If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re a fellow insomniac.
I would say “pleased to meet you”, but we both know it’s hard to be pleased about anything when you feel like your head could detach itself from your neck and topple off at any moment.
First off, can we agree on the fact that Edward Norton has a lot to answer for? That time when he made insomnia glamorous, in Fight Club, draped over a photocopier and burbling poetry as a glitchy arsty camera painted him all shades of awesome? Ace. (This would all be less irksome if only we could conjure up own ‘real-life’ version of Brad Pitt the imaginary friend to keep us entertained during our hours of need. Cheers a bunch, Norton.)
I’m over the insomnia now (stay tuned!) but a few months ago I went through a six-week period where I didn’t manage to sleep more than three hours a night, bar two exceptions. More on those shortly.
It all started off with a rodent in the wall cavity next to my bed, although the term ‘rodent’ really doesn’t do this monster justice. Lord above. It sounded as if a spade-handed mole armed with ADHD and a pneumatic drill was carving out a nest during the witching hour for an imminent spawning of progeny. Or like one of the 11 two-football-pitch-long boring machines that blasted their way through 31.4 miles of chalk marl rock to create the Channel Tunnel, which led to my nicknaming the creature Boring, as there really is nothing more boring than not being able to sleep. What started as an innocuous aural disturbance quickly became a habituated, and therefore immune to ear plugs of all varieties. More on those later too.
Anyway, as someone who doesn’t take things lying down – least of all sleep – I put out the customary call for help on social media, and the good folk answered in their droves.
Before I get into the nitty gritty about why none of it really worked, though, I’ll tell you about the two nights when I did succeed in sleeping more than six hours.
The first time was when I was given a controlled substance called Zopiclone. I was looking forward to a weekend of wild times, and GEE WHIZ did this contraband deliver. Got my full eight hours and awoke with a bang, fist-pumping the bedside table and high-fiving the cat.
And the second time was when I was given a controlled substance called Zopiclone.
We can now discard this information as irrelevant, since hardcore prescription drugs can do pretty much anything at the end of the day, including turning your pee black and erasing your fingerprints. So without further ado, onto the things! I’ll break this down into two parts: the things that don’t work, and the things that don’t hurt.
This one has me flummoxed. Whilst I’m totally on board with mindfulness during the day, I can’t think of any time I’d rather be less ‘in the moment’ than when I’m desperately trying to get back to sleep at 3am. Give me literally any other moment in time – say, walking up a really steep hill, cleaning the oven, or watching Bruce Forsyth recite his favourite humdingers. Anywhere but experiencing insomnia to its fullest and awfullest extent.
2. Ear plugs
You know the kind of heavy breathing that prompts you to get off the bus 12 stops early when you hear it coming from someone else’s mouth? Imagine waking up to the sound of that gravelly, sexually aroused pervert-rattle, except that you realise with a yank of horror that the noise is emanating from INSIDE YOUR OWN HEAD. There are a ton of types of earplugs out there, from squishy foamy ones to plasticky silicone ones, and I found all of them to be equally disturbing.
3. Eye mask
Combined with ear plugs, this is the quickest and easiest way to magic yourself onto the set of a harrowing film about war crimes and prisoners left to rot in solitary isolation units. Avoid at all costs.
4. Valerian (Kalms)
Herbal remedies are about as effective, physiologically speaking, as an invisibility cloak is for disguising a hacking cough. You might get on with these if you’re susceptible to the placebo effect and the power of self-delusion, but as for me, I’d rather spend the £8 on a decent bottle of Merlot to booze myself into a state of placid semi-consciousness.
This is a hormone that has been scientifically proven – YES SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN – to regulate the circadian rhythm of mammals. So the story goes, back in the caveman days, we were beholden to the rising and setting of the sun to determine our sleeping patterns. Nowadays the acrid blue-toned light of the ubiquitous touchscreen shoves a firm two fingers in the face of this great ball of fire as it does its futile best to tell us to wind down for the night. So why didn’t it work? It did jack all for me, but to be fair, I can imagine this is because the dose is too low when it’s sold as an over-the-counter product. Nice in theory, but in reality another waste of circa ten quid.
6. Herbal teas
There’s nothing wrong with camomile or lavender concoctions. I actually quite enjoy their whimsically-pattered packaging and photos of floppy females leaning languorously over a bone china cup. And sure, there are benefits to staying hydrated, and maybe, MAYBE, there is even some truth in the manufacturers’ promise to deliver a shot of relaxation. The main reason I’ve stuck herbal teas in the DOESN’T WORK section rather than the DOESN’T HURT section is simply that onboarding loads of fluid shortly before bedtime means waking up to go to the toilet. Go figure.
1. Taking 5HTP
It’s a bit of a stretch to say there’s a silver lining to insomnia, but if you’re feeling stretchy, let’s go! This 5HTP stuff sounds like something you’d find traces of on the chipped ceramic rim of a 1990s rave club’s toilet. Roughly half as fun and half as expensive, it’s a building block for two neurotransmitters – serotonin and melatonin – which are responsible for maintaining a good mood and healthy sleeping patterns respectively. The glory days of rave are turning in their grave.
2. Giving up caffeine
3. Not looking at digital screens before bedtime
See above. If melatonin is attacking the symptoms of our unhealthy late-night phone-using habits, this at least attacks the root cause and it certainly can’t do any harm. Do you really need to check your work emails at 11pm? Do you? Do you really need to order that newfangled baguette blender at 11pm when you’ve already missed that next day post deadline? DO YOU?
Steady on now, eagle eyes! This does indeed go in both categories. While I denounce mindfulness at 3am as a waste of bloody time, I’ve found it immensely helpful in getting through the sleep-deprived day that follows, e.g. remembering to be kind to yourself at 3pm when you can’t remember stuff because your grey matter hasn’t had the chance to rebuild its broken bonds in peace and quiet. Just take a step back, accept the fact you’re a bit of a goldfish for the time being, and focus on the hope of better days to come.
5. Removing all clocks from your line of sight
This means clocks in all their manifold permutations, from the radio clock to your watch to the old-fashioned analogue clock on the wall to, yes, YES, your smartphone. Turn them all round the other way and put them out of reach. The gigantic benefit of this – one that almost worked for me, even – is that when you wake up in the wee small hours, it’s much harder to go into panic mode about how many hours you have left before you have to get up. It could be that you wake up at 6am, manage to doze off again, and your alarm goes off at 6.30am. But it could also be that you wake up at 2am and doze off for another few hours. Either way, it’s a damn sight better than slowly chewing every nail down to the quick in time to the ticking second hand as the minutes trickle into hours, ticking, ticking, TICKING.
SO… WHAT THE HECK WORKS?
Plot twist! In the end, for me, insomnia turned out to be pretty much entirely circumstance-related. OK the rat in the wall may well have started the ball rolling, but I was already in a shaky place at the time, emotionally and mentally. This was due to a wobbly home life. There simply aren’t enough drugs or meditation tips out there that can overcome the fear of coming home to find excrement smeared on your bedroom door. Or a tarantula in your bed. Or your clothes torn to tatters. I was stuck in that purgatory for two months, and when I finally moved out and into a flat where I could literally put my key in the front door without giving myself a wrist seizure from the terror shakes, my sleeping pattern made a miraculous and instantaneous recovery.
TL;DR: if you can’t sleep, ditch the pills and the earplugs and take a long, honest look at your life to see what’s troubling you. Then have a long, honest glass of Merlot and hatch a plan to make things better.
Now may be a good time to admit that I feel a bit bad for using the rodent as a scapegoat for all those weeks. I whinged to a lot of people about that rodent. Dear Boring – you were alright. I hope the landlord never did put that poison down after all.