Insomnia: Don't overthink it

ALECIA SIMMONDS
Last updated 05:19 24/04/2014
sleep

BLISSFUL REST: Some people sleep in one eight hour block, other two short, sharp bursts ... the worst thing to do about a lack of sleep is to stress about it.

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My life changed irrevocably when I turned 27. I awoke at 3am in a twist of sweaty sheets, gulping for air and gripped by nightly terrors. I continued to wake like this for the next year.

Until then my bed had been a site of voluptuous pleasures and deep, honey-sweet slumbers. I would drift off to sleep at around 11pm and rise at 7am on the dot, and nothing - not share-house living with five others, not car alarms, not even the violent gurgles and slurps of drunken partners - could rouse me.

I'm not entirely sure why I changed. Hippy friends tell me that it was my "Saturn Returns": a celestial cycle that sends everyone bonkers for their 27th year. I think a more likely explanation is anxiety related to change: I'd just moved cities to take up a new position at Melbourne University.

Either way, insomnia made my life unbearable. My bed became a battleground. Each night I would crawl between the sheets after having fallen asleep in front of the television, silently brokering deals with divine powers to give me just one night's sleep in exchange for a very productive day. "I MUST be able to sleep tonight," I'd reassure myself. "I haven't slept properly in days and my body is completely exhausted." And yet as sure as day follows night (all too quickly for those with insomnia), I would awake at 3am unable to sleep again until dawn.

There would be nothing graceful about my nightly waking. I'd gnash my teeth, toss furiously from side to side and sometimes just weep. My powerlessness to perform that most natural and necessary of functions was unfathomable.

I suddenly found myself a member of Clandestine Clubs of the Sleepless: people who would admit, in embarrassed murmurs, to suffering or having suffered insomnia. Our conversations were necessarily whispered, because merely talking about insomnia could bring it back on. Its powers were vast and tyrannical. For academics and writers it seemed like an occupational hazard: a side-effect of chronic introspection, neurotic dispositions and infinite desk-bound hours.

I took solace in this wakeful community of the damned; we were "passive receptacles of night's authority," as philosopher Michel Blanchot put it. And it seemed we were many. Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill and Vincent Van Gogh were all jumpy insomniacs, and in fact an English prime minister in the 19th century, the Earl of Rosebery, even resigned because of insomnia. 'To lie awake night after night, staring, wide awake, hopeless of sleep, tormented of nerves ... is an experience no sane man would want to repeat," he explained to a bewildered populous.

My new community of insomniacs offered me a range of solutions: eye masks, ear plugs, don't stay in bed for longer than 15 minutes at a time, exercise in sunlight every morning before 8am and no exercise after midday, eat bananas, take warm showers, drink warm milk, acupuncture, Stilnox, Valium and bongs. Most I never tried and those that I did were unreliable. Exercise in the morning certainly helps, but when you're in the throes of insomnia it's by no means a cure-all.

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The most effective remedy for me, and one that continues to work today was history, and I don't mean the sedative qualities of history textbooks. A glance through books on the history of the night (a wonderful new field of research), shows that our idea of an eight-hour sleep is actually very recent and only came about with gas-lighting and industrialisation in the late 18th century. Before this people did what many insomniacs still do: they had two sleeps.

Historian Roger Ekirch has found that in preindustrial households families would awaken in the dead of night for a period of time. Generally people would sleep for three to four hours, wake for two to three hours and then sleep again until the morning. What would they do in this interim period? Ekirch says that they'd go visiting neighbours, study, stoke fires, pray, smoke tobacco and have sex. One doctor from the 1500s said that the reason why working class people had more children is because they always have sex after first sleep. And yes, they would refer to their sleep not in terms of one eight-hour block but in terms of first sleep and second sleep.

The difference, of course, is that night was a more vast and perilous period than for us. There was no electric indoor lighting or street lighting to allow for the intrusion of work and so sleep generally fell over a 12-hour period. People also couldn't travel the distances that we do today during the night for fear of bandits, screeching owls or wolves that look like hounds. When lighting made the night a site of pleasure rather than peril, and industrialisation made the day an expansive terrain of productive labour, two luxurious sleeps became one.

How does this history help insomnia? For me, it proved that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the idea of an eight-hour uninterrupted sleep. If I went to bed earlier, it was OK to wake up for a few hours. It also meant that I stopped howling into the void during those few hours I was awake and instead used that time to read novels, do relaxation exercises or write. In my efforts to keep as close to my medieval forbears as possible, I never looked at my phone.

The worst thing you can do when you wake up at 3am is to stress. And nothing is likely to induce panic more than the idea that sleeping uninterrupted for eight hours is necessary for mental and physical health. From Spain, where sleep is still dispersed in segments over the day, to the Inuit who before lighting would sleep six hours in summer and 14 in winter, to the two sleeps of our medieval ancestors, there is no one ideal sleep pattern. Circadian rhythms can take on a variety of forms - you just need to be happy dancing, or sleeping, to your own beat.

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