The Blog

Waking Up to Insomnia

People don't talk about sleep problems, because they're embarrassed; they've accepted it as a perpetual part of their lives and others might treat it as a triviality or selfish indulgence that you choose to yield to - you've made your bed, so now you (can't) lie in it.

As I write this, it is 6am in the morning on the second consecutive night that I have failed to acquaint myself with a pillow, duvet or the vaguest whiff of slumber.

After one sleepless night, you might naturally presume that I'd gratefully bellyflop onto the mattress and fill the air with zeds, without troubling a single udder for milky drinks. Alas, on far too many occasions, sleep becomes a desperate fantasy and by midnight, I am fizzy with energy and leave my pyjamas unpeturbed for a second night.

My husband tottered off to bed six long hours ago and I cheerfully trilled that "I'll be in soon," with every intention of joining him shortly. But deep down, we both know that I'll dust off my trusty, Insomniac's Abacus™ and - rather than counting sheep - I'll spend each remaining hour until morning anxiously adding up the sleep I'll have if I allow myself "just one more hour" of reading/writing/painting... ANYTHING but watching the bedroom ceiling until it's light enough to be vertical.

Predictably, at 8am my husband arose and found me wide awake, grinning apologetically and bashing away at my laptop. He's impossibly understanding, but was naturally disappointed and concerned.

I'm a self-confessed control freak, but I struggle to tame this unpredictable, nocturnal beast. And in the cold light of day, I feel like an alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon and let myself down.

I also like to think of myself as a relatively well-adjusted type, so only mention insomnia if I need to explain my curious behaviour and I never complain about the hideous effects it has on Day Two or (a fresh hell) Day THREE.

But I'm keen for people to really understand chronic insomnia as the double-fuck and 20 rotten arseholes it is, rather than flippantly disregarding it as a bit of tossing and turning, with the odd yawn the next day, which Horlicks, drenching the bedroom in lavender oil and forcing yourself to lie on a mattress can magically cure.

The inability to get a sufficient amount of rest results in hormonal and neurotransmitter changes, causing mania - I'm buzzing with so much neurotic energy after Night One, people struggle to believe I haven't slept and I'm ripe for The Hacienda - depression - something I'm fortunate enough only to suffer after insomnia - bad skin - caused by the decreased production of melatonin and collagen - hallucinations - I was once convinced I'd chinwagged with my husband in the office, when he'd been in Kent the whole time - to name a few.

And because your heart is pumping harder and faster than Ron Jeremy on steroids, you risk strokes, diabetes and have triple the chance of heart failure. So it's not all shits and giggles, my friends.

People don't talk about sleep problems, because they're embarrassed; they've accepted it as a perpetual part of their lives and others might treat it as a triviality or selfish indulgence that you choose to yield to - you've made your bed, so now you (can't) lie in it.

Night Three is the real bastard and I approach the bed like it's the gallows. By now, you have a face like a bag of smashed testicles and are so tired that you could (and probably will) cry.

Your heart is racing; your hands are shaking; you're filled with anxiety, dread and musings about your own mortality and no matter how deeply you breathe, you can't seem to guzzle the oxygen you require. You've flogged the last, twitching nerve-endings of energy from your exhausted body and your limbs feel like they're constructed entirely from aching bricks.

In bed, your eyes instantly close and you feel yourself soaring backwards and drifting into an intense and incredibly distressed sleep. But your body is a cruel and unusual bastard, so minutes after you've drifted off, it forces you awake through violent Hypnic Jerks, like startling electric shocks, causing you to jolt upwards, breathless, with a racing heart, twitching limbs and drenched in sweat. Form an orderly queue, boys...

As your body desperately fights to sleep, other treats ahead include Night Terrors, making you spring to life, often screaming, gasping and filled with a fierce and inexplicable fear. On some occasions I've even suffered Panic Attacks, which - as my poor husband and the cats I've hysterically flung from the duvet - can testify, is terrifying for any bed-fellows, animals or passing pedestrians in the bedroom.

But after all of this incessant whinging, I have a freakishly baffling and perverse curveball to throw at you - although I'd give my firstborn to cure this unholy curse, during the episodes themselves, I often actually ENJOY it. And I'm horribly aware that this seems comparable to guffawing while hitting myself in the face with a frying pan, and then moaning about my squashed nose afterwards.

Like Euphoric Mania or Manic Sleeping, on many nights (excluding the dreaded Third Night) I'm bursting with the unlimited energy, excitement, creativity and focus that I wish I could replicate during civilised, daytime hours.

My most successful, original and meticulous releases, pitches, campaign strategies, features, paintings - and weirdest Amazon purchases - have been created during these euphoric and solitary hours. My insomnia started during adolescence and I wonder if I'd have been a straight-A dick if I hadn't spent so many sleepless nights on my school work.

I feel so productive that when I've attempted to sleep, I've ended up staring skywards, trying to memorise ideas and impatiently waiting for morning to arrive so that I can put them into practice, by which time, I've forgotten many and lost the fire and gusto.

At the same time, I'm filled with guilt and dread, knowing the delights that lie in store, but powerless to do anything about it, hence the futile, Insomniac's Abacus mentioned previously. And I sometimes try to justify it with the various successes achieved during these dangerous and antisocial periods of moonlit productivity.

As with anything - particularly pickles involving the mind - insomnia is a perplexing creature for people to understand, if they haven't experienced it.

A third of Brits suffer from insomnia and it's more common in women than men. I try to observe good "Sleep Hygiene," like avoiding caffeine and heavy meals later in the day, setting regular times to wake and blocking out light with sturdy blinds. Although, I suspect these tips are intended for peeps with less hardcore sleep bothers. I even had a bash at Mindfulness, which did help a little and I intend to explore more thoroughly. If anybody poo-poos Mindfulness as a pastime of people who listen to Enya and wear clothes knitted from quinoa and pages from The Guardian, I urge you to read Ruby Wax's fantastic book, Sane New World.

People mean well, but suggesting milky drinks, hot baths, sheep-counting and oils that smell like your gran is like advising The Elephant Man to wear a bit of concealer. And I barely restrain myself from kicking the tits off anybody who glibly asks: "Have you tried going to bed?"

I've tried a gaggle of sleeping potions and pills. Most are as successful as a Curly Wurly or leave me with unsavoury side-effects and then eventually stop working, since your body builds up a tolerance. In a delicious irony which would teach Alanis Morissette the true meaning of the word, coming off these pills actually causes stronger insomnia, known as the Rebound Effect.

There's little I haven't tried, except eating a hippo's ball sack or hitting myself over the head with a mallet. Although - after 20 years of shaking a fist at my pillow - I'm finally ready to have a bash at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And I'll cross everything, including my (hopefully closed) eyes that it helps, because insomnia takes the biscuit and every other fattening snack.

In the meantime, I'm approaching my dreaded Third Night, which isn't fair on those around me, either.

And it's far too tiring to explain myself - especially after chuff all sleep - so I've written this for them, and for the other poor bastards dealing with this nighttime chump to show their chums, so they can understand a little better, rather than rolling over, closing their eyes and remaining asleep to the problem.