By Shamus Posted Wednesday Apr 29, 2009

Filed under: Personal 67 comments

Insomnia is an interesting malady. It’s pretty common. (64 million Americans suffer from it on a “regular basis” each year. Which works out to, what? 1 in 5? Something like that.) I find it interesting because I get it pretty frequently, and it doesn’t seem to have any of the usual triggers associated with it. Yesterday was almost exactly the same as the day before. I woke at the same time, worked the same hours, knocked off work, spent time with the family, wrote on my blog, and played Left 4 Dead. It was a pretty good day, so I didn’t mind having it twice in a row. I even ate the same foods. No change in stress levels. (The only difference is that I was out for a routine dentist appointment yesterday, and I can’t imagine how that could have any effect.) But last night I never went to bed. The sun is up. Birds chirping. Still not sleepy.

I’d like to think this means I have some special, exotic case of insomnia. But the truth is that we probably just don’t understand it very well. I’ll bet a lot of insomnia like mine gets blamed on “stress”. It’s pretty hard to get through a day on this planet without a little stress at some point. You had stress? Oh, that must be what caused your insomnia.

Right now I feel like an old laptop that’s been left on and left unplugged. I’m idle now, but at some point the battery is going to fail and I’ll crash.

I didn’t finish a post for today, but I made this for some reason:

If cornered, I call them Picasso-cons, just to keep them guessing.

Brains are weird.


From The Archives:

67 thoughts on “Insomnia

  1. RichVR says:

    Heh. I got a chuckle out of the cartoon. Sometimes I do some good writing at odd hours. Alcohol often fuels this. The brain is, indeed, a weird and wonderful thing.

  2. Tainted says:

    I’d be similarly amused, but I haven’t the foggiest idea of what an Ampersand is.

    *Wonders if this nagging tidbit of the unknown will set off his insomnia*

  3. Spluckor says:

    Well, I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one up all night last night wondering why I couldn’t sleep.

  4. Benjamin O says:

    Tainted, this is an ampersand: &.

    It lives above the 7 on your keyboard. $&@\

    That’s the emoticon referenced above. Which is very bizarre looking.

  5. Phase says:

    Man, this comic made me laugh. First thing today (Not counting a couple of Monty Python sketches, but those don’t count.)

  6. froogger says:

    The brain is connected to the skullbone, the skullbone is connected to the neckbone, the neckbone is connected to the backbone (etc)

    I’m betting strenuous physical activity didn’t happen on either day. Working the muscles hard pretty much shuts up the grey matter for bedtime, in my case anyway. My old man always told me to leave the keyboard for chopping wood, cleaning the garage or do anything physical. Now that I’m pushing 40 I know what he meant. The thoughtprocesses are very much connected to the body, in fact, I don’t believe we’ll ever have true AI without a body to experience through.

    I would have to be very worried for exercise to fail me and something keep me awake. Still, just one sleepless night is no problem. Several in succession would warrant action.

    Loved the comic :)

  7. mavis says:

    Love the cartoon – felt very XKCD in style and tone – which is frankly a very high compliment.

  8. Veloxyll says:


    that is all

  9. sporksmith says:

    What, no alt text?

  10. Neil Polenske says:

    Don’t worry Shamus. At one point in our lives, we all wish we could be the creator of xkcd.

  11. gorbashin says:

    Hmm…play video games, peruse the interweb, doodle, write, or lay in a semi-coma for 6-8 hours.
    Going to bed when you’re tired is a bad idea when you don’t have a physically draining job. A set bedtime, to establish pattern, is your best shot.
    This is coming from someone who loathes what a waste of time sleep is.

  12. Primogenitor says:

    Boo, no tooltip!

  13. beno says:

    yes – XKCD are totally going to sue you for copyright breach – I mean come on those are totally the same stick figures you’re using… ;-)

  14. Ambience 327 says:

    Either he added an alt text since sporksmith and Primogenitor commented, or it was there all along and they couldn’t see it for some reason. In short, there is an alt text now.

  15. RichVR says:

    Don’t forget the octothorpe: # . Yes that is called an octothorpe. Don’t ask me why I know this. It no doubt caused the loss of a more important fact, like… um… nevermind.

    BTW, at 11:00 EST the COH/V 5th Anniversary Event starts. If you have a lapsed account they are allowing you to log in and check things out. See y’all there.

  16. DaveMc says:

    What does the alt text (tooltip) say? I still can’t see it, and therefore assume that you’re messing with me by saying it’s there, trying to get me to futilely hover my mouse over the image in an effort to get a little yellow box to pop up.

  17. Luke Maciak says:

    LOL! I was convinced you were reposting an old XKCD comic there. Good one!

    Also, Firefox does not show the alt text on mouseover – only IE does. So if you want us Firefox users to see it, you need to also put it in the title attribute.

    Yeah, it’s redundant – but it is just one of the milder quirks out there. But you know that.

  18. RKG says:

    Actually that is one of my favourite hobbys on IM. It can really mess with my more ‘netslang wise friends. BTW – XKCD called, they want their comic back ;P

    Sorry to hear about the insomnia – i’m not sure the escapist will like the extra spicy Shamus although i did :D

    And yes i realize that you all previously connected the comic to XKCD, but thats what i thought after reading it so thats what you get.

    Its very funny tho.

  19. RichVR says:

    In Firefox right click and chose properties.

    For the lazy: “If cornered, I call them Picasso-cons, just to keep them guessing.”

  20. DaveMc says:

    @RichVR: On behalf of the lazy, I thank you. (The rest of them probably won’t bother to thank you because … well, you know.)

  21. Danath says:

    Alot of cases of Insomia have been proved to be simply people who dont turn off the lights and lay in bed. Sometimes thats all it takes to fall asleep, I know I have stayed up all night simply by being on the computer playing a game, if I’m into the game then staying up all night is easy. Books less so, because this tends to be a less action packed form, although I can usually stay awake for movies as well.

    Thats just my two cents anyways. Although from reading the other comments maybe I missed something entirely in this post.

  22. Mari says:

    Naw, I’m lazy and I’ll thank RichVR, too. Thanks, RichVR for saving precious seconds I can now waste with impunity typing this emoticon for you :-)

    Shamus, the best “cure” for insomnia is good sleep hygiene so you don’t get it in the first place. Establish a bedtime and go to bed the same time every night. Have a routine leading up to bed even if it’s just brushing your teeth and washing your face before you hit the sack. That routine can cue your body that it’s getting time to shut down for the night and over time your body will respond accordingly. Theoretically you should also only use your bed for sleeping but I’ve found that impractical for married couples because you can only use the kitchen table for so long without somebody’s back going out. Keep your bedroom at a reasonable temperature with minimal lighting levels when you’re trying to sleep. If you have electronics in the bedroom a piece of electrical tape over LEDs can do wonders. Also a white-noise machine can help you tune out the world. I favor a heartbeat sound because when the insomnia kicks in I count the heartbeats until I drift off.

    Basically, it’s all about convincing your body that it’s time to sleep whether the mind or body is tired or not. Frooger is also onto something about exercise but not in the last hour before bed since exercise can raise endorphin levels and make you more wakeful immediately afterwards. So instead exercise an hour and a half or so before bedtime then do your other bedtime things to slow down your body and soothe it into sleep. And finally, never underestimate the soothing sensation of your wife’s fingernails scraping lightly across your back. If all else fails, beg her for a gentle back scratch and I bet you’ll doze right off. Leaving her lying in bed silently fuming because now she’s stuck awake with insomnia. ;-)

  23. Gandaug says:

    I’ve never had insomnia though I have friends who have. I’m asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow. Hard physical and mental work along with school at night has taught me to sleep anywhere at any time. While I can’t sympathize through shared exprience having seen friends suffer through many nights with no sleep I can at least empathize.

    You’ve already gotten good advice so I won’t add more.

  24. Steven Burnap says:

    The sleep hygiene thing never works for me. I go through weeks where I hit the pillow at ten, fall asleep instantly and sleep straight through the alarm at 6:30 (Sleeping through my wife’s alarm as she repeatedly hits snooze.)

    Other times its like this week, where every night I’ve been up until all hours and still waking up at 5, unwillingly.

    Melatonin sometimes helps, but not always. It’s a double-edged sword, because you can get so much done at all hours.

  25. Groboclown says:

    I love the octothorpe, too. Although, it got me into some arguments when I kept talking about that new programming language, C-Octothorpe, and I couldn’t figure out why the source files had the file extension “.cs”.

    For myself, I’m able to get to sleep by relaxing all my muscles and lying still. Puts me to sleep in a few minutes.

  26. Michael Mchenry says:

    For some reason I couldn’t read the alt text, either. Odd. I’m using Chrome, so I inspected the element, drilled down to it, and the alt property was there (“If cornered, I call them Picasso-cons, just to keep them guessing.”) So, I don’t know…

    It’s possible that whatever forces possess Randall Munroe mis-dialed last night and possessed you instead. Wait, is that possible?

    I do some of my best work when I’m up all night, but I think those days are more accurately labeled mania and not insomnia. When one of those nights seizes me, I rarely try staying in bed any more.

  27. DaveMc says:

    I know it’s all vastly well-intentioned, but as a fellow sufferer from occasional insomnia, I can tell you that there can be something a tad frustrating about helpful advice on how *not* to get it. When you’re lying in bed (yes, with the lights out), having exercised during the day and not having done anything different from your usual routine, and you simply CANNOT FALL ASLEEP, you tend suffer from dark thoughts about people who have brightly assured you that if you just do X, this won’t happen. You think, for example, about calling them up at 3:30am and sharing your wakefulness with them. :) Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the advice is all good stuff — the frustration arises because often it doesn’t feel like one has done anything “wrong” in terms of the game plan, and it’s still happening.

    Having said all that: Shamus, have you tried drinking some warm milk? That’ll fix you right up. *ducks*

    [Just to make it absolutely clear: I’m not upset at anyone for offering advice! I’m just offering a view on how it may go over in the insomniac’s fevered brain.]

  28. Ell Jay says:


  29. chiasaur11 says:

    He already is.

    Admittedly, Munroe is watching out for Raptors, but…

  30. radio_babylon says:

    i used to have the same problem… but ever since i started working out for 40 minutes to an hour every day a few years ago, i havent had insomnia even once. it isnt because i feel worn out or anything, i dont, but somehow it has totally regulated my sleep cycle (in addition to making me feel a ton better)…

  31. R4byde says:

    Don't forget the octothorpe: # . Yes that is called an octothorpe. Don't ask me why I know this. It no doubt caused the loss of a more important fact, like… um… nevermind.

    Hey thanks, I always wondered what that things real name was, now I can drive people crazy when they call it a pound sign or hash mark! Muwhahaha!

    And a quick workout definitely helps me fall asleep. Not even to the point of being tired out, just a few minutes in the morning and I fall asleep right away, that night. Or that could just be a placebo but either way it works.:)

  32. Allen says:


    On my phone it looks like a guy with glasses, a big nose, and a toupee who doesn’t seem very sure of himself. I have dubbed him, “Milton”.

    Also, I have trouble sleeping a lot of nights. It takes me a long time to get to sleep once I lie down, and I’m fairly easily awoken, a lot of the time, as well.

    Lastly, let’s not forget about the, giggle, SEXTILE: *

  33. Cybron says:

    Not a true XKCD comic unless you give it alt-text, Shamus.

  34. Ambience 327 says:

    Read the comments above you Cybron. The alt-text is there -it just isn’t showing for everyone.

  35. Derek K. says:

    I think perhaps playing survival mode all night could have an influence. Your brain spends the next 6 hours going “gee, what if I moved the pile of explosives 5 feet over, then waited until tank #4 to run?”

    Also, there is *some* physical activity that can help people sleep right before bed. Or so I’ve heard….

  36. A fan says:

    Never forget that you’re not your brain.The brain is a tool…and many times it does things without our control or will.We can’t even control pieces of our being!!!What chance do we have?And we still go in outer space because “OMG some pieces of rock that fly around are sooooooo much interesting than the mostly unexplored human being!!!”.

  37. Stargazer says:

    @Luke: The ALT-text problem is not related to firefox. Or at least it shows fine in my firefox browser.

    1. Shamus says:

      The ALT text problem:

      I have a little plugin I wrote for WordPress that lets me specify images without filling my posts with HTML. But it only ever put the “alt text” into the ALT TAG. Wacky, I know! Firefox does not show the alt tag on mouseover. It shows the TITLE tag on mouseover, which I’d never used or even heard of until last year. IE does the opposite, ignoring the TITLE and showing ALT on mouseover. I updated the plugin to put the text into both tags, so now everyone should see the text.

  38. NotYetMeasured says:

    To add to the sleep tips: I’ve used a suggestion that I read from Cory Doctorow (I think). In his case it was part of “How to Get Up Early” and focused on establishing a set routine, but you might find it helpful. I end every day doing a few minutes of puzzles right before I turn off the light. They’re hard enough to make you pause a few times and really use your brain, but not so difficult that they will stump you or require elaborate systems to solve. For me it’s Kakuro or the better spatial/logic puzzles you’ll find in the Pencilwise section of a GAMES magazine. I think for him maybe it was some sort of word game. Anyway, you do that until you feel drowsy, then you turn out the light.

    Part of it may just be creating a routine that you associate with falling asleep (like a Toddler!), and part of it may be the effect of the actual activity (reduced visual stimulation compared to a computer screen or television) but it’s worked very well for me.

  39. vdgmprgrmr says:

    According to my Psychology class, a good tactic to get over insomnia for some people is to not try to clear your head completely, since that can lead to you becoming conscious of things you’re not normally conscious of (“Holy shit I’m blinking. I did it again. Okay, I need to move this back over to non-thinking mode. Dammit, I need to blink!”), which just keeps you awake. What a lot of psychologists tell insomniacs is to go through a basic day-dream quality process. So, just start trying to go through the stereotypical day at the office. Get coffee from the imaginary coffee machine and go down the aisle past that guy who has a funky-smelling cubicle and everything. Or maybe do the French press process. Eventually, the day-dream (which happens at night) will move over to sleep-dream status, and you wind up in a coma for 6-8 hours.

    I’ve tried it myself, and it worked relatively well, but it may not work for everyone. (Crazy-ass brains.)

    Also: nice comic.

  40. Zukhramm says:

    Is insomnia the same thing as regular old “not being able to fall asleep”, or is there some special medical definition?

    Anyway, the only way for me to fall asleep at those times I seem unable to is to stop trying. Get out of bed, do something else for a couple of minutes. It’s as if I can’t go from half-asleep to asleep and have to start over from completley awake again.

  41. Caliban says:

    Here’s a Left 4 Dead graphic story someone started. Thought it looked pretty cool, but I don’t think they plan on continuing it.

  42. Somebody Else says:

    Ah… sleep. The old nemesis. I have only one piece of advice, from my own experience: Don’t *try* to fall asleep. Just lay down and try not to try to sleep, because if you try to sleep you’re just gonna end up lying awake trying to sleep. Of course, this is a case of “don’t think of a bear” – if the thought of not trying to sleep enters your mind while you’re trying to fall asleep, you’re gonna stay awake trying to not try to sleep.

    English grammar – some things it just wasn’t made for.

  43. Brandon says:

    Clinically, I believe what you have is different from insomnia. Insomnia is a lack of ability to sleep, not simply not being sleepy. You have to be sleepy and try to sleep and it doesn’t happen. You get up the next day and feel like crap because you didn’t sleep and you needed to.

  44. Miral says:

    My #1 cause for insomnia is an ambient temperature that is too high. Especially if the humidity is high as well (but then it usually is, here).

    Also: the thing about ALT vs. TITLE makes sense when you look at the standards.

    Officially, ALT has always been “the text that gets displayed if the image cannot be rendered”, intended for text-only browsers or slow dialup connections where the user has disabled images. So it’s supposed to describe the content of the image for the people who can’t see it. At some point, IE suddenly decided to display it as a tooltip as well, probably just because they could.

    Then in HTML4 the TITLE attribute was added, specifically for the purpose of rendering tooltip text. As such it is expected to describe the function of the image (especially when that image is used as a button or link to perform some action).

    So everybody but IE display the TITLE as the tooltip, because that’s standards-compliant, and IE displays the ALT as the tooltip, because that’s what they used to do and they care more about backwards-compatibility than they do about standards.

    (The More You Know™!)

  45. Maddy says:

    I’ve had delayed onset sleep disorder for as long as I can remember. Tried various medications, light therapy, etc. with very poor results. I do much better, healthwise, when I can simply wake and sleep when I feel like it; however, there are obvious reasons why it’s just not convenient to sleep from 7am to 3pm every day, so I continue to fight the good fight.

    “Sleep hygiene” doesn’t do much for people who don’t have normal circadian rhythms, period. Turning out the lights and closing your eyes isn’t going to help either if you’re not sleepy; others will tell you not to stay in bed if you’re not tired, because the mounting anxiety will only making it harder to sleep.

    Seriously. Insomniacs and those who have circadian rhythm disorders have already tried going to bed and closing their eyes. It didn’t work. That’s how they know they have a problem!

  46. Julian says:

    Nice xkcd tribute there.
    I thought the $&@\ was hilarious.

  47. PhoenixUltima says:

    Firefox’s behavior is actually the correct one, as the TITLE tag is meant to be, well, the title of the image. The ALT tag is for showing alternate text in the event the image fails to load for some reason. In a perfect world people would use the two tags properly, which is why Firefox only shows the title tag on mouse-over. Of course, people still use ALT instead of TITLE just because that’s how IE does it and everyone had been using that for years, so there’s a plugin available for Firefox that shows ALT tags on mouseover (technically it just takes the ALT tag and puts it into a new TITLE tag, which of course it won’t do if there’s already a TITLE tag in play).

  48. Octal says:

    @21 “Alot of cases of Insomia have been proved to be simply people who dont turn off the lights and lay in bed.”

    And then there are people like me who can get tired, turn off the lights, lie in bed, and then spend the next four hours lying there wide awake.

    @27 Yes, thank you. -_-

  49. Octal says:

    ETA because I don’t see an edit button, though I’ve certainly seen people mention it:

    And by “can”, I mean it happens almost every single night. Not always to exactly the same extent, but I can pretty much guarantee being in bed for at least an hour or two, doing absolutely nothing, before I fall asleep.

  50. Maddy says:

    I’ve done that too, Octal. I struggle to stay awake through some pitiful TV show that’s on at 8 and decide to go to bed. Then I’m so excited by the prospect of getting some sleep that I’m no longer tired! “I’m going to SLEEP! Woohoo!! YESS!!!!

  51. Lanthanide says:

    :V:( – Man who is sad because no one wants to talk to him; little does he suspect there’s an alligator on his head scaring everyone away.

  52. Cuthalion says:

    I tried fixing a sleep time for myself for a while, but it didn’t give me anything but frustration. So now I just go to sleep when I feel like it (or intentionally by a certain time if I have to get up the next morning). I’m much happier now not worrying about it and I wake up just the same as always. (Which is to say, grudgingly, but well enough.)

    I’m glad I don’t get insomnia. $&@\

  53. Allen says:

    Octal, I’m FAIRLY sure that the edit button is limited to those of us who have wordpress accounts. You can tell who does by yon icon over hea:
    <===== SEE THE BUNNY?! Wait, I have no idea what my icon is.

    Oh it’s an adorable crab, from Nedroid. Silly me.

  54. Bryan says:

    And because I like being pedantic, here are chapter and verse from the HTML 4.01 standard on alt vs. title:

    alt attribute

    title attribute

    Note especially “when the element cannot be rendered normally” vs. “advisory information about the element”. :)

    (Wow, the third different icon in as many weeks. Hmm; looks like something’s wrong with my setup for cookie handling…)

  55. Mari says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that any or all cases of insomnia could be fixed with simple sleep hygiene. Even with a solidly established pattern I occasionally fall prey to a week or two of tossing and turning instead of sleeping. But good sleep hygiene can help reduce insomnia for people who don’t suffer from medical conditions causing the insomnia.

    Oh, and FWIW, I find reading before bed helps me frequently. I know it’s my own quirk but it might help a few other people, too. But then sometimes it backfires and I wind up staying up all night to “just finish this chapter – oh, but I can’t stop there because this is a real page turner but right after the next chapter – or the next…”

  56. AFAB says:

    Whatever happened to counting sheep?

  57. Fon says:

    Too many comments, so perhaps this have been mentioned.

    I think a temporally insomnia can be cause by excitement, sometimes I am completely sleepy when I watch WC3 replays (I almost dozed off), but later when I play, the sleepiness is gone. In fact I am completely refreshed, I am pretty sure that I can play the game whole night without sleep. (But later on I put myself to sleep by doing homework)

    Perhaps the day is TOO GOOD, that’s why you can’t sleep…… Or maybe not…

    So did you spend the whole night lying on the bed? Or doing something else? If you were doing something else, that could be the reason.

  58. Marmot says:


    Someone once said that there is no insomnia, just lying in bed wasting your time. :) That lead to the conclusion which was to get up every day at roughly the same time, but go to sleep when you felt sleepy enough that you couldn’t read a single page with concentration. If you spent more than five minutes falling asleep, then it was too early.

    I found that advice pretty good for myself at least. Though, if you can sometimes not go to sleep at all and still function well, that sounds really nice!

    1. Shamus says:

      For me, it’s like not being tired at all. It’s three hours past bedtime and I feel wide awake, creative, and alert like it was morning.

      The bad side happens when morning DOES arrive. Eventually it catches up with you, and you crash. Usually just in time for work, or school.

      Eventually I crash, and end up sleeping during the day and being awake at night. Then I suppose it’s not insomnia anymore, it’s just… I dunno… jet lag? Screwed sleep patterns?

      Given my workload (blah blah job website comic column family boo hoo pity me because I have successful projects, poor me) it’s actually really hard to fix this. Luckily we’re going into the weekend here and perhaps I’ll be able to turn it around.

  59. SatansBestBuddy says:

    Heh, I’m suffering from insomnia right now.

    Only this is the kind where I WAS asleep, but only for a couple hours, then I woke up for no reason and simply can’t force myself to sleep.

    It’s more annoying cause you feel like you’ve rested, but you still feel tired, which is a strange kind of limbo to be in, let me tell you.

  60. SatansBestBuddy says:

    Well, I hope I don’t crash anytime soon, I’m supposed to be moving a couch for my sisters new place. XD

    Anyway, I use sugar to help fix sleeping patterns, since sugar highs soon follow with sugar lows, which combined with natural sleeping habits make for bedtime at the right time. (god, that sounded corny)

  61. Gandaug says:

    Shamus, stay up twenty four hours again playing L4D.

  62. Dierin says:

    I don’t have insomnia, I’m just nocturnal. I sleep 5-6 hours a day but from 5AM till whenever I wake up. Sigh.
    My 2 cents

  63. Zack says:

    Haha, epic xkcd reference, I love it.

  64. ryanlb says:

    I love to sleep and have been blessed with the ability to do so at any time and any place.

    I’ve fallen asleep standing up, driving, while programming, while browsing the internet, and even while talking to someone once.

    Sometimes I wonder if I have a mild case of narcolepsy, though a quick Google search pulls up hypersomnia, which sounds more like me.

    My mom and wife call it sleep deprivation, since I also like to stay up late, and for the last month or so I’ve been going on 5.5 hours of sleep a night. I’m trying to work my way back up to 6 hours a night, but there are so many interesting things to read on the internet, like some guy’s city skyline project…

  65. Chuck says:

    I’ve only seen one person in 66 posts mention the possibility of what you describe *not* being insomnia.

    Insomniacs *can’t* fall asleep even while lying in bed and wake up tired, fatigued, and sleep deprived.

    I think what you have, and it may be validated by your level of overachivement, if you will, is hypomania.

    Consider a manic depressive. This person goes through huge swings in up and down. While depressed they can’t get out of bed and don’t want to live. While experiencing mania they often think they can accomplish anything, have an inexhaustable energy supply, and can keep going and going without sleep.

    A hypomanic is someone that regularly experiences mania but doesn’t necessarily go through the opposite cycle of deep depression.

    I think there’s a certain ring to this when I hear about how you describe “insomnia” for you and what your production level is like.

    The most basic measure of psychological health is by how regular someone’s eating and sleeping habits are.

    If you wait until you are starving to finally get yourself something to eat or you put off sleep these are signs of inbalance that can be a symptom, or more importantly even a cause, of a larger problem like mania and predisposition to manic episodes.

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