June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
This time a year ago I went to America. After a few weeks, I began one of my longest seasons of insomnia. Its pattern was that I would go to bed, usually some time between twelve and one, though it didn’t really matter when. I would fall asleep, and wake again at four. Usually, it was at exactly four. Once, it was at exactly four because there was a small earthquake.
For a while I would hang around on the brink of sleep, almost falling back in. But then my thoughts would start to tick over, and then begin steadily to throb like an idling engine. Night thoughts are not the same as day thoughts. And there is no amount of reading, wishing or walking that can turn those endless hours of night into day. But there are things to do that make the sleeplessness less likely, and to mitigate it. You can’t try to sleep (though we always tell children, confusingly, to do so). Sometimes, though, you can trick it.
I’ve never written a self-help post before; nor a list. Personally, I find these forms both slightly compelling and more than slightly annoying. But here it is: tricks from a poor sleeper. If nothing else it’s something to think about in the long silent hours of the night.
Preparing for sleep
When I moved into my flat, I slept on a sofabed for months. Then I gave it away and slept on the floor. In America, I lived in the lounge of a shared house for three months (saving money: what an idiot), sleeping either on the floor, on a borrowed Thermarest, or on one of the two sofas (the leather one, though an unpleasant texture, turned out to be best).
So I know that this is true: there is nothing like a good bed. Hard beds are best. I finally collected my good, wooden futon from my parents’ house. I will not part with it again.
Get a good bed. Do not make excuses (‘it will be expensive/hard to move/temporary’ etc). Having a good bed is as important as having good shoes or a good bike. It will make you happy every day.
Buy good sheets. They have to be cotton; but ideally they should be something like “Egyptian cotton”, because this provides you with an idea as well as sheets. If you know it is “Egyptian cotton” you can feel the superior texture on your skin, putting you in a happier state for sleep. Most insomnia is probably about unhappiness in some form, so this is valuable.
White sheets are really best. There is nothing quite like them. No other colour feels as crisp, or as deliciously cool. Sheets unwashed for too long feel uncrisp – even, slightly greasy. Wash them often. In something that smells beautiful. Dry them in the air.
Good duvets are expensive. Get one. Like the bed, it will change your life. Duvets should be feather, ideally down. They are impossibly light and infinitely warm. Somehow, they are both crunchy and squidgy, like macaroons.
- Other things
Get an eyemask, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because then you don’t have to sleep in a dark room (for me, blackout curtains are a sort of torture device).
Someone who sold hats once told me to put on a hat if you can’t sleep, because so much heat is lost through your head (even at her stall, though, I wasn’t able to find a good sleeping hat).
Maybe, a sleep talisman is a good idea. Children have them in the form of toys, but most people grow out of them. I hadn’t had one for as long as I could remember, but the night before my new job started, I fell asleep holding a little beanbag – the kind you place over your eyes at the end of a yoga class. I woke up several times that night, and every time I had a wild, irrational need to find the beanbag – after which I fell back asleep. A talisman might be a good way to deflect insomnia, I think.
In the night
When you’re awake in the night, the most dangerous things are your own thoughts. Anything you can do to change their strange dark patterns and break their cycle is good – though some tricks are more likely than others to help you sleep again. These are mine.
This doesn’t help me go to sleep, but it helps me stop thinking. Read a book, ideally one that is enjoyable but not very exciting. Don’t turn on a screen to read. I heard that the kind of light they admit is particularly addling; but the main problem is that they encourage you to flick between different activities, and that they are often connected to the internet. In my experience, the internet is not a good place to send yourself or to wander during a sleepless night.
The thoughts lose power, rather than gain it, from being written down. Even if they don’t go away completely, they are mitigated. And you know you can come back to them in the morning, so there is no need to keep rehearsing them. Writing, especially emotional writing, is also fairly exhausting, so you might find it helps you sleep again.
This is more of a trick than a hunger-based necessity. A friend of mine with chronic insomnia conquered it, to a large extent, by eating a bowl of cereal last thing at night, every night. Find a food to associate with sleep. If you are a rabbit, the soporific food is lettuce. Mine is plain oats, milk and honey. Beware of toast – the food you choose needs to be eatable in bed, without producing uncomfortable crumbs.
- Have sex
Well, obviously. I think quite a lot of insomnia is really sexual frustration, plus it’s different being sleepless next to a partner – who you can wake up and talk to – than being sleepless alone. If you are alone, though, masturbate. Sometimes this is what you need to go to sleep. But if not, at least it’s a worthwhile thing to spend your sleepless time doing.
- Tell yourself a story
For me, this is the main one. I’ve been telling myself the same story since I was about seven. It’s changed a lot on the way, and it morphs to incorporate new stimuli, people and ideas. At its heart, though, it’s the same story. I really don’t know if anyone else does this. Do they? The advantage is that it is absorbing, and narrative, but it isn’t real and so it avoids the trap of the night-thoughts, which twist everything into a cause for worry and panic.
When I was a child I thought I would grow out of this. When I was a teenager, I thought I should. Perhaps I still will. But not yet.
If all else fails, get up
- Try the floor
After harping on about good beds, sometimes the bed is a trap. Try sleeping on the floor. Make a nest with your down duvet. Sleep on the sofa (I don’t have one, but you might).
A few weeks ago, totally unable to fall back asleep, I went for a 5am walk. I gave myself a mission: to find a Swiss Army knife lost the day before on the heath. I went to the place, searched systematically, and failed to find it. It was a grey morning, the trees were monochrome and the grass shifted about uneasily in the wind. They might not be very nice, these walks, but they are an experience. Its good to know what the world looks like at the times you’re normally in bed.
This is only a really good idea if you don’t have to go to a full day of work afterwards. But if you can get three hours work done between four and seven, then sleep from seven until ten, great.
In the end
The Swiss Army knife wasn’t on the heath, I discovered – it had been found, hours before, at the bottom of someone’s bag. But in any case, I’d known at the time that I wasn’t being rational. The insomniac hours are a strange, hidden, lost and lonely time. This practical post doesn’t feel quite right – its like a prayer said into the dark. Does all self-help have a touch of that? Maybe I should try Valium.