Friday, February 24, 2012

Blessed are the Insomniacs

A few years ago, if I was ever asked what skill or physical attribute I wished I had, rather than aiming for something grand, like the ability to speak five languages, or play the piano, or change a plug, my answer was the same: the ability to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We all know people like that. They're always really annoying. 'When I'm tired I just sleep,' they say, as if it's that simple. They're like weirdos who enjoy fishing. How calm, at peace with yourself, how untroubled by thought, how boring must you be to switch off like that, or stand by a pond for 11 hours. But I envy that serenity. Or I did.

I've had bouts of insomnia all my adult life. If I have to get up early, I never get to sleep because I know I have to get up. I don't think I've ever slept on an aeroplane in my life. In hotels, or on holiday, anywhere away from my bed, I always sleep terribly, unless I've had too much to drink, which hardly counts as quality rest.

It used to bother me a great deal. I would toss and turn, cursing the passing hours, and the certain knowledge I would be exhausted the next day. All manner of terrible thoughts can creep up on you in the long hours before dawn.  It got so that I dreaded going to bed. So I wouldn't. But then kids came along, and the need to be alert and functioning became more important, and I would lie there wondering how the hell I could get to sleep and not be an irritable mess the next day.

But then it changed. I don't when or how but insomnia no longer bothered me. I learned to accept it, to relax. I was never so tired the next day that I couldn't function, and if I was, because I work at home, I'd just have a short nap. Soon, because I accepted it, I slept better. It still takes me some time to go to sleep, and I always wake in the night, but it's enough. I just accepted I wasn't the sort of person who ever slept for more than four or five hours at a stretch.

Then, this week, I listened to this radio programme on the BBC World Service. It addresses the myth behind the eight hour sleep. In a nutshell, it claims that adult humans have never slept for large swathes of time and to do so is unnatural. In the pre-electric, pre-streetlight era it was common for people to go to bed earlier, sleep for a few hours and wake. Then, unlike most of us now who get in a state about how tired they'll be the next day, or list all their worries and doubts, they would get up, light a candle perhaps, read, think about their dreams, pray, or make love (A doctor's manual from 16th Century France - where else eh? - even advised that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better"). Then they would go back to sleep, feeling fit and refreshed in the morning. The programme's makers found all kinds of evidence of this pattern, and many references to what was known as 'the second sleep.'

This, of course, is tremendous news for insomniacs everywhere. Some scientists even believe that broken sleep is better for you than one long tranche of sleep. Blessed are the insomniacs. Or insomniac writers at least. I can't count how many times an idea has come to me in the time between turning off the light and falling asleep. Or at 4am when I've woken and can't drop back off. Whole plots would never have existed had I been someone who falls straight to sleep. Now armed with this knowledge that it's natural, I may even start writing in those moments. Praying is out, and as for making love, my wife is an out-for-the-count-for-eight-hours merchant, the poor woman, and I'm likely to get my face punched. And we have enough kids anyway.

Anyway, I raise a mug of cocoa to the sleepless.


Dan - Friday


  1. I was debating between commenting or napping. I need a nap to remain witty.

    A few years back I picked up a battery operated Sudoko game at JFK and tried using it to fall off to sleep on the plane. Instead, I got so into a working the "other side of the brain" thing that I stayed up the whole way to Athens memorizing numbers.

    Now, I play with it a bit before I fall asleep (for the same left/right brain reason) and it does put me to sleep. I guess that means I've successfully managed to convert my left and right spheres into one big mush ball.

    As I said, Dan, I must nap to be witty.

  2. Oooh, I can really relate to that. I go to bed at a reasonable time, 11 p.m. (well, to be precise, I doze off in front of the telly well before that time, but that's when my husband nudges me and tells me to go to sleep), and almost every night, without fail, I wake up between 3 and 4. I have tried everything: counting sheep, parking things in my memory palace (thank you, Sherlock Holmes), writing down a To Do list by the light of a tiny torch, as well as the more conventional tossing and turning and relaxation techniques. For the past few weeks I have decided to stop fighting it, get up, dress up warmly, go to the guestroom, write and then read for an hour, after which I get sleepy once more and return to bed for a nap.
    I too came across this latest research on four hour sleep cycles last week, and have decided that I will no longer be ashamed or worried. Instead, I am declaring this to be my creative habit!
    Now, if only I could wake up more easily in the morning...