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No rest for the busy

Man counts sheep

A POINT OF VIEW

On the longest day, no sooner has the sun dipped below the horizon than it peeks around the bedroom curtains. A curse or a blessing for the insomniac, asks a sleep-deprived Lucy Kellaway.

The longest day of the year falls this weekend, and with it comes the shortest night. At about 3.45am robins, wrens and thrushes start their infernal chirping in raucous anticipation of the sun, which peeps above the crust of the earth at the ungodly hour of 4.43am.

Lucy Kellaway
By way of reassurance the doctor told me that insomnia had already made my hair dry and skin wrinkled

For insomniacs, this briefest night is a mixed blessing. If you have given up on sleep, the early dawn can be a relief. In Anne Enright's novel The Gathering - which won last year's Booker prize - the bereaved, unhinged heroine drives her car at night around the dark streets and says "I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes when you haven't slept."

Yet equally the dawn can make no sense at all: if one has still not managed to drift off to sleep, the gleam of light on the other side of the bedroom curtains can be the most dispiriting sight in the world.

When I see it in my own bedroom I sometimes think of Al Pacino in the movie Insomnia. He plays a cop sent to Alaska - where there is almost no night at all. Crazed by the endless light he pins towels and cushions over the windows at 4am in a frenzied, futile attempt to persuade his wired body that it's dark and therefore time to sleep.

Counting sheep

You don't need to be a demented cop in Alaska to be sleepless at dawn. It seems we're all insomniacs now. Every successive survey shows that sleep eludes us more and more: according to a recent one, a third of Britons have three bad nights every week.

Women sleep in tent at Isle of Wight festival
Slumber in the summer sunshine

And even people who appear to be fast asleep in bed aren't sleeping properly. Fifteen million of us have been diagnosed as having "junk sleep" - the poor quality slumber that is apparently the result of too much work and having a bedroom filled with TVs, computers and BlackBerrys.

At a recent conference on insomnia at the Wellcome Trust, sleep experts argued that what has really changed is not so much our sleep, but our attitude to it. We worry about how much - or little - we're getting in a way that we never used to.

A hundred or so years ago a poor night was just something that happened. Most people were in rickety beds which they shared with as many other members of the family as could be slotted in - along with assorted bed bugs. The whole night must have been one long exercise in kicking and scratching.

But now we sleep at most two to a bed, and a pretty comfortable one at that. We feel that sleep is something that is our right and should come the second we turn the light off. And if we find it that it doesn't, we are querulous and much inclined to moan.

Insomnia is usually defined as a difficulty in getting to sleep or in staying asleep. Yet I recently came across a rather better definition used by Dr Thomas Stuttaford in the Times. He said insomnia was "the conviction that someone has that he or she is not getting an adequate amount of sleep".

Sleep anxiety

My own sleeplessness started as a child, and was brought on by exactly this worry. Like most children back then, I was put to bed at an impossibly early hour and if I padded downstairs at, say 8pm, saying "I can't get to sleep", my mother would look distressed. In her book, if a child didn't get at least 10 hours sleep, it would be ragged, bad tempered and unable to cope with the day.

Mother reads bedtiome story in 1955
Early to bed and early to rise...

She was right - but knowing this increased my desire for sleep, and that very desire kept me awake. You can only find the magic button that sends you off when you aren't desperately looking for it.

A pamphlet from the think tank Demos has called for the nation's lack of sleep to be put on the policy agenda claiming that to be creative and productive, all of us so-called "knowledge workers" need a good eight hours. It argued that there should even be a Minister for Sleep who would make us forget Maggie Thatcher's notion that sleep was for wimps and would help us get a lot more of it.

This, in my view, is gibberish. Insomniacs are not impressionable teenagers, swayed by gung-ho jetsetters subsisting on five hours a night. When I read recently about the Irish telecoms entrepreneur Declan Ganley, getting by on three or four hours, I didn't think ooh, let me try that. I felt God, poor man.

Being without sleep is a curse. When I'm really short of it, I'm ratty, groggy, wired, tearful and feel sick all at once. It is no surprise that sleep deprivation is used to torture prisoners - it leaves no mark on the body but maddens the spirit.

Menachem Begin, who was tortured by the KGB as a young man, wrote that "a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."

Magic pill

What is remarkable about insomnia is that given how horrible it is and how common, medicine has been so hopeless at finding a cure.

Couple in a bed with a soothing lightshow
Curing insomnia the 1970s way

In the 18th Century insomniacs took opium, and later, in the 19th, potassium bromide, while they now guzzle zopiclone, valium and temazepam - doctors write out 11m prescriptions for insomnia each year.

The new drugs may be less toxic than the old ones, but they all have one thing in common: they aren't the answer. In my experience, any sleeping pill that succeeds in getting you off to sleep and keeps you there is either addictive, or stops working if you use it too often - or both.

A century ago doctors believed that insomnia was due to bad circulation. Some said that the problem was too much blood in the head, and ordered patients to sleep sitting up. Others suggested that the problem was too little so the answer was to keep your head down and your legs up.

Now they think it's depression, but they are still confused - insomnia and depression are clearly linked, but which causes which?

The first time I saw a doctor about my failure to sleep I was advised to drink a cup of hot milk before bedtime. I've also been advised to do calming yoga exercises. Or to splash lavender oil on my pillow.

Despairing of all this, I went to visit a Chinese doctor. Ah yes, he said, insomnia. Very serious. He looked at my tongue and shook his head. Was I worrying about anything, he asked. I said I was worrying about not sleeping.

By way of reassurance he told me that insomnia had already made my hair dry and skin wrinkled and would in time lead to organ failure and early menopause, and would also destroy my relationships with my family and colleagues. Even my mum, I think, wouldn't have gone that far.

He then produced a packet of cloth sachets with herbs inside. These should be boiled up and the liquid drunk. He also gave me some pills and told me to take 39 a day. The only effect of this ancient medicine was that it made my kitchen stink and it made me even more anxious than I was before.

Concentrate the mind

In her fascinating book, Insomnia: A Cultural History, Eluned Summers-Bremner argues that modern insomnia began about 500 years ago when the middle classes started to invest their money overseas and had something to fret over. She concludes that why we can't sleep is that there is too much in our heads, and that prevents us from finding the off switch.

Sleeping on the Eurostar
Busy lives, snatched sleep

If too much thought at night is the problem, one answer is to put it to better use. It seems to me that in the middle of the night we have both our worst thoughts and our best ones. It is as if the multi-tasking part of the brain has given up, exhausted, leaving us free to focus, often madly and obsessively on one thing in a way that we can't in the day.

Occasionally I have dragged myself from my sleepless bed, sat at the computer and written something in an hour that might have taken six in the day. The novelist Gautam Malkani only writes at night, while the actress and singer Toyah Wilcox has built up a multi-million pound property empire overseas and traded stocks and shares in the small hours - all because she couldn't sleep.

Alternatively one can give up trying to use the time productively and count sheep instead.

Yet this didn't work for the singer Robert Wyatt. In his song Heaps of Sheep, the animals, once counted and over the stile, refused to go further and piled up creating a vast writhing heap, causing the sleepless singer to be so traumatised he could no longer even close his eyes.

Famous insomniacs have patented their own sleep remedies. Groucho Marx used to phone strangers in the middle of the night and shout at them, though I prefer the trick deployed by Winston Churchill. He had twin beds and when he couldn't sleep, switched between them.

German fans sleep on the footpath during Euro 2008
Football fans catch up on zzzzzs

An even better variation of this for married women might be to swap between the marital double and a single. One recent study found that men tend to sleep better when they're next to a woman, while women tend to sleep worse when they're sharing their bed with a man.

But best of all I like the solution found by an insomniac friend. She knits scarves when sleep escapes her. She props herself up in bed, and finds the calm business of putting the needle through, putting the wool around and then taking the stitch off, just right. Repetitive, and boring.

If the reason that we cannot sleep is that we have too many thoughts in our heads, this puts a stop to them. And even on occasions when it doesn't do that, nightly scarf knitting has a nice side effect: it keeps you in Christmas presents forever.


Below is a selection of your comments:

Beautiful piece on insomnia, probably the best article you could find on the subject as it sums everything up and confirms the one thing we all know about insomnia; There are many options out there in an attempt to cure it but inevitably there are very few real answers and you have to be pretty lucky if you find the right one for you! I bet you wrote most of this during a sleepless night? haha
Stuart Carbery, Astley, Manchester

Although it sounds quite obvious, if one of the main problems causing insomnia is the endless flow of thoughts into someone's minds, the solution should be to think of nothing. After four or five tries it cam be achieved, it's a matter of training. Nevertheless, if it doesn't work at all, there might be a real reason for being upset about something, in which case it's better to stay awake in order either to find out the solution to the big problem or, at least, to realize what indeed the problem is.
Marcio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Nighttime? We don't have any. The last time it was a little dark was just before 17th May, and even then it was only twilight - not completely dark at midnight. This month we have 24 hour daylight, and the sun is above the horizon all the time it isn't cloudy or rainy... which isn't often! Seagulls squawk all night, and - what are you complaining about? The sun coming up at 4.43? We shall not be seeing any nighttime until August!
Christopher Briggs, Leirfjord, Norway

This comes as close as anything I've read in the media about insomnia to touching on the reality of life for those who either cannot get off to sleep or those whose nights are interrupted with waking. Most of what is written on this subject in the media is stuff clearly not written by someone who genuinely knows about poor sleep but, rather, has been written just to fill a brief: an article to sell. Waking up during the night and never getting a good night's sleep is a tragedy for the few, not the many, in my experience, no matter what the so-called "surveys" tell us about high insomnia rates. Most people seem to manage with whatever sleep they get, whether it's more or less than they think they should get. A few spend their waking hours in a kind of misery suffering from the anxiety, depression and forgetfulness that real insomnia brings in its wake. I've been to doctors, a sleep clinic, to a psychiatrist, have tried this, that and the other but to no avail whatsoever over much more than a decade. An over-active mind seems to be at the root of the problem, one that will not shut down even when sleep arrives; one that brings dreams as real as the day; one that leaves me on waking feeling as if I haven't slept a wink.

Steve C, Leicester, UK

"Women tend to sleep worse when they're sharing their bed with a man". Unfortunately this seems to be true. I'm forever waking up in the middle of the night, not knowing the reason. Only to find that the warm presence of my boyfriend is no longer curled up around me but on the other side of the bed. Normally it takes nothing sort of a World War to wake me up in the middle of the night but when he's over, I can easily wake up 4 or 5 times in the night, and by 7.30am have given up on sleep. I love him dearly but it's quite nice to sleep properly when he's gone home!
Flo, Reading

I have never had any problems getting to sleep, as soon as my head hits the pillow I am out like a light. I think getting a decent amount of fresh air and exercise is the answer. I am an outdoor instructor, I spend everyday outside. I eat well and sleep well, and I think fresh air is to thank for both!
Susan Baillie, Glasgow

My problem is not lacking quantity of sleep but quality. I put this down to constant vivid dreaming. I wake frequently throughout the night emotionally shattered from my dreams, and often take some time in the morning to shake the feelings resulting from them. These nights are increased in times of stress but not exclusively. All websites I can find are dedicated to increasing the frequency of dreams - I just want them to stop!
Helen, Saffron Walden, UK


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