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Paradoxical Insomnia

For all the time I’ve been struggling with insomnia, I had never heard of “paradoxical insomnia” until Michael Covington recently called it to my attention.

Sleep is a weird business from top to bottom. I’ve encountered a lot of that weirdness, especially since 2001, when my company began to implode. I’ve never been a strong sleeper, but after that I began having nights when I might sleep for no more than an hour…

…or so it seemed at the time.

One of the weirdnesses of the post-Coriolis era is that, for as little as I thought I slept, I seemed to do reasonably well during the day. I certainly wasn’t at my best, but for the most part I wasn’t falling asleep in my chair. I wonder now if I experienced paradoxical insomnia, which is an unusual sleep disorder in which patients feel like they have slept little (or not at all) when in fact they slept adequately, if not normally. In paradoxical insomnia, a patient perceives time spent awake incorrectly. He or she might feel like it takes an hour or more to fall asleep when in fact it took only a few minutes. Early-morning awakenings during which hours seem to pass may again span only a few minutes. The condition is poorly understood. Researchers now think that patients are dreaming that they’re awake. This may seem bizarre to people who sleep normally, but let me tell you, I understand completely.

Here’s why: In my case, at least, the border between wakefulness and dreaming is rubbery. I’ve had some success with a technique I read in one book or another, which involves imagining some quiet activity that reflects daily life. Counting sheep may work for people who live and work with sheep. I’ve seen live sheep half a dozen times in my life, and you can have ’em. What works for me is imagining things like taking walks, sorting books on bookshelves, and having boring conversations with unexceptional people. Although I have “interesting” dreams about one shot in ten (along with the very occasional lulu) the vast majority of my dreams are very much like that: walking alone or sometimes with a nameless companion, or doing domestic things of little consequence, like taking towels out of the washing machine and putting them in the dryer.

I know that the technique works because a time or two I recall sliding from guided meditation into a dream without any change of scenery. I know that it was a dream because it stopped following the script. Here’s the best example: Jeff and a nameless and poorly imagined female companion are walking down a country road on a generic summer evening, talking about dumb stuff. No mosquitoes.

JEFF: Hey, there’s a sycamore tree! I like sycamore trees.


JEFF: My grandfather planted one in the back yard when I was a kid. It had the biggest damned leaves.

COMPANION: I remember those.

JEFF: And seed balls. We used to throw them at each other.

COMPANION: That must have been fun.

JEFF: It was. We used to be able to burn the leaves in the street.

COMPANION (Turning): Jeff, what do you want most from God?

JEFF: Unconditional love.

Bzzzzt! In my directed meditations my imaginary companions do not ask me questions. So when my imaginary companions begin taking control, I know (in hindsight) that I’m dreaming.

In the grim days after Coriolis went under, I had plenty of experience lying awake much of the night and staring at the wall. At some point it became part of ordinary life, and thus completely unremarkable dream-fodder. I also seem to slide from conscious thought into dream states very smoothly. This is why dreaming about lying awake is no stretch at all, and may have continued long after I had gotten over the loss. It may continue to this day. Short of monitoring my own brain waves, I’m not sure how to tell.

But boy, it’s probably better than talking beavers.


  1. I’ve had that. It’s also interesting to hear what you use for “must sleep now” exercises. I have my own personal Star Trek franchise that I write in my head on my way to sleep. I wind up rewriting the same scenes over and over again that way, but who cares? It seems to work. 🙂


    1. I’ve tried variations on the theme described above, in which I run into Gandalf on the road, or discuss radio circuits with Edwin Armstrong. The problem is when it stops being boring and starts being fun, which keeps me awake and derails the whole process. Dumb stuff seems to work better. It isn’t always the same dumb stuff…but it’s always dumb.

  2. Jonathan O'Neal says:

    I can attest to both the existence and effects of this condition, from both ends of the spectrum. I’ve been an insomniac since I was a teenager, but have occasionally been informed by a restless bedmate that despite my insistence to the contrary, I was apparently asleep for most or all of the night – or that even though I thought I laid awake for hours before falling asleep, I was snoring within a few minutes of bedtime. I became acutely aware of the dream-state aspect during a particularly stressful stretch in my career, in which I found myself in an unpleasant rut (wake up at 05:30, eat, shower, shave, dress, drive 33 miles to work, work 12-16 hours or until near collapse, drive 33 miles home, eat, sleep; rinse, repeat) while working toward a near-impossible goal against a ridiculous deadline. I would regularly wake up, eat, shower, shave, dress, and drive to work – only to then actually wake up and discover that I had to immediately repeat these tedious tasks that I had just dreamed. This “doubling” of my morning tasks amplified the depressing nature of my routine, making my days seem that much longer and unproductive. Even now, many years later, I’ll have similar dreams if I’m anticipating a stressful situation with some dread; I’ve even had it occur more than once in a single night (which could serve as an exemplary definition of “disheartening”). To say that this is disruptive to the psyche would be an understatement…

  3. Rich Dailey says:

    Perhaps related to this condition, I experience periods where I’ll wake up, look at the clock, toss and turn while thinking, recollecting, reminiscing about stories for a book I’m writing. This goes on for what seems to be an hour or more, but when I look again at the clock, only 10 minutes or so has passed. It seems like some sort of accelerated thought process is occurring. Wacky stuff.

  4. Thom Denholm says:

    Like you, I have experienced this under stress. Have you tried Left Nostril Breathing? Great success with this, though tonight is the first I’ve googled it to find it’s a Yogic technique. Brain activity and performance differ depending on which nostril is dominant – now that’s interesting stuff too.

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