I never did write that post on sleep, I alluded to it often enough, my frequent references to sleep and teasers about “that post” are scattered throughout the blog. I’m not even sure what that post was now so I’m writing this one instead.
I can’t sleep, well I can, but not in a way that’s either useful or healthy. My inability to sleep makes me feel somehow deficient, lacking in basic life-skills, sleep-wise I am developmentally stunted, my ability being akin to that of a 3 month old infant- but without the daytime naps or beguiling smile to make up for it.
I am a horrible infant.
I know why I can’t sleep but contrary to my usual “knowledge is power” stance this knowledge does little or nothing to help.
Imagine if you will, that every night you have to get a group of people, all with their own thoughts, needs, complaints, concerns, fears and desires to get into bed, stay there and sleep all night.
Are you imagining it?
Your imagination is my reality
My sleep problems aren’t wildly different to those of your average chronic insomniac- the problem is I have all the problems of all the average chronic insomniacs- in one body.
Everybody, from time-to-time will spent a few wakeful hours in bed of an evening ruminating- a word I have real difficulty using thanks to the NHS standard CBT- based therapeutic approach.
“are you ruminating?”
“er…well..yes…I do worry…”
“WELL STOP IT!”
I feel guilty for ruminating but it’s not something I would choose to do and in my defence, much like a cow, I can’t digest things without some rumination. My rumination takes many forms, I think about all the kinds of things that other people think about- all at the same time. I think about what I’ve done that day, how it could’ve been done differently, what went right, what went wrong- all at the same time. A seemingly mundane trip to Tesco can result in hours of head noise where every possible perspective is discussed. It doesn’t help that evening head noise is inclined to be more of the “voices” type that the “other people’s thoughts” type, I hate hearing voices- it’s mental.
Everybody spends a little time at night thinking about the following day, what they need to do, want to do and hope will happen and not happen. I do this too but I think about the following day in every way possible- all at the same time. I can simultaneously plan a trip to Hobbycraft to purchase wool/stickers/glitter/paper/glue (but not colouring pencils, for reasons unknown the colouring pencils in Hobbycraft elicit a brief but heartfelt bout of sobbing) and my own death. I can think about what paperwork needs done whilst deciding whether or not to make soup. I can plan an awesomely fun trip to Ikea whilst fearing going as far as the end of the garden path. I worry about having to go out and dread a day of having to stay in. The only constant is that most days begin so early and after such little sleep that doing anything or going anywhere is often out of the question anyway thanks to permanent exhaustion.
Everybody has dreams and nightmares. I am unsure as to how I ever get as far as REM sleep given that my nights are a series of brief naps of around an hour but I’m not going to try and justify the physiology, I’m too tired. I have dreams and nightmares- often both- at the same time. I dream the dreams of many- concurrently. Dreams therefore just become another form of head noise, they are not a helpful way to process the day but are unsettling, confusing and something I’m keen to avoid. The only way to avoid dreaming is to avoid sleeping and sometimes this seems like the best plan.
Everybody has fears at night, even adults feel a little more vulnerable at night, I know I’m not the only 37 year old who does the “running, jumping thing” to get back into bed after a nocturnal bathroom trip. I can rationalise those fears- sometimes. I crave sleep; I am terrified of being asleep. I need to be awake, watchful but I fear being woken-up. I can see how ridiculous this is but I can’t help it and I console myself with the knowledge that my hypervigilance, combined with my ability to be awake for 22 hours a day means I have a very promising future in the surveillance industry.
I’m currently working on sleep and it’s very hard work, time-consuming, daunting, strangely lonely work. I’ve alluded to the “protracted bedtime routine” on twitter and anyone who knows me there will know that it has, so far been largely unsuccessful. I’m disappearing earlier in the evenings but I am still the first one up in the morning.
I’m grateful that we mentalists as a community have many interpretations of what constitutes “day” and the nocturnal mentalists are still there when I get up for the day to greet me and send me virtual tea and toast. I meet many fellow insomniacs and sympathise and of course there’s always the trusty Australians, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans happy to give me updates on yesterday and reports from the future.
The protracted bedtime routine includes your basic sleep hygiene (again, a term I hate and to quote a friend “Why do they have to call it hygiene? Hey you… dirty person…this is why you can’t sleep.. stop thinking, drink milk.”) so no tea after 6pm, no laptop/phone after 8pm, think happy thoughts, adjust room temperature, blah, blah- you know the drill.
Sleep hygiene for [number I will never reveal] separate people is a little different.
No tea after 6pm has been surprisingly easy, I suspect our tea drinkers are so desperate for sleep they’ll do anything.
Switching the laptop and phone off is relatively straightforward though both devices are often switched on again, and off again, and on again and so on.
Getting the room temperature right is a drawn-out battle between those who like it cold, those who like it warm and those who prefer an ambient temperature.
We’ve introduced several new rules to help with sleep (oh how we love rules)
- No nocturnal bathing- this has not gone down well, scalding hot baths at 3am were clearly very popular but we’re keen to confine the risk of requiring treatment for burns to office hours.
- No getting up before 5.30am -some do, some don’t. I think it’d be easier if we all woke up and got up at the same time- even if it was horrifically early. Staggered wakening has the “dementia effect” with “what day is it?” being queried repeatedly until around 11am.
- Snacking during the night is ok; we’re often hungry, thanks mainly to those who still react to any stress by foregoing food during the day. The challenge here is ensuring the snack is toast or fruit as opposed to inhaling half a kilo of Haribo at 2am.
- No nocturnal housework- this has actually worked quite well though I kind of miss the “Elves and the Shoemaker” effect. Dissociation is many things but it can be handy waking up to a tidy house with no recollection of having tidied it.
There’s a period of around an hour before getting in to bed that is taken up with ensuring everyone knows where they are and more importantly where they aren’t. I think this is a kind of grounding exercise, it mainly involves picking up various objects and pointing out “we didn’t have this before, we do now” it takes ages and not everyone is always convinced.
We throw a little light bedtime reading onto the mix, firm favourites at the moment are Mick Inkpen, Julia Donaldson and Allan Ahlberg (should my future career in surveillance fail I have the potential to be a fantastic children’s fiction reviewer). Then it’s time to actually get into bed.
One success in all of this is that we are now able to ‘sleep’ in the bed every night. Gone are the days of sleeping, terrified on the floor or sofa. I’m glad as the smallest house in the world is also the dampest house in the world and those nights on the floor in the gap betwixt bed and wall were grim and cold, the danger of contracting mycotoxins was both worrying and at times welcome if it brought with it the promise of premature death.
Getting into bed is an event, mainly due to the size of the stuffed-animal menagerie. I used to be ashamed of the number of soft-toys in the bed, ashamed and confused, I’m 37, I don’t think (I don’t know) I had a collection of stuffed animals as a child so why now? I’m over it, pillow-height should be amongst the diagnostic criteria for DID. I’m yet to find an acceptable solution to the problem of having more stuffed-animals than hands so careful arrangement of all bed occupants takes some time.
Lights-out is at 10pm, followed by “panicking because it’s dark” at 10.01pm at which point attention is drawn to the Chernobyl-like glow from the many glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls, ceiling and furniture.
Then the head noise begins. Sleep comes eventually- another success is the ability to get to sleep without medication, (apologies to anyone who has shares in Zopiclone) albeit briefly. There is something soul-destroying about waking-up, checking the clock and figuring out you’ve slept for 40 minutes. Best case scenario is that everyone has slept for those 40 minutes but more often than not those 40 minutes are as busy and noisy as the time we spend awake.
The nights rumble-on, they feel long and a lot of reframing is required-
Only mild pain- good night
No flashbacks- good night
No nocturnal wandering- good night
Two hours undisturbed sleep- good night
In truth, it’s all very shit and I’m fed-up of it. I’ll persevere as I have no choice but I’m beginning to wonder if sleep will ever be anything other than a terrifying, frustrating, exhausting battleground.