Meet Bertie, my partner in crime. Bertie and I like to share the papers and a cup of tea of a Sunday morning. Bed should be a place of relaxation, somewhere to unwind, to cuddle, to dream. A place to escape the world and lick your wounds.
Unfortunately, at times my bed becomes somewhere I dread. This happens when I have to share my bed with somebody else; let’s call her Insomnia. There is no point in sugar-coating this: Insomnia is an absolute bitch. She steals your dreams, your joie de vivre, saps you of all your energy, and leaves you with dark circles under your eyes. And there’s the added kicker that you don’t have the energy left to cover them up with concealer!
Lack of sleep makes everything worse. All of the demons that can be tackled during the day come back with a vengeance when it’s 3am and you can’t get to sleep. There is a reason banshees and ghosts only come out at night. I have learned how to manage my anxious tendencies during the day, and these days I’m pretty good at distracting myself, or catching negative thoughts before they spiral out of control. However, these coping skills are ineffective in the middle of the night when I am all alone and the wind is howling (literally or metaphorically). I lose control over my thoughts, my mind runs away with itself, and I lie awake worrying.
In some ways, my mind is a bit like Mario Kart. As kids, my brother and I would spend hours playing the game on our Commodore 64. Kieran would always win because I was absolutely incapable of driving my kart in the right direction. I would either whirr around in a circle, or somehow end up driving backwards on the track. That’s what happens to my thoughts in the middle of the night: they drive off in the wrong direction and I struggle to wrestle back control of the steering wheel.
Some thoughts that currently keep me awake at night include, but are not limited to, the following:
- What if people reading my blog secretly think I’m a pretentious wanker?
- Where has he disappeared to and why does it still hurt so much?
- Why haven’t I done something to try and help the Syrian refugees?
- How can I be so selfish and worry about myself when the world is going to hell in a handbasket?
Basically, any excuse will do to beat myself up at 3am, and I can usually manage to convince myself that I am to blame for all the negative aspects of my life and the world around me. Cognitive behaviour therapists would point out here that these ways of thinking are cognitive distortions; negative thought patterns that have worn a deep groove on my neural pathways. Of course it’s very easy to see that in the light of day, but rationalisation seems far away when I can’t sleep.
Soooo… Insomnia is a desperately tricky bedfellow to deal with, and if you too suffer from her, then you have my deepest sympathies. I’m certainly not going to pretend I have all the answers, but at least I can tell you what has and hasn’t helped me. I would suggest that the best thing you can do for your sanity in the middle of the night is to put down your phone and STAY OFF THE INTERNET. Mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and the Twitterbox at 3am is a recipe for disaster. Now everyone likes a good nose through random peoples’ Facebook photos (please don’t pretend you haven’t done this: we all have; it’s ok!), but doing it in the middle of the night when you feel half-demented from the lack of sleep isn’t going to make you feel better. Going online with no sleep is a bit like holding a magnifying mirror up to your life: it’s only going to highlight all of your worst insecurities and fears. So please save yourself, and put your phone on to airplane mode before you go to bed. Or, even better, buy an old fashioned alarm clock and leave your phone charging in a different room. You should be decreasing your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels at night, and being without a phone is a good starting point.
In times of desperation I have also taken sleeping tablets prescribed for me by my doctor, but I have an uneasy relationship with these types of pills. Firstly, they have the potential to be addictive (unlike anti-depressant medication) in that their efficacy wears off over time, so you may end up taking quite a high dose in order to get the same effect they first had. Secondly, I am very little and this type of medication has a potent effect on me. I have taken a sleeping tablet before, been knocked out for an hour or so, and then woken up and sleep-walked around the house having entire conversations with people, none of which I remember the following morning. Finally – and this is probably the main reason I tend to avoid this type of medication – I usually wake up feeling really ill and hungover, so it’s just not worth it for the few hours sleep the tablet might give me. On a side note here, using alcohol to make you sleep probably isn’t a brilliant idea either, as it just knocks you out and you also wake up feeling horrible.
I have also found it helpful to manage the insomnia with techniques that doctors annoyingly insist on calling ‘sleep hygiene’. (Useful concept; stupid phrase!) This includes avoiding too much caffeine after 5pm. So I’ll stick to decaf coffee in the evening, but personally I think decaf tea is an abomination, so I just drink less Barry’s at night and have chamomile or some other worthy type of herbal tea instead. Next, it helps to go to bed feeling as relaxed as possible, so try to finish up work an hour or two before sleep if you can so that you can unwind. Having a bath can help, or reading something non-taxing. I also find magnesium supplements helpful: I use a powdered version which I take before I go to bed. Magnesium helps to relax the muscles (so don’t take too much…) and helps your body to unwind. Basically I have found if I try to do all these things, and go to bed not feeling too anxious or stressed, then I have some chance at getting a few hours of quality sleep, but if I go to bed anxious, then the chances are the Mario Kart will come out for a 3am joyride.
Excuse me wheeling out a tired cliché to finish; after all, I’m a tired girl. I love the poem “This too shall pass” by Helen Steiner Rice, and these lines have always comforted me:
…darkness will fade with the morning
And that this will pass away, too.
And it’s true that no matter how dark a night I have, things really do always look better in the morning, even if I don’t! So hang on in there and this too shall pass.