Last Night an Mp3 Player Saved My Life

by Nick Chen

An invisible rope, hooked around my neck, pulls me along when I’m sleep deprived. I let somebody in on this secret, performing a mime to illustrate the dimensions, and am about to confess that my thoughts are preoccupied with death, anxiety and self-loathing, but she is already half-heartedly pretending to send a text.

The number of syllables in the word insomnia is up for debate. Sufferers elongate the four syllables for dramatic effect, while sceptics reduce it to three: “in-somn-yah”, as in “Yah, sure you do”. I can’t sleep for more than three hours uninterrupted, so I pronounce insomnia with three syllables to save energy. When I wake up, I try again to fall asleep, and upon failing, roll outside with my MP3 player for a stroll. At 5:30am, strangers swap suspicious stares and wonder where the other is headed. Traffic lights turn red, frustrating drivers who see no one there to cross the road. And despite the amber sunrise, the lampposts are still switched on, as if oblivious to their surroundings. That’s how I feel, too, only with less green and more blue.

As I lie awake at night, my eyes etching epilogues into the ceiling, I count regrets instead of sheep. The bedroom is scrutinised. Are the three alarm clocks timed correctly? Is the wallpaper more newspaper-grey or cabbage-white? Could a spider crawl into my mouth, down my throat, and spin a web that blocks my trachea? Regardless of their position, my legs are always in so much discomfort that I wish I could cut them off. Is there something else I could – or should – be doing right now? I cross-examine myself and unearth only red herrings. I hate myself for being so self-centred. That’s two minutes gone and my eyes are still ajar.

For me, silence is a catalyst for excessive stress, which is why I need an MP3 player to sleep. BBC radio stations trigger an emergency message if there’s 30 seconds of dead air. It’s a policy to which I adhere. With the power imbued by earphones, I’m in charge of my own private wide-awake club. So, I continue to lie awake in bed, listening to my MP3 player, wishing I were dead, or asleep. Sometimes I forget there is a difference. Is the phobia of being buried alive really the fear that sleep may never arrive?

At the age of 5, I cried with terror that everybody I knew and loved could die at any moment. The tears stopped long before early adolescence, but the morbid thoughts intensified, oscillating between existential dread and fantasies about hacking off my own limbs. A recurring dream involved being asthmatic and attempting suicide by chucking an inhaler into the ocean; upon changing my mind and wanting to live, I’d head into the water to retrieve the inhaler, but accidentally drown in the process. It must have been my Jeff Buckley phase.

As a 13-year-old, sleepless nights were spent as an amateur detective, replaying meaningless incidents in my mind to investigate if school friends secretly hated me; creating a pros and cons list to determine if family members would have had a happier life if I’d never been born; panicking over misjudged nuance; growing paranoid that every social interaction from the previous day was affected, whether positively or negatively, by being Chinese – right down to the unavoidable harsh inflection that comes when someone skips to a foreign surname that begins and ends with a consonant; trying and failing to spin racial abuse into a positive – because maybe it’s a sign of affection to be showered in Jackie Chan impressions and called “chink” or “chenk” or “gook” or “Ching Chong Chinaman” or the name of another Chinese pupil, or being told to “go home” or “fuck off back to China”. And all of it could have been blocked out by wearing earphones.

Burying my head under a blanket for hours and hours, listening to late-night talk radio on a cheap Walkman made insomnia tolerable. Terror Twilight, Think Tank and Either/Or were among the cassettes I played and played until they had to be manually fixed with a pencil. Every day, I’d set a timer to record three Radio 4 sitcoms to fill up a 90-minute tape. I arguably became the world’s first podcaster. Okay, I’m the only person arguing that, and they’re technically not podcasts, but I’d leave the house each morning with a new selection of spoken word in my pocket. Soon there’d be a Discman in the other pocket. My bag was a mini music library: cassettes, CDs, spare batteries, and self-compiled CDRs with diligently handwritten tracklistings. It still wasn’t enough.

When I turned 15, an MP3 player changed my life. I know that’s hyperbole usually reserved for events such as winning the lottery or losing a leg to a shark, but it really did. Bedtime playlists became long enough to still be playing when I woke up. No more turning cassettes from Side A to Side B. No more switching on the lights to grab a new CD. No more crackly late night radio. A decade later, a USB-sized music device remains by my side wherever I go. A preventative measure against tedium, anxiety and being imprisoned inside my thoughts.

I sit at a desk all day, blasting too many decibels through my headphones. When fetching a glass of water from the kitchen, I change from laptop to MP3 player for the 30-second journey; it may just be a few sentences of an audiobook, or half a chorus, but it’s always worth it. Tracks are divided into titled folders such as TFL (loud podcasts for commutes), Coffee (Hannah Diamond), Books (jazz), Rigor mortis (science-themed discussions) and Waiting rooms (Destroyer). I always carry a pin to reset the MP3 player should it freeze.

In addition to the ringing feedback in my left ear, there’s also, ironically, a voice informing me this isn’t healthy. It’s loudest during hangovers of the “I’ll never drink again” variety; when the morning is spent resembling a chalk outline on the ground, wrestling a piercing headache and a bin, and – most importantly – in dire need of peace and quiet. Silence is the worst part of a hangover. All that exists to fill it are thoughts of embarrassing moments from the night before.

Perhaps I’m too stubborn to accept that I’d sleep better in silence and that, for all these years, the insomnia’s been self-inflicted – I do, after all, follow a bulletproof coffee diet so that I can skip lunch, which requires further caffeine boosts to stay afloat. Being dead on the outside doesn’t mean being dead on the inside, but after the exhaustion and disconnection, I feel mostly numb. Young, numb, and full of glum. Lena Dunham mentioned on a podcast that if life were a single 24-hour cycle that ended at midnight, she’s at 2:30pm. For me, I’m half-asleep at 2pm and prepared for a nap.

I believe the subconscious can be stimulated if kept alert when asleep. Paul McCartney heard the melody for Yesterday in a dream; at the very least, I can invent a decent team name for a pub quiz. That’s why I experimented with self-hypnosis. At first, I thought it was going to involve staring at a ticking clock – I was doing that every night anyway – but actually it’s the audio version of being sent into a trance by spinning circles. Each ear hears the whirring drone of manipulated frequencies in stereo, while someone softly whispers messages about positive energy. But it never worked because I was too fucking terrified to fall asleep.

MP3 players can’t cure stress; they just hide it. December 2014 marked a final chance to become a new individual. I just knew something had to be done. OK, so I didn’t join a circus or purchase a one-way flight to the other side of the world, but what I did was the following: turn completely freelance, run daily, return the next-door neighbour’s football, stop weighing myself so frequently, attempt veganism, finish a gestating screenplay, re-learn the saxophone, switch to just one alarm clock and finally attempt to make a positive contribution to the world.

I volunteered at a London homeless shelter for seven 10pm-9am night shifts. Spending a week in the company of insomniacs was an emotional bonding experience, but when it ended, I felt like a fake for believing a lifetime of selfishness could be fixed with such ease. After my final shift, tormented with guilt and a 39th hour without sleep, I resorted to tiny drops of codeine and drinking wine straight from the bottle. I woke up two hours later and read David Lynch’s book on transcendental meditation.

True happiness lies within, according to Lynch, and it is attainable through meditation. If that’s correct – and bear in mind he adopts phrases like “Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity” – then why have I been so resistant to exploring my deeper self? Has an MP3 player been obstructing the path to true happiness?

Desperation outweighing scepticism, I switched off all electronics and meditated in silence. Except there wasn’t any silence, because I was chanting my mantra with the conviction of an impatient Shakespearean soliloquist. My voice grew tired. My throat turned to sandpaper. Soon there wasn’t a sound. Instead of fantasising about hacking off my limbs, I was overcome by the sensation of my skin evaporating blissfully into the air, allowing the inner origami of my body to untangle and float away like tranquil balloons, buoyed by an infinite supply of confidence. I actively welcomed the silence – and then it was back to the MP3 player.

I’m yet to approach an ocean of pure consciousness, or even knowing what that means, and if I ever find the shore, I’ll probably be too scared to dip a toe, let alone dive in. But meditation has become part of my daily routine, even if it doesn’t drastically improve the rest of my day. For 20 minutes, I momentarily hush the unwanted thoughts that drip like water torture. For 20 minutes, I break the wavelengths. For 20 minutes, I finally accept myself for who I wish to think I am. Did I really not sleep, or did I just dream of not sleeping? Yesterday I was an Opal Fruit. Today I’m a Starburst. Tomorrow I’ll be a set of traffic lights, learning new colours and adapting to the rhythm of a deserted cul-de-sac.


Photograph by Boy Meets Girl, 1984

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