A lifetime of sleepless nights

Why does darkness fester so much worry, while daytime shoos it away?
George Marks

Why does darkness fester so much worry, while daytime shoos it away?

The good doctor asks me if I remember my sleep patterns as a child. I tell him things were as they are now: bed is my worry place.

I was eight when my mum and three brothers and I moved to a house that wasn't as nice as the place before it. I cried about that, but it wasn't so bad. My three brothers and I each had a bedroom stacked along a thin hallway, my room looked out over a small courtyard where my mum planted roses, and I had a double wardrobe where I hid Barbies down the back, fearing I was too old to be playing with them. At lights-out, the darkness made it easier for me to hear. I listened to my mother as she rang friends in those hours of reprieve between our sleep and hers. The sound of her laugh knocked me out. It was the childhood version of taking a Zopiclone: it signalled to my young mind that she was okay, and then, so was I.

The survival of her and her happiness became preoccupations of mine, both out of blind-love and selfishness. If she died, what would happen to me? On the rare occasion that she went out and my grandmother babysat, it was only the crackle of her tyres on the driveway when returning home that sent me to sleep.

"Bad sleep," I say, and people know to stay away.

"Bad sleep," I say, and people know to stay away.

The only cure to night is day. The realisation I would die was one that came to me alone in the dark. I remember panic, picking at my skin, feeling like I could die right there, and then came the arrival of morning sun and a change of heart.

Dr Alex Bartle is a kind man who owns a sleep clinic. I ask him questions and he smiles, welcoming them. I want to know why darkness festers so much worry and daytime shoos it away.

"Very common," he says. "Molehills become mountains in the middle of the night, don't they? Your mind takes off because there is no distraction."

His diagnosis is simple. Over decades, my habit has been to go to bed, worry, when my habit should be good to bed, sleep. It's pretty common, he says. And his comfort makes me feel less crazy and more part of a whole. I imagine a black quilt dotted with the blinking eyes of worriers, wild and full of fears, dreaming of sleep.

It is a very primitive act, says the doctor, "and the only way to change is to do it. You need to put your head down and go, to, sleep."

The childhood fears that kept me awake seem pure and reasonable when I look back on them. In the decades that followed, I collected worries more and more. I remember crying to my mum from a payphone in Canada on my OE, a totally tired wreck. Living alone in Auckland, I got so tired worrying about burglars in the dark that most nights I'd fall asleep wishing they would just come and take me. It's new things that get me now.

The night before something I haven't experienced before is a sleepless one. The further into the night I wade, the more insane I become. What if I forget my water bottle? What if I get a headache? What if my cell phone battery runs out? What if the dog gets out when I'm gone? What if the dog gets out, ever? What if the dog gets out because someone leaves the door open? What if traffic is bad and I'm late? What if they hate me? What am I going to wear? What if I have breakfast and feel sick? What if I don't have breakfast and feel hungry?

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Sometimes I turn the light on and make a list to assuage the jitters. Then the light goes off and I pick up another thread, a crisis more of the existential kind that will not be remedied with a reminder note, and on it goes, forever, until I don't know how long it's been going, if I'm awake or asleep, or how I'll get through the coming day.

"Bad sleep," I'll tell the people closest to me and they get it. It means JUST FOR TODAY FORGIVE ME FOR BEING A TOTAL BITCH.

"Is your husband a good sleeper?" asks the doctor.

"Yes," I say.

"Does he snore?" he says.

"Sometimes," I say.

"Yes, well, they go to sleep quickly and then they start to snore and that's like a sort of double insult."

Yes, well. I don't tell the doctor about times I've nudged my husband a little too hard and sighed loudly as he turns over. I feel like a woman on a treadmill next to someone eating cheese. I want to know how it is that good sleepers are so successful at putting the events of the day aside when they make their way to the bedroom. Because, he says politely, some people go to bed and do what they are there to do.

Five ways to get a better night's sleep
* The seven most common sleep problems
 How much sleep do you really need?


Humans take part in some pretty weird activities. Sleep is right up there. Scientists still don't know exactly what happens when we do it. There is some evidence that certain negative chemicals of the brain are washed out during sleep, like sand being hosed off our bodies before we go inside.

I leave the good doctor thinking of something he said. "Sleep is all about confidence, actually." I stop at the pastry shop under his office in St Heliers and think about what needs to be changed in order to get a good night's sleep. No screens an hour before bed, limit alcohol, get exercise in the morning, write down fears. That night, I don't go to bed till I'm feeling tired. My eyes blink wide in the dark with fellow worriers. I feel bad shutting them out. I feel silly for feeling bad. I try to feel nothing at all. I look next to me at the amazing sleeper and whisper to him, "What should I dream about tonight?"

"Candyfloss." He half opens his eyes. "Summer. Taking the dog to the park."

Seems reasonable.

I think of the most relaxing word I can conjure and I say it to myself as my head nears the pillow. Delicious. Delicious delicious delicious. Candyfloss, summer, taking the dog to the park. There's a brief interlude where I worry about my dog being run over on the way to the park. I catch it and tell myself I am calm and confident. I start over. Delicious. Delicious delicious delicious. Candyfloss, summer, taking the dog to the park. On it goes, forever, until I don't know how long it's been going. This time it sends me to sleep. I wake with warm hands scooping me in and the surprise that before me is the morning light.

 - Sunday Magazine


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