Can't sleep a wink at 40

dilemma At 40, David suffers acute insomnia. He either tosses and turns before getting off to sleep, or wakes in the night. He's exhausted all day and his insomnia disturbs his wife, who's angry he won't try sleeping pills because his insomnia wakes her. He now dreads bedtime. What can he do?
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What on earth has ever made David think that sleeping peacefully for eight golden hours is the norm in middle age? It's one of those extraordinary myths, like the one that says you should empty your bowels every day, that get most ordinary people with wildly differing sleep or lavatorial patterns worrying themselves sick. Most people I know, particularly in middle age when people need increasingly less sleep as they grow older, frequently wake in the night consumed with panic. They can't all be suffering from depression, although insomnia is a classic cause of depression, particularly combined with feeling exhausted through the day - and David should certainly get that checked out.

Has he tried the usual remedies, anyway? An extremely hot bath thick with aromatic oils before going to sleep, a warm milky drink or camomile tea, a warm bedroom with a herb pillow, 20 minutes' meditation - any of these would almost certainly help him get off to sleep though they might not preventing him waking at three in the morning in a cold sweat. But if he does wake at three, rather than worry about it, David should get up, very quietly so as not to wake his wife, and tiptoe to another room where he should read a chapter of his book with a warm cup of Horlicks, Ovaltine, Bournvita or some other soothing concoction. He should make the most of being awake, and count himself lucky he has a couple of spare hours to catch up on the World Service, the moronic capers of cable television (there is something blissfully decadent about watching the shopping channel as the dawn chorus comes up) or another chapter of his book.

The truth is that most people don't need much more than six hours' sleep a night, and that if they are strict with themselves they can usually get into regular sleeping patterns. The trick is to cut out tea, coffee and alcohol, go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. David should treat himself like a tiny baby, forcing himself into a disciplined timetable whether he likes it or not. No lie-ins and no late nights, just a rigid routine.

As for sleeping pills, why doesn't he take them? Is he one of those people who feels that taking any kind of pill is morally wrong? "I managed to shake my flu off without taking antibiotics," these people say when, after putting their families through months of tray-carrying and special treatment, they emerge barely intact, but with weakened lungs and fragile nose-linings.

Sleeping pills can break the cycle of sleeplessness very well if taken for a short period, and I can well imagine David's wife getting irritated if he won't even try them. WS Gilbert wrote: "When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is taboo'd by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in, without impropriety"; I can well imagine David's wife indulging in quite a bit of strong language as she's woken night after night by David fussing about his sleep patterns.

David must get on top of this problem. See the doctor, get the pills, don't expect to sleep like a baby at 40, and when he wakes in the night, consider it a bonus rather than a misfortune.

Sleep - who needs it?

David should stop worrying about it and start to enjoy it. I have suffered from David's problem in the past. Then I realised that what was keeping me awake was worrying about not sleeping. So I got up, made a pot of tea and settled down in an armchair with a book. To hell with sleep, who needs it? Seconds later, I was gone, waking up in the morning, in the chair, book on floor, tea untouched. Once the fear of not sleeping had been vanquished, sleep came when needed.

There are three reasons why David is not sleeping. One: not tired enough. Two: though tired, his mind is overactive. Three: not all of us need the eight hours our grandparents told us we needed. Lady Thatcher, it is said, managed on four hours a night. So might David and, unlike the Great Handbag, he might do something beneficial with his extra time.

Mike Whitaker

Bridgwater, Somerset

The write opportunity

Most people have the opposite problem; they have to spend eight hours or 10 hours of the day unconscious,when they could be doing something useful. David is complaining about his wonderful gift of wakefulness at night. Go jogging, learn Japanese, re-read Proust, write that novel: do anything with your spare time. Just don't whine and complain about it.

Brian Ashley


Radio daze

For David with sleeping difficulties, a bedside radio with a 30 minutes sleep button and a socket for earphones. A pillow speaker inserted into the earphone socket, cuts out the radio speaker and delivers straight to your ear muffled under one pillow. Tune to one of the talk programmes and you will be asleep in no time.

Cecil Lush

London NW2

Boredom by numbers

The only way to beat insomnia is to bore yourself to sleep. To prevent any interesting thoughts, count upwards in prime numbers. You can make this even more boring by going back to one every time you have to stop to work out what the next prime should be. Ultimately boring, which works for me, is to go back to one after every new number. I don't think I have ever got past 53 and usually succumb to sleep somewhere in the thirties.

Liz Panton

Newcastle upon Tyne

Sleepers and leapers

I endured exactly the same problem last year and began dreading going to bed, knowing I would never sleep. This went on for three months.

Go to a doctor. Mine diagnosed sleeping depression, which is treatable. Prozac and Zimovane ( a mild hypnotic sleeping pill) have helped dramatically and I now get off to sleep with ease. The combination of sleepers and leapers does work.

David MacGowan


The inner self

I am 43. Two years ago I went through a period of insomnia the like of which I had never before experienced. I tried every trick - sleeping in other rooms, tablets, alcohol, relaxation tapes - to no avail. I couldn't believe how frightened I became of going to bed. Now that I have retired, I believe I know what it was for me. There was, deep down, a subconscious stress which was my inner self's way of saying "No". Something must change. The punctured inner tube cannot be mended while still on the wheel.

So I would say to David, take time out, there may be something much bigger under here that needs sorting out. Some life changes may be on the cards.




Dear Virginia,

A fortnight ago Bestie, my dog, died. I had had him since he was a puppy and because he had lost his mother I had to feed him myself from a very early age.

We were completely inseparable and I am absolutely devastated. My friends can't understand it. I am an apparently capable woman with a caring husband, two children and a fulfilling part-time job.

My children are very kind to me when I cry, but my husband is losing patience. He even cleaned away a paw-mark of hers that I couldn't bear to remove from the kitchen floor. I don't think he knows how cruel this was. My mother has offered to buy me another one, or take me to get a rescue dog, but I simply can't face the idea of any dog but Bestie.

When I went to see my doctor he was very sympathetic when I told him Bestie had died, but after I had wiped my eyes, he said: "Now, what's the problem?" as if he thought I had come for some physical ailment and what I said about Bestie was just chat. I made some excuse and left. Am I peculiar? How will I ever get back to normal?

Yours sincerely, Tess

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the `Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.