The other day I was speaking to my niece, who lives abroad, on the phone, not something we do regularly, and she asked how I was. ‘Tired,’ I answered. ‘You’re always tired,’ she sighed back. And she’s right. But there’s generally not much else an insomniac can say.
While some people seem to manage on just a few hours of sleep (lots of politicians only get four to five hours, apparently, including Trump, but I’m not sure that’s worked in his favour as he doesn’t make much sense most of the time), if I get less than six hours too many days in a row, my brain switches off.
The latest episode of my recurring insomnia was triggered back in June after weeks of relentless heat that just about finished me off. Because although my office is probably one of the coolest rooms in the house, I find it difficult to concentrate when the temperatures soar and even harder to sleep. And then my daughter woke me up one night in the early hours because she was having breathing difficulties due to her tonsillitis. After settling her back in bed, I was wide awake and knew further sleep was impossible. The next night I woke up after just a few hours of sleep again. And that was it. Welcome to the four o’clockish in the morning club. Because 4 a.m. seems to be the “magic” number as far as my insomnia’s concerned.
One of the worst aspects of my insomnia is that I never know when it might hit. I can go through a period of sleeping relatively well and then
I suddenly find it hard to fall asleep or I wake up in the early hours of the morning and can’t drop off again. I’ve been so desperate at times that I’ve literally counted sheep jumping over a tiny fence in the middle of a field. It didn’t work.
Reading a book can be quite calming and thinking about a TV programme sometimes helps. I go back to the beginning of the entire series or season and try to remember what has happened and who is who. As I’m a fan of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and The 100, I generally use those as my go-to series and think about who dies where, how and when and who’s still alive. It might sound tediously boring, but that’s the point. And this tactic has often worked with me falling back asleep long before I arrive at the end.
Since a bad bout of insomnia at the end of the summer in 2015, I’ve been sleeping with a mask. After trying several, I bought a large one that smells of lavender. Although the aroma doesn’t last long, especially not after you’ve washed it, it’s great to shut yourself off from the world. Besides keeping any annoying light out, putting the mask on marks a symbolic distancing and closing down, as if you were pulling down the shutters of your shop for the day. It’s similar to putting on the headphones and using DNS. My family has far more respect for my work when I’m dictating. They don’t just barge into my room and interrupt. Instead they tiptoe in, stand politely to one side and wave to get my attention so I can switch the mic off before conversing.
Insomnia can knock you for six. All your work and other plans fly out the window. It can be hard to concentrate. And also dangerous to drive. I’ve often been forced to change my plans at the last minute due to not sleeping. I’ve even had to inform clients on occasion and ask for an extension, something I’m obviously loath to do. I get so annoyed when I’m lying there wishing I was still in slumberland, wasting time trying to sleep instead of actually sleeping; getting up later to compensate for those wasted hours (usually with a screaming backache due to an old rowing-related injury); ending up not having enough time in the day to get everything I had planned done; reordering my priorities; ignoring several non-urgent items on my to-do list.
That’s why if I seem trapped in a cycle of waking up at four a.m., I may as well organise my entire day around it. First, I make sure I’m in bed early enough to get plenty of sleep. If that means going to bed between 8.30 p.m. and 10 p.m., then so be it. Of course, going to bed early is much easier in winter when it’s already been dark for ages anyway and my bed looks warm, cosy and inviting. But it’s not such a good option in the summer when it’s still light at 9 p.m., the heat has finally subsided so you feel like going outside for a dog walk and the garden needs watering (which can take up to an hour).
This is also where the sleep cycles come in. As each cycle lasts around 90 minutes, I try to give myself time to sleep at least six hours and preferably seven and a half (five cycles). Given that it might take me a while to fall asleep, I factor in some extra time for that as well. I rarely use an alarm clock because I rely on my natural cycles, so when I finally doze off, the chances of my cycle being interrupted are minimised. Of course, this also means I can oversleep if I’ve had a bad night or it’s taken me far longer to fall asleep than I’d anticipated.
I have to admit that I enjoy the peace and quiet of working so early in the morning when the rest of the family is still asleep and my clients have not yet arrived at work to begin the next daily round of bombarding emails (Can you analyse this job? When can you do it by? Can you look at the changes to this document?). It’s also great to make a coffee mid-morning and realise I’ve achieved a great deal already. That feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is quite motivating.
For me, getting up earlier to translate is far better than attempting to work late. Not only do I feel more alert in the mornings, I also take fewer calories on board because I tend to snack a lot to keep myself awake at night and reward myself for working when everyone else is asleep. But I don’t get that urge to stuff my face at the start of the day so I just have breakfast rather than almost an extra meal.
The downside to being a member of the 4 o’clockish in the morning club is that it turns me into a party pooper that nods off in the evenings at the drop of a hat. And I’m like a baby when I’m a passenger in a car and drift off even when I try hard not to. That’s why I only follow this regime when insomnia forces me into it and until my sleep pattern returns to my more usual waking time of 6 a.m.
Your Body Does Incredible Things When You Aren’t Awake (Huffington Post article on sleep cycles)
Sleep Scientist Warns Against Walking Through Life ‘In An Underslept State’ (National Public Radio)
Zzzzzzzzz … 12 simple steps to a good night’s sleep (Guardian article)
The Military Secret to Falling Asleep in Two Minutes (Independent article)
Sleepyti.me helps you calculate when to go to bed to get enough sleep