A couple of days ago I had one of those nights. I tossed. I turned. I read. It was a particularly dull book. I did breathing exercises. I flipped over the pillow to the cold side so often there wasn’t a cold side. I got up and opened the windows. I got up and went downstairs. I had a snack. I went back to bed. I lay staring at a (dead? no, sleeping, damn it) moth on the ceiling. I kicked Mr Mutton (very, very gently. Honest.) when he started making strange apnea groans. I got up again and emptied the dishwasher. I did a Sudoku (badly). I moaned about my plight on Facebook. I wrote a list of everything on my mind. I checked all my social media. I drank camomile tea. At about 6 30am I finally drifted off.
The older I get the more on and off my relationship with Sleep, my old friend, old pal, has become. It isn’t that I can’t sleep – I find it difficult to stay awake if I’m a passenger in a car, or on a train, or on a conference call on a hot afternoon. But I just don’t sleep well reliably at any time I’m supposed to.
Back in the day I had insomnia envy. It sounded so productive and exotic: wide awake while the world sleeps, bashing out a novel, making jam, saluting the dawn. I didn’t realise that you’d actually be tired, let alone barely able to keep your eyes open long enough to find the preserving sugar.
The rot set in when I had babies – 10 years or so of dozing with one eye open listening out for nocturnal dramas and then a further 8 listening out for itinerant teenagers to sneak in. That has to have consequences. Occasional jet lag doesn’t help. We’ve just come back from a holiday in the US and despite Mr M thinking jet lag is affected – apparently, they don’t get it in Yorkshire – the rest of us (mardy almost-southerners) all still on quasi Atlantic time.
Sad to say, the demon menopause also has a part to play in these shenanigans: what with mood changes, waking you to fret about the finer points of your pension plan at 3 am (details you’d never think twice about in day time); generalised anxiety; depression and low mood; hot flushes or general hormonal imbalances, it is reported that 61% of women have sleep difficulties around their peri or menopause.
Here are some things my friends have suggested or I’ve found work, no prescription required. Some of them may work for you.
Cut out any thing caffeinated after 2pm – even soft drinks, even tea. Let rooibush become your new best friend. Decaff ordinary tea bags aren’t as bad as they sound either.
Have a glass of wine/malt whisky/vodka – I KNOW. Everyone says you shouldn’t but if your sleeplessness is partly because you can’t turn off and relax, this does the trick. My friend Steve conquers jetlag cheerfully with mini bar miniatures of vodka and still sounds clever in his next day’s meetings.
Be discriminating about your bedside electronic devices. There’s a lot of wisdom about not having your phone in the bedroom etc. Ach! How’s a girl supposed to occupy the long, empty night time hours if she hasn’t got Facebook & ASOS to entertain her? Be selective though, you don’t want your bedroom looking like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Don’t panic. The worst thing you can do is fret about all you have to do the next day and how badly it will all go because You. Cannot. Bloody. Sleep. Lie back, breathe and remind yourself that lying in bed is actually restful in itself – that’s why sick people do it.
Try breathing exercises. They can calm you down and stop you fretting yourself into a complete tiz. My friend Kate swears by the ‘4, 7, 8’ technique. Here’s how it works: exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Get out of the bad space. If that black hole, acccessible only at 3 am, is gaping in front of you, don’t let it pull you into its nasty vortex. Banish any gibbering demons by getting up, having a soothing (decaff) cuppa and a nice slice of hot toast and Marmite. Works for me. And if you’re obsessing over something, write a list of things you can do about it when day rolls round. It helps, even if you never look at it again.
Get your exercise – I definitely sleep better when I’ve got a regular exercise routine going. (And yeah, that’s easier said than done).
Read something – preferably a nice, big, boring book. Or a charming old favourite. For non readers, (a) you don’t know what you’re missing (b) try scrolling through the ASOS/Net a Porter/Boden/Etsy sites & filling imaginary baskets. This, I find, has a very hypnotic effect. Just don’t press “Pay Now”. Ever.
Sharing a bed so you can’t switch on the light? Well, I muddle through using my iPhone light, but my friend Alex goes one further. She uses a camping head torch bought specifically for the efficient non-disturbance of partners. I like the thought of her sitting there in bed looking like a pot holer’s pin up.
Meditate – I have many, many meditation apps. Really, I should be giving tips on freeing your thoughts to the Dalai Lama. I used to love Headspace until I moved up a level to 20 minute sessions – a stretch for my tolerance of sitting still. A friend, Jane, tells me this exercise works (and she got it from a science programme, so there). Imagine, with all your concentration, two paddocks, one full of sheep. Then visualise picking up and transferring each sheep, from one to the other. Apparently you should fall sleep by the 20th sheep.
Try ASMR or autonomous sensory meridian response. This works for my friend Rob. Since it’s also known as the “head orgasm”, it sounds, well, quite a lot more exciting than many of my sleepless nights. (I leave the more personal ways of inducing sleep to your own discretion.) ASMR is essentially white noise sounds, whispering, ambient noises, which are found in some people to trigger the relaxation & euphoria experienced after sexual arousal. Sounds fantastic!
Finally, things NOT to do:
Bid on eBay. I nearly bought a vintage Fiat Cinquecento that way. (Secretly, I wish I had.)
Go back to bed at 6am ‘just to rest your eyes’ if you have a job to go to. You’ll wake up after lunch time in a very grouchy mood with a lot of explaining to do.
Google your ailments. No good can come of it. Dr Google simply doesn’t seem to come up with actual diagnoses like “a bit stressed about being 50” or “worried about kids smoking too much weed” or “I think my boss is trying to get rid of me”.
Send emails, tweets, messages or anything else you can’t get back. Face it, you’re out of your mind with sleep deprivation. There’s isn’t a Court in the Land that would convict you, but let’s avoid the eventuality. Review these urgent messages when you’re back in daylight and you’re yourself again. You may find them not so urgent.
If all this fails and you’re spending more time awake at night than Dracula, just go to the GP and ask for something to help. I was prescribed Temazepam for a while when I was travelling constantly for business. Worked like a dream but carrying it everywhere felt a bit, like I was on a short path to the Betty Ford Clinic. Others, who prefer a more ‘Nurse Jackie’ vibe, swear by Xanax.
Fellow insomniacs out there, do share any of your own tips.
Sweet dreams (we hope!)