Insomnia As A Plot Device
Anybody who’s seen a movie in the last 50 years knows that Hollywood loves spinning storylines around mental illness. From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Girl, Interrupted, to Psycho and beyond, people with psychological disorders are the subject of mass fascination—and often, misrepresentation—in the media.
Insomnia is no exception, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The psychological effects of chronic insomnia are serious and diverse, making the problem, which affects as many as one third of Australians, ripe for the picking when it comes to story ideas. Disclaimer: Movie spoilers below, though you’ve probably seen these already.
Take Taxi Driver, in which a young, insomnia-ridden Robert De Niro becomes absorbed in the seedy underbelly of New York City and slowly spirals into psychosis. Or The Machinist, where an emaciated Christian Bale plays an insomniac who gradually loses the ability to distinguish between reality and his increasingly disturbing hallucinations.
In Fight Club, Edward Norton’s insomnia drives him to hallucinate a fully-fledged alter ego who plots the demise of capitalism, leaving us with the memorable quote: "When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep... and you're never really awake." Throughout the film, blurry, distorted visuals and faded colors mirror Norton’s deteriorating mental state.
Obviously, these portrayals of insomnia are dramatized and unrealistic. For one thing, founding a massive anti-capitalist activism group would take a degree of mental acuity not commonly seen in insomniacs.
Jokes aside, there is a grain of truth in these fictional accounts. People who suffer from chronic insomnia are much more than just tired. Losing sleep on a regular basis is a great way of slowly shutting down your essential brain functions, which is why extreme sleep deprivation can look and feel a lot like mental illness.
Losing just one night of sleep affects your attention span, appetite, motor skills, visual perception, and your ability to read other people’s emotions and regulate your own. Lose a lot of sleep regularly and you’re likely to start having visual hallucinations, disorientation, and persistent paranoid thoughts. A few studies have shown that severe insomnia can create mental states that are indistinguishable from the type of psychosis seen in paranoid schizophrenia.
The bottom line is this: while Hollywood spins and exaggerates, insomnia is no joke. Everybody loses a bit of sleep now and again, but persistent insomnia is a serious condition that requires medical attention, and is usually very treatable. If you’re suffering in silence, don’t. You may find yourself unwittingly plotting a revolution.