In bed with Susan De Muth: Barbara Smoker / Stranglers in the night

Barbara Smoker, 71, has been president of the National Secular Society for 24 years. She lives in south London.

I AM afraid of sleeping. During the Second World War I was a wireless telegraphist for the Navy in Ceylon. We had long night watches, during which I was always terrified of dropping off and missing some vital code groups. I knew that could cost thousands of lives. I've been an insomniac ever since.

For several years I suffered from hypnagogic hallucinations, on the verge of sleep. I would hear screaming, for example, and go to the window and see a man strangling a woman in the garden. Then they would disappear and I'd wake in a panic. A psychiatrist said, 'You are phobic about sleep and must take valium for the rest of your life.' Luckily I hardly ever do as I am told or I'd be a zombie by now.

I sleep for a quarter of an hour at a time, then awake with a very active mind. I don't particularly care unless I'm lecturing or broadcasting the following day and need to be sharp. My bed is not, I admit, very comfortable - there are springs poking out of the mattress - but that makes no difference. It's just the same if I'm in a hotel.

I officiate at about two funerals a week and I write texts for them in the early hours, between sleeps. It takes me about five hours to compose a funeral because they are individually tailored. I write an obituary, having interviewed the deceased's friends and relatives, which I read out at the service. I always concentrate on their positive attributes and end with the Epicurean epitaph, 'I was not, I have been, I am no more.'

I also spend ages lying in bed polishing up slogans because I like to do competitions. I've won quite a few. The only drawback is that you have to buy all these products that you don't particularly want, which adds to the general litter around the place. My flat is a terrible mess with clothes and papers and books in piles everywhere. My tenant downstairs calls it 'thought compost'.

My tenant is an insomniac too. One night I woke at 3.30am and could hear someone creeping around in my living-room. I thought it was a burglar and, armed with a stick, went to check. It was my tenant looking something up in one of my encyclopaedias with a torch.

I'm glad I live alone. I've always liked my privacy and I couldn't stand someone else's mess. I did have several love affairs when I was younger but I'm glad to be free of that now. I always thought sex was such a messy sort of thing. I've realised as I've got older that actually my main orientation has always been lesbian, though I was never a practising one.

My first love was Jesus. I was so bloody religious. I was going to be a nun - several books have been written in the past few years revealing that most nuns are lesbian in orientation. I used to get up in the night to pray. When you're that emotionally involved, prayer is a form of sexual release. In my twenties I started reading, discovering other ways of thinking, and on 5 November 1949 at midday, I suddenly realised I no longer believed. It was the most dramatic experience of relief - like an orgasm. I have never had a second of doubt since.

I think a lot about death when I'm lying awake at night. I can remember thinking that 10 was very old. Old for me now is 90 - I don't want to live into my nineties. I'm not afraid of death but I fear a long illness. I have a supply of pills and I will decide when I die. The best time to go is winter - you take your pills, lie on the bed with no covers and open the window. Hypothermia hastens your death and it's an easy way to go.

I wake up for the last time at 6am and get out of bed. I feel very positive in the mornings. The few problems I do have - such as how I'm going to pay my gambling debts - have somehow been sorted out during the night and I start pottering about, whistling and thinking how lucky I am in so many respects.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress among those on 'master list' of massive hack
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey fans rejoice, series five returns later this month
TV
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    KS1 Primary Teacher in Bradford

    £21000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: KS1 Primary Teacher in Br...

    Year 3 Primary Teacher in Keighley

    £21000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 3 Primary Teacher in...

    Primary Teacher

    £100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay, Free CPD : Randstad Education So...

    Credit Controller (Sales Ledger, SAGE)- London, Old Street

    £12 per hour: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street A well es...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor