Ever had one of those nights when you just can’t sleep? Ever sat wide eyed at four in the morning cursing the sandman? Congratulations, you’re one of 15,660,250 people in the UK suffering from a sleep disorder. That’s at least a quarter of the population. What a shitty club we’re in, huh? We look rubbish, we can’t function and we’re irritable and paranoid all the time. No wonder we never turn up for the meetings. That’s if you’re even telling me about these meetings at all.
I don’t even think that figure is correct – it is surely higher, only the other people who were meant to be filling in the sleep survey were so exhausted they ticked all the wrong boxes before slumping over their desks and nodding off. That figure does not include those of you with noisy neighbours, newborn babies, illness, stress or depression. I’d go so far as to say that 1 in 3 people have suffered at some point with sleep deprivation.
When I was a kid one of my favourite books was Roald Dahl’s BFG. Dahl was a mean writer – that word is intended to have dual meaning here because he had a magical way with words and because, at the core of much of his work, beat a blackly comic heart.
In the BFG Sophie, the young protagonist wakes up in the middle of the night. Below is an extract;
“Sophie couldn’t sleep.
The house was absolutely silent. No voices came up from downstairs. There were no footsteps on the floor above either.
The window behind the curtain was wide open, but nobody was walking on the pavement outside. No cars went by on the street. Not the tiniest sound could be heard anywhere. Sophie had never known such a silence.
Perhaps, she told herself, this was what they called the witching hour.
The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves….In the silvery moonlight, the village street she knew so well seemed completely different. The houses looked bent and crooked, like houses in a fairy tale. Everything was pale and ghostly and milky-white.”
Now I don’t know about you but this to me depicts with eerie accuracy the isolation and frightening feeling which is exclusive to the dead-of-the-night, the-world-is-asleep-and-you-will-never-sleep-again fear which only those who are truly sleep deprived can understand.
My daughter was born two years and seven months ago and has never slept a full night through. She has nightly required me near her since birth. That’s 944 nights of interrupted sleep. I was dragging myself through some days after just three ragged snatches of sleep the previous night. I remember waking up at four o’clock one morning and breastfeeding while staring blank eyed out of the window trying to work out if I was still dreaming or not.
Sleep is as crucial to our existence as breathing, eating and Kettle Chips. We need it to restore our bodies, rebalance, nuture and function. Healthy sleep improves memory, sharpens the attention and lowers stress. If the human race collectively decided to stop sleeping it would be five days before we were ruled by insects. This is A TSF (True Scientific Fact).
When I was in the worst of my sleep deprivation I started seeing things. I became convinced that our little flat was haunted, and told people it felt like the ghost of an old man who resented us living there. I would see shadows round corners and in doorways, dark figures moving just out of sight and reaching for me in my peripheral vision. Invisible mice skittering across the floor. At the time I was also in midst of my depression – which was almost certainly exacerbated by the sleeplessness – so nothing felt very real to me at that point. During a particularly nasty illness I was bedbound and feverish and became convinced I was the subject of an elaborate plot to kidnap my daughter and keep me too sick to escape. My body prickled as if it was being flayed by millions of tiny electrical wires and my limbs often felt preternaturally long and distant, as if they belonged to someone else. I started to become concerned that drugs were being injected into my food (although not enough to stop eating. God, I love my food) and I bristled with suspicion throughout the long days. In short, I was turning into David Icke, without the fanbase.
The answer is of course, to get more sleep. I knew this, and yet it eluded me. I lost count of the number of people who would take one look at my pinched, wan face and remark;
“Oho! The Japanese used to use sleep deprivation as a method of torture you know!”
If I’d roundhouse kicked every fucker who said that to me I’d be Chuck Norris by now. Sadly, I hadn’t the energy.
So we need our sleep. There are those who can survive on little more than four hours a night (Churchill, Thatcher, my Dad) but these people are few and far between. Most of us have to put up with being human and being knackered. I knew articulate, funny good looking people reduced to no more than breathing shadows by sleeplessness and it is a problem which has caused the NHS to spend nearly £50m last year on sleeping pills for more than 15.3 million prescriptions. Lack of sleep reduces your ability to deal with stress and puts you in a mental fog, unable to function. Paradoxically you then stress about how little sleep you’re getting and so the cycle continues. I call it the Cycle of Shit.
How To Beat the Cycle of Shit.
First of all find out what works for you. There’s no point having hot milk and honey before bed if your bladder will wake you urgently and with pressing need at three in the morning. Insomniacs will be familiar with friends and strangers presenting them with remedies and miracle cures but here are some things you may not have tried.
Soothing drink before bed – Chamomile tea, Vervain Tea, hot milk, Ovaltine, Horlicks. Find a sleepy juice which works for you – buy the herbs dried from health food shops and brew up a nice tea to sip before bed. Or heat up a cup of milk and add a spoonful of honey, or brandy. A friend of mine would sleep with a bottle of brandy in her bedside drawer and take nips of it throughout the night.
Yoga – “Oh BORE OFF with your Yoga, Daisy” I can hear you thinking, while filing an expenses claim or something. But –stay with me– there are many positions available to aid a nights rest and the one below is one of the most simple.
It’s called Viparita Karani and is better known as the Legs-Up-The-Wall pose. Find it here. It is wonderful for sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and circulation.
Write It Out – keep a notebook by the bed and write CYCLE OF SHIT on it in big letters – or something less vulgar if you’re not as irritable as me – and write down all your doubts, worries and obsessive thoughts before you try to sleep. Make a list or just write down keywords, the act is to exorcise your mind a little, not write a novel, so don’t worry about presentation or grammar too much. You can do it again if you wake in the night and the thoughts begin to circle again. The downside of this is if I die in the night the police will discover a rambling notebook of scrawled idiocy and jagged ramblings entitled THE CYCLE OF SHIT by my gorgeous corpse.
Ear Plugs/Eye Mask – Blocking out your outside stimulus may give your brain the extra shove it needs to calm down and shut up. Try one or both. I have an Eye Mask infused with lavender which is divine.
Aromatherapy – For those of you not kicking your computers through the window in disgust at all this hippy nonsense I strongly recommend lavender oil. Rubbed neat onto the temples or dropped onto your pillow it is known to soothe and calm. Ideal.
Lower your expectations – One of the techniques I was taught in CBT was to question the worst outcome. What is the worst that can happen here? You’ll be tired the next day. You will struggle to wake up, and you’ll probably be a bit snappy. But tossing and turning and constantly checking the time as if you’re Flavour Flav is much worse for your mental state then a few hours sleep so try to let the worry about sleeplessness go. Harder than it seems but you’ll get it with practice.
Read a Book – Can’t sleep? Switch on the light and read for an hour or two. Leave the room if you can and go and sit somewhere else. Try and keep the bedroom for sleeping and shagging if possible. You don’t want to associate it with stress. Make it a pleasant place to be.
Right, I’m off to Bedlington. I wish you all sweet dreams.