep and it takes a while - last night I had to put on a second one because the first finished and I still wasn't asleep. On the plus side at least that was two hours not spent panicking.

Some degree of meditation practice works reasonably well for the less bad nights - I've succeeded a few times at falling asleep counting breaths. When it works it works very well, but I think I need to be quite tired for it to work.

I'm also going to be trying some sleeping pills (just drowsy antihistamines to start) to see if I can just clobber the problem by being sleepy enough - this is how my old solution of running out of caffeine at night and thus being super sleepy worked after all.

So, taken as a practical problem, I'm getting on top of the sleep thing. It's annoying but manageable.

But it's also just so weird. There's clearly something going on here that I don't understand, and that I struggle to understand because in the moment that it's happening, most of the tools I use to understand things are offline.