In which The Author contemplates a good night’s sleep
In recent months my chronic lack of sleep has reached the stage where it’s gone way
beyond being a joke. The trouble is that I’m locked into a vicious cycle, where insomnia leads to depression and depression leads to insomnia. There doesn’t seem to be any way to break out of this endless loop. My sleep pattern has been fucked for years, and it seems to be getting worse. In fact, the last time I had any decent, uninterrupted, restful sleep was under general anaesthetic at Llandough Hospital (see Déjà Vu
.) I’d give anything to relive that state, to be honest.
The daily two-hour-plus commute between Aberdare and Cardiff was where the rot set in, I think. Almost inevitably I’d fall asleep on the train on the way to work and/or on the way home. I was also justly famous for my lunchtime power naps, which is when the situation really became serious. They would fuck up my night’s sleep even further, because I’d been napping in the day – which all the experts say is a cardinal sin. Once I’d established that pattern, it was almost impossible to change it.
I can almost certainly get by with only three or four hours’ sleep a night. It came in handy when I pulled that all-nighter proofreading Josie’s thesis a couple of weeks ago (see Meanwhile, Deep in The Author’s Subconscious…
On the other hand, there was an episode of The X Files about a guy who’d been surgically treated in a Black Ops programme so that he could go without sleeping at all. Unfortunately, the procedure turned him into a homicidal maniac. (Mind you, Margaret Thatcher claimed to need only a few hours’ sleep every night, and she was a raving lunatic by the time she stood down as Prime Minister. Truth is stranger than science fiction.) The CIA and other shady organizations around the world are alleged to use sleep deprivation as a means of torture. It’s a classic brainwashing tactic, as anyone who’s seen Michael Caine in The Ipcress File will know.
Every time I mention the problem to my GP, I get the usual list of suggestions to try and help me relax. None of them work as a long-term solution. I’ve tried every trick in the books (and believe me, I’ve read a few of them) in my relentless quest for eight hours’ sleep, but to no avail. Here are some of the Top Tips you’ll find in every self-help book on the subject of insomnia:
- Have a nice warm bath.
Yes, that usually helps me unwind all right, but on rare occasions I’ve unwound so much that I’ve almost dozed off. Waking up in a bath of lukewarm water doesn’t do much for your sense of well-being, believe me.
- Have a warm milky drink at bedtime.
Okay, and then I’ll have to get up at least twice in the night because I need a piss. It’s hardly going to be at the top of my ‘to-do’ list.
- Don’t do anything stimulating, like watching a film or reading an exciting book.
I wonder what they’d recommend as an alternative. Anything starring Bruce Willis in a white t-shirt is probably off the menu. Maybe I should try chick flicks or the novels of Jeffrey Archer for some mind-numbing entertainment instead.
- Practice some relaxation exercises and/or visualization techniques.
I’ve tried a couple of self-hypnosis tapes over the years. I gave up with the first one (which was a freebie from a rep in work) because the guy’s voice was so incredibly annoying. The other one worked for a very short period – in fact, the exact interval between the end of the recording and the cassette player switching off with a loud click. (Note to manufacturers: surely it’s possible to develop some sort of ‘sleep’ system, whereby the machine turns itself off silently…) I’m not sure whether I’m suggestible enough for these techniques to be effective, to be honest.
[A digression: About two years ago there was a comedy hypnotist at the White Lion, and I decided to go along to check him out. C— came with me, but she bottled out of taking part, as it was the work of the Devil, apparently. Anyway, the guy invited us to join him on the stage, and then asked us to perform a simple visualization exercise. During this preamble he walked behind us and touched us on the shoulder if he felt that we’d ‘gone under’ enough to take part in the show. I was one of the lucky participants.
However, while he was putting us well and truly into the trance state, something distracted me and the spell was broken. I felt a bit exposed on the stage with everyone else (there were about eight or ten of us altogether), so I had to play along for a while.
After pretending to be sunbathing on a very hot beach, riding a horse in the Grand National, and doing various other daft things, I decided to come clean. I told the guy that I’d been fully conscious throughout the whole thing. He didn’t believe me, and told me that I was still under the influence. He warned me that when the music started, I’d join the rest of the group in dancing to a disco era Bee Gees song. Sure enough, he started the music and I stayed perfectly still.
I looked him in the eyes, said, ‘Told you,’ and walked back to my table. A few minutes later, Kev confessed that he too had been making it up as he went along.
The truly bizarre part, however, was that my friend Maria, who had been seriously put under the ‘fluence, had re-enacted some ballet moves she’d learned as a child. When we told her about it afterwards, she had absolutely no recollection of the past forty minutes or so. Even when Dai B. showed her the video he’d taken with his phone, of her springing around the stage like Dame Margot Fonteyn, she was still none the wiser. Weird…]
- Don’t drink tea, coffee or alcohol before bed.
Well, I don’t drink tea or coffee anyway, and this is now my twelfth alcohol-free day. (Not my twelfth day ever, I hasten to add – I’ve signed up for Sober October along with a couple of friends. The idea is that people sponsor you to spend a booze-free month for Macmillan Cancer Support. I haven’t bothered getting sponsors, but it was a good excuse to have a break.) It hasn’t made any difference at all.
- Try resetting your body clock by force.
Been there, done that. About eighteen months ago I managed to stay awake all day, all night, and well into the following afternoon in an attempt to force my body clock back into sync with the rest of civilized society. I took Stella for her usual afternoon stroll into the Country Park, and when we returned to the pub I settled down to read the paper. I woke up about an hour and a half later on the bench seat, with my jacket over me and Stella lying at my feet. Rachel told me later that I’d nodded off ‘like Gaz on a bad night’ (see The Power of Suggestion) and she’d covered me up in case I felt cold. I was wide awake all night as a result. My uplanned mid-afternoon nap had thrown me right back to Square One. That was the end of that idea.
- Make love before going to sleep.
Yer ‘aving a bleedin’ laugh, incha? Like sleep itself, sex is just a distant memory for me. Even the strange erotic dreams I have in that post-REM lucid stage of semi-wakefulness don’t fill the gap. The imagined concept of a thing is not the thing itself. Just dreaming about sex doesn’t compensate for actually doing it.
Anyway, the self-help books are full of useful hints like these and many more besides, However, one major factor isn’t something the medical profession can really help with. I had a very long period of disturbed sleep when I had the impingement in my shoulder, which made it impossible to get comfortable in bed. The intermittent pain in my back isn’t conducive to lying comfortably either. My body stops my mind from relaxing by constantly reminding it that I’m getting old and creaky. The last thing I need is to develop a codeine habit by constantly popping painkillers. At least one of my friends has swapped a heroin monkey for a codeine one by the long-term use of OTC and prescription analgesics.
The biggest problem, though, is probably the fact that my bed is nearly twenty years old. I can date it fairly accurately, because Sam and I went to Courts in Aberdare when I was looking to buy it, and I was still living in Llwydcoed at the time. I bought my house fifteen years ago, and it definitely pre-dates the move.
[A digression: We had a rather unfortunate moment with the salesman when I was trying to choose a headboard. He showed us a couple of upholstered monstrosities, and then pointed to one which consisted of a series of vertical struts with a curved piece across the top.
‘Well, of course, if you’re into bondage—’
He didn’t finish this sentence. Sam and I both collapsed laughing; she blushed to the roots of her hair, and we excused ourselves to Servini’s café for a cold drink to ‘make up our minds.’]
Assuming that the bed itself is at fault, it seemed logical to attack the problem head on. There’s no way I can afford to buy a new one, so this afternoon I did the next best thing.
A number of my friends have waxed lyrical about their memory foam mattresses over the past few years. Once again, they’re a bit out of my price range, but earlier this week B&M had a new stock item: a memory foam mattress topper. It’s the same size as a standard double mattress, about an inch thick, and is designed to be laid on the existing mattress. The advertising material claims that the synthetic compound ‘moulds itself to your body shape’; even better, it’s supposed to retain warmth and help maintain one’s circulation; most importantly, it was well within my budget. I decided to treat myself with the money I hadn’t spent in the pub, and brought it home at about six o’clock this evening.
At the moment, it has yet to top out my mattress. In fact, even as I type, it’s lying on the floor of my bedroom. You see, it was supplied in a vacuum pack for easy transportation, which meant that it was compressed to a few millimetres thick. The enclosed information leaflet says that it should achieve its normal shape within about twelve hours at a temperature of 25° C, but that it will take longer at lower temperatures.
Well, fuck my luck! If I’d bought it last week, when we had our Indian Summer, there would have been a fair chance of my south-facing bedroom reaching optimum operating conditions. As things are, it will probably be tomorrow night (at least) before the drop-scone-thin piece of foam attains its full size. Furthermore, you’re supposed to allow 48 hours before using it, so that any flame-retardant chemical residue can disperse into the atmosphere. That takes us to Monday night. Roll on…
I might as well stay up again tonight, reading or listening to music, or maybe going for the hat-trick and writing a third blog in one day. Last night I forgot to take my Mirtazapine, and I was still wide awake when the dawn chorus kicked off at around five a.m. If I take it tonight, will I get some sleep, or will I just have another batch of weird lucid dreams instead, like the ones I had this morning?
I’m quite looking forward to Monday night, in fact. If the mattress topper lives up to its bill matter, I’ll be a very happy man. If it doesn’t, fuck knows what else I’m going to do with it. There’s no earthly way to pack the bloody thing back up and return it for a refund, that’s for sure.