February 21st 2019
Sarah Vine: the tyranny of insomnia and how I learned to sleep again
October 8th 2017 / 3 comments
Sarah Vine remembers the panic she felt when her insomnia tipped into frightening episodes of sleep paralysis. The solutions she eventually found were surprising
The main problem with sleep these days is getting enough of it. When I was younger I used to suffer occasional bouts of insomnia but having children cured me of that. As every mother knows, you quickly develop a knack of grabbing those precious zeds where and where you can.
That doesn't mean I’ve forgotten the frustration and misery of lying awake at 3am, pie-eyed and frantic, knowing that I’ve got to get up in three hours and wondering how the hell I’m going to get through the day. The stresses and strains and sensory overloads of modern life make sleep a precious commodity for many. And like all 21st Century ills, there is a thriving industry dedicated to finding a cure, if only you can afford the premiums.
No matter how much I read or how much Horlicks I sipped, I could not silence my whirring mind. My body was tired, but my brain had other ideas
Alarm clocks that wake you up slowly, supposedly mimicking the action of a beautiful sunrise; pillow sprays and creams; sleep apps (the irony of keeping your phone next to your head during the night being apparently lost on the manufacturers); mantras, meditations and herbal preparations. And, if all else fails, the chemical cosh of prescription drugs.
I can only speak from experience, but none of these things ever cured me of insomnia. Mine struck in my mid-twenties, following sustained bouts of shift work which saw my ordinary sleep patterns severely disrupted. I would go to bed exhausted but find oblivion evading me. No matter how much I read or how much Horlicks I sipped, I could not silence my whirring mind. My body was tired, but my brain had other ideas.
I began to suffer from sleep paralysis, a very peculiar and disturbing condition in which the sleeper becomes utterly convinced that he or she is awake. Compelled to get up, I would find that my body was in actual fact glued to the bed, my limbs inert, my entire being incapable of conscious movement. A kind of panic would set in, my brain banging on the windowpane of my consciousness in a desperate bid to elicit a response.
The experience would often be accompanied by hallucinations, in which the landscape of my bedroom, mapped out in precise detail by my mind’s eye, would suddenly seem hostile, or prey to an alien presence. Eventually, my panic would bring me to full wakefulness. But I quickly discovered that slipping back into sleep would start the process all over again. So I chose to remain awake, fighting my exhaustion, until whatever combination of blood chemistry had caused the storm in the first place had dissipated.
It was during that time that I learned to embrace my wakefulness, to see it as a positive, not a negative. I would get up, turn on the lights, make a cup of tea and start sorting my kitchen cupboards. Soon I would find my eyelids dropping and I would wake up hours later on the sofa, or curled up in an armchair.
Rejecting the tyranny of the bed, of the sheets hot with frustration, led to other little tricks. I found, for example, that having the radio on low and tuned to Radio 4 throughout the night brought a sense of comfort and familiarity that soothed my nerves. I also realised that having another living thing with me was also very comforting and calming. Since I was not in a relationship for most of my 20s, I got a cat. To this day I sleep infinitely better with something warm and furry purring away at the bottom of the bed.
Entering the menopause brought with it fresh sleep challenges. No longer plagued by the anxieties of youth, I found now that I would wake hot and flustered. Either that or my legs would feel heavy and restless. Now I listened to my body. If it didn’t want to sleep I wouldn’t make it. I would write, or read or fold washing. Likewise, if I felt the compulsion for rest outside night-time hours, I would give in. At weekends or on days off I would curl up in the afternoons, often sleeping for two or three hours, deep REM oblivion full of colourful dreams.
One of the most important breakthroughs in my sleep struggles was physical exercise. Determined movement, whether it be a brisk walk - at 2am, if necessary - or a session in the gym is highly conducive to healthy sleep patterns. We lead such sedentary lives that it is easy to become mentally exhausted without being physically drained. Aligning the two is key.
OVER TO YOU! What keeps you awake at night? Do you get the recommended 7-9 hours? How do you cope after a bad night? What are your tips for falling asleep? We'd love to hear.
Tell us in the comments below (you may need to log in, it takes only a minute and is free).