Insomnia

Sleeplessness has become the great obsession of our times. On average, we sleep two hours less per night than our grandparents did, with untold effects on our health, safety and general well-being. Douglas Kennedy, a habitual non-sleeper, enters the twilight zone
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a bar near my apartment in Paris called the Mabillon. It's open 24 hours a day. And though I studiously avoid it during the afternoon (when it's teeming with tourists) and in the evening (when it becomes Eurotrash Central), it's a perfectly agreeable spot at four in the morning, when, with the exception of the occasional drunken couple who are still deciding whether or not to fall into bed together, the bar is largely populated by people like me who just can't get to sleep.

There's a bar near my apartment in Paris called the Mabillon. It's open 24 hours a day. And though I studiously avoid it during the afternoon (when it's teeming with tourists) and in the evening (when it becomes Eurotrash Central), it's a perfectly agreeable spot at four in the morning, when, with the exception of the occasional drunken couple who are still deciding whether or not to fall into bed together, the bar is largely populated by people like me who just can't get to sleep.

Back in London, however, I don't have the luxury of an all-night joint on my doorstep. The nearest such establishment is on the Fulham Road – a 10-minute drive from my house. Of course, there's always the Bar Italia in Soho, but that's 20 minutes away – and even in the middle of the night, parking in Soho is always a strategic military operation. Granted, I could simply pop down to the all-night Tesco near me – but there's something just a tad depressing about killing time in a Balham supermarket, circa 3.40am.

And so, when the regular middle-of-the-night wake-up call arrives, I tend to stumble upstairs to my office, and phone a friend in a distant time-zone. In fact, one such chum – a screenwriter in Los Angeles – has got so used to my regular middle-of-the-night calls that he's begun to refer to me as the Prince of Darkness.

He might have a point. Because, for the last seven years, I have been having a long-standing relationship with that most common of modern ailments: insomnia. In fact, if statistics are to be believed, 40 per cent of the population have, at one time or another, suffered from short-term bouts of sleeplessness, whereas up to one-in-four people is a member of my club: the habitually wakeful.

Now, if these statistics are true, there must be a lot of very weary people walking around these days. Which, in turn, raises an intriguing question: what is it about the manic dance of modern life that makes so many of us refuse to succumb to that oblivion called sleep? (We sleep, on average, two hours a night less than our grandparents did.)

In my case, I usually have no trouble actually passing out, especially as I take a Nytol or two right before bedtime (an over-the-counter soporific, which does induce slumber). But then, anywhere between three and four hours later, an automatic internal alarm clock seems to ring between my ears, and I jolt awake, peering at the luminous dial by the bed, silently groaning to discover that, yet again, I am sentient in the middle-of-the-bloody-night.

Granted, after five or six nights of such non-stop broken sleep, my body and my brain conspire to deliver me a sucker punch, and I do pass out for seven straight hours, waking the next morning in the sort of beatific state of mind that one associates with newly born-again Christians. And like anyone temporarily transformed, I always assure myself that, from this moment on, I will start sleeping properly – that, like the cigarette junkie I once was, tonight will be the night when I beat this appalling habit.

Indeed, I often wonder if there isn't something addiction-like about insomnia. Because, like all addicts, I have just about tried every known cure imaginable – from strict dietary observance (along the lines of: don't eat fromage de chèvre after 10 o'clock or you'll jump awake in the middle of the night, after a nightmare involving sexual congress with Andrea Dworkin); to assorted herbal infusions (which allegedly induce sleep, but usually act as a serious diuretic); to the usual bevy of prescription and non-prescription drugs (three nights on Halcion made me feel like I'd just done time in a North Korean re-education camp); to aromatherapy treatments (all of which left me smelling like a brothel on pay day), not to mention a brief hilarious flirtation with transcendental meditation.

After all that, I've decided that I am a hopeless case – that my sleeplessness is now an intrinsic part of my life and that I must accept it as a fait accompli – and something which, may in time, go away.

The odds, however, aren't very good for its eventual disappearance. Because it's a physiological fact that the body needs less sleep as it enters that long dark corridor called middle age. Just as it is also a blinding glimpse of the obvious that the manifold complexities of adult life inevitably have an impact on sleep patterns. After all, the expression "I slept like a baby" was obviously coined by some fully grown individual who wasn't sleeping like a baby, and envied children their deep, innocent sleep.

Granted, it was George Orwell who said that, by the age of 40, a man possessed the face he deserved. Could it be that, by the time he or she arrives at that extended way-station known as "midlife", an individual is also getting the sleep (or lack thereof) that he merits? Certainly, any medical clinician will tell you that insomnia is rooted in a subconscious that can't shut down – and that one's anxieties, fears, or past traumas have a significant bearing on whether or not you can conk out for eight straight hours. My father, who still averages only four or five hours of unconsciousness a night, dates his sleeplessness to a traumatic stint on Okinawa as a US Marine during the Second World War (an experience he still refuses to talk about). Similarly, my grandfather told me that his insomnia began after serving in a US Army bomb-disposal unit during the First World War.

But for those of us who've never fought a war or weathered a severe economic depression, our chronic sleeplessness could probably be interpreted by many a conservative commentator as proof that we are a generation bound up in the manic hunt for self-gratification; that we have been afforded far too much consumerist choice, and have become so wrapped up in our own psychobabbly concerns and petty problems that we have naturally stressed ourselves into widespread insomnia.

"What your generation needs is a good war", my father once told me during one of our frequent head-to-heads, in which he started to rail against the number of my contemporaries whose marriages were collapsing and/or who were currently in therapy. And when I admitted to suffering from chronic sleeplessness, his reaction was equally mordant: "If you can't sleep, drink a beer" – the subtext of his comment being that only guys who fought wars or came of age after the Wall Street crash really deserved their sleeplessness.

Maybe there's a point to such tough-guy logic. Just as there's also something about insomnia that carries with it a whiff of personal frailty. Because we live in a self-help age in which "make-yourself-anew" gurus peddle a theory that you can overcome every doubt and conflict imaginable. According to such postulations, all emotional baggage can be discarded, or at least managed in such a way that you become that pop-psychology paragon, the centred individual – the sort of über- congruous type who has enough personal ballast and stability to weather all adversity, not to mention the perspective and maturity to counter all problems, and who, naturally, sleeps eight-bloody-hours-a-night.

Now, for my money, centred people don't really exist – except within the sort of cults that brainwash everyone into a state of neutralised bliss. More tellingly, as any decent shrink will inform you, everyone who walks the planet has a central neurotic core that they grapple with during the course of their lives. As such, none of us exist in a truly balanced, sagacious state ­ and we all struggle with personal demons. Simultaneously, modern life is still underscored with manifold tensions and stresses. The boom markets of the mid-Nineties meant a massive increase in consumer spending. Which, in turn, meant a massive increase in debt. Which, in turn, has meant a massive need to service the debt by working even longer hours. Which, in turn, has meant a massive increase in everyone's underlying anxiety.

This anxiety hit new heights after 11 September ­ when everyone was not only bracing themselves for further attacks, but for a massive correction in the economy. Over the past seven years, we've been told that we've never had it so good ­ and yet everything seems tenuous and under threat. We all have friends who have been downsized at work, and have found it difficult to reinvent themselves professionally. Forty per cent of all marriages fail. And when it comes to the acquisition of goods ­ well, let's face it, there is always a hollow underside to all things material.

It's fascinating to observe how marketing folk and advertisers have capitalised on the undercurrent of exhaustion and jitteriness that so defines contemporary life. A well-known chain of luxury business hotels has been running a series of advertisements promoting the comfortable mattresses and linens that grace the beds in their rooms worldwide ­ and, in turn, promising the enervated executive that rarest of commodities: proper sleep. Similarly, long-haul airlines constantly flaunt their brand of sleeper seats in the First and Business sections of their planes, once again highlighting the potential for rest. Vitamins, certain foodstuffs and assorted health regimes are all promoted for their ability either to give us energy (of which we are told we never have enough) or to allow us to relax.

Life nowadays ­ as advertisers constantly remind us ­ is a fraught business. So what we really want is the capacity to cope with it at optimum strength, and then to blot it out on cue at the end of the day. In other words, the most precious commodity in these high-pressured times is sleep.

Finally, sleep has become fashionable again ... precisely because it is now so hard to obtain. Yet we still have a sneaking admiration for the Margaret Thatchers of the world, who seem to function splendidly on four hours a night. Just as we read with amazement that Dickens was able to keep up his high output on very little sleep, often wandering the streets of London in the middle of the night, unable (as Peter Ackroyd pointed out in a recent article) to clearly see his monumental achievement, and still haunted by the ghosts of his childhood.

In other words, he was a chronic worrier ­ like every insomniac. And perhaps there's some comfort to be gained from the knowledge that sleep ­ the great preparation for death ­ is also a source of worry. As in: " Will I ever get to sleep?" Or: " Am I sleeping too little?" Or: " If only I could get eight hours, everything would be fine" (a comment affiliated to that other great "if only" statement: "If only I was making twice as much money, all my problems would be over").

And so, when I find myself loitering without much intent at 4am in some all-night bar or café, I study my fellow-insomniacs ­ all of whom also have that hangdog, dark-crescent-moons-beneath-the-eyes look of the perpetually sleepless. And I always find myself staring at darkened houses and apartments on my way home, marvelling at the number of bedroom lights that are illuminated in such wee small hours of the morning. And the thought strikes me: I'm a member of a very big, very tired club.

Ten things you never knew about the affliction)

1 A recent US poll showed that 63 per cent of women report the symptoms of insomnia for at least a few nights each week. In fact, women are 1.3 times more likely to report insomnia than men.

2 Sleepless nights aren't good for your mental health. The British Sleep Foundation says that sleeping just one hour less than the recommended eight can lower your IQ measurably the next day.

3 Next week, the Royal Society of Medicine will be holding a major conference on the subject of "The Sleepless Society". Many of the papers will reflect growing concern about the relationship between sleeplessness and increased risk of accidents.

4 So many Singaporeans suffer from insomnia that a National Sleep Day has been declared to make people more aware of the condition.

5 Unable to sleep, Charles Dickens would walk the streets of London until dawn. He called the condition "houselessness", and it was then that he met the prostitutes, beggars and drunks who peopled his novels.

6 "How do people go to sleep?" asked Dorothy Parker. "I'm afraid I've lost the knack. I might try busting myself over the temple with the night-light. I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound; if I can remember any of the damn things."

7 In the United States, about 10 million people are currently using prescription drugs to help them to sleep at night.

8 Research published by two scientists at Oxford University earlier this year suggested that counting sheep is actually counterproductive as a remedy for sleeplessness. The experiment found that imagining a relaxing scene was considerably more effective.

9 One ancient remedy for insomnia is honey. More recent "cures" include wearing mittens in bed, eating peanut butter for supper, and even sucking a spoon-shaped radio transmitter (it is claimed that the electromagnetic field could encourage the brain's electrical rhythms to relax).

10 The Guinness Book of Records states that the longest film ever is The Cure for Insomnia. It lasts 80 hours.

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