It’s December 1st and the countdown to Christmas has officially started. The sentimental John Lewis advert has been aired, Coca Cola have assured us that the holidays really are coming, and everyone’s gearing up for the buzz of festive lavishness that precedes the big day itself. Remember being a child and finding it impossible to sleep knowing that Father Christmas himself was working his way round the world to your house bearing untold goodies? Well that’s how I’ve been feeling for the last four months. Except my present isn’t due to arrive until next Summer. The long, long build up to my great adventure is a necessary but often frustrating one. Every night feels like Christmas Eve, and if I was anyone else, I’d start to question whether I can really maintain this unhealthy cocktail of late night nerves, worries and adrenaline that I’ll be sipping on for many months more.
Except I have been knocking back that particular concoction for years. Me and sleep have never had the best of relationships, and having such an ‘all-my-Christmases-come-at-once’ kind of adventure so close and yet so far is doing nothing to help matters.
I have insomnia, and it’s pretty chronic. It ebbs and flows and at times I can kid myself into thinking that it’s nothing more than the odd bout of sleeplessness. But at its worst I can roll out of bed at 7 in the morning, crying with frustration and buzzing with odd and ill-fitting adrenaline after the third near-sleepless night in a row.
I first realised I might not sleep like normal people when I started having sleepovers. Friends would come over and we’d be hyper and noisy and buzzed on E numbers – these were the days of Jolly Ranchers and true blue Smarties after all. But come night time, my friends would always seem to get a little drowsy. And once we were tucked up in bed it was never all that long until they fell asleep. What about the scandalous gossip? And the actual-midnight midnight feast we’d planned? More often than not I wouldn’t realise that I was the only one who hadn’t fallen happily into the land of nod until I’d held many long minutes of one sided conversation. I can remember intensely the feeling of acute embarrassment when I’d pose a question to a silent room and realise that I’d been keeping up a dogged monologue for god-knows how long. It felt like sleep was the after party, the really good bit, and I never got the invite.
But so what, I was a little bit more perky than my friends late at night? I put this down to being talkative to a fault and what kinder teachers would call “enthusiastic”. But I found it harder and harder to explain away my strange nocturnal escapades over the years. I woke up in the dog’s bed. I woke up in the bath. I ran a bath. I let myself out the house. I was generally more active when I finally got to sleep than when I was awake.
At the age of about 10 I went to see a paediatrician to talk through my strange behaviour. He was terrible. After listening to me with a raised eyebrow and a patronising smile he put it down to an overactive imagination and recommended I try a milky drink before bed. 7 years of medical school and countless years in the industry and that’s all you’ve got? After a year or so of working through his basic recommendations, as well as the classic old-wive’s tales and the well-meaninged but frankly infuriating recommendations of all my nearest and dearest, I went back to quietly ignoring the problem and assuming it was no big deal.
It wasn’t until I went to university and started sharing a house that I realised the extent of my problem. The uni lifestyle allows you to keep whatever strange hours you please. If I couldn’t sleep, I just wouldn’t. It wasn’t an issue. I’d go out and stay out til dawn, use the alcohol to lull me into a cheat half-sleep and wake up whenever I felt like. If not, there was always something suitably crap on TV and no one to tell me not to watch it at 3am. Or a drunken housemate arriving home in the early hours to entertain me. Or, last resort, a 24 hour library where I could squeeze in some crucial study when my insomniac mind is at it’s most active before heading home for a sleep that stretched way past lunchtime. It was my insomnia’s dream and its worst nightmare – it allowed me to entertain a wildly unhealthy sleep pattern whilst simultaneously worsening the condition all together. The cost? My sleep itself. Of course. When I did finally succumb to ‘proper’ sleep, and in the rare periods where the insomnia would abate, I suffered intense and traumatic night terrors. For the first time ever, sharing a room and a house, I had a host of witnesses to how often these were happening and just what exactly they entailed – in short, a lot of screaming, running around the house and, as the name would suggest, genuine terror.
It’s been 5 years since I’ve graduated and, in steady peaks and troughs, they’ve got worse. I’ve been so afraid that I’ve hit my boyfriend mistaking him for an intruder. I’ve fallen down the stairs, woken myself screaming and even ‘come to’ in a hotel lift in a Premier Inn whilst away with work. Thankfully I was wearing pyjamas and, being 2am, there was no one to witness this bizarre turn of nocturnal events. During these moments I have truly struggled to work our whether I am asleep or awake. The things I see during a terror are, to all intents and purposes, real.
The barb in the night terror’s sting is that you are not simply watching a scene as you would in a nightmare, you are experiencing it. You believe you are awake, you can interact with things around you (both real and imagined) and it is because of this that it can be very hard to wake up from them. If someone were to tell you now, reading this, that you were asleep, that you were imagining the screen in front of you, would you believe them? To the sleeper experiencing a terror, an onlooker reassuring them that the girl with her hands around their throat is a figment of their sleep-addled brain is not only useless, it’s immensely frustrating and distressing. If they can feel and smell and hear her, why should they believe that she is not there. It is only once the panic has subsided and you feel the infinitesimal shift between the very lightest of sleep and the very heaviest of wakefulness that you realise your mistake. And then comes the wave of embarrassment. What a fool you are, falling for your own mind’s cruel tricks yet again.
I still fight issues with my sleep. I’ve tried everything from counselling to a specialist overnight sleep examination clinic, all of which have done nothing other than confirm that, yes Miss Drage, you do have problems with insomnia and parasomnia. Fancy names for what I already know.
So what now?
I did not mean for this post to detail my issues at all. It’s gone 3am and I can’t sleep and I was thinking about all the hours that I’ve lain awake unable to sleep, filling the time with excited, nervous, terrified fantasies about what next year has in store. It’s late, and my fingers are cramped from typing on my phone so as not to wake James, and I’ve toyed with the idea of just deleting this post. After all, it’s nothing to do with diving or travel.
Or is it? I think the moment it really clicked that I didn’t sleep the same as everyone else was in a conversation with my Aunt when I was a child. It was dusk and she commented on how pretty it was, how it was her favourite time of day. She asked me mine and I told her: the hours it takes between going to bed and falling asleep. I remember her laughing kindly and saying that she wouldn’t know, that the only time she has for reflection was between getting into bed and her head hitting the pillow. In curious disbelief, I came to realise that not everyone takes hours and hours to ‘drop off’, that sleep came to some as quick as a click of the fingers. And amazed as I was by this alien concept, I didn’t covet it. I decided that the time it took me to slowly transition from wake to sleep would be my time for my mind to wonder wherever it chose, for me to indulge in its far-reaching fancies and schemes – the morning hours were mine and, I thought, mine alone. I wasn’t ever going to waste them again.
What I decided after talking with my Aunt all those years ago still holds true: there might be a whole cargo of baggage that comes with it, but the hours when I’m miles from sleep and I feel like the only person in the world who’s awake have become very precious to me. I use them to plan, to roll ideas around my mind and to invent new ones. Sometimes I’ll be inspired to write something, or I’ll hatch a grand plan, or I’ll simply put on an audiobook and attempt to zone out, reassuring myself that rest is rest even if it’s not sleep. On bad days, I use all my hours up worrying, working myself into a state about anything from the layout of the living room furniture to bigger things like, oh I don’t know, throwing the towel in on a life that you’ve spent years cultivating to dive headfirst into the unknown. But in better times I draw inspiration from these precious hours. I remind myself that on the other side of the world there are people who are, right this minute, living my dream under a tropical sun.
It’s strange to grow fond of something that you know is bad for you, but I’ve come to value my insomnia, and would go as far as to give it some decent credit for both hatching and plucking up the courage to execute this plan of mine. I’ll take another decade of this if it keeps me out of that rut. Can’t sleep or won’t sleep?…
A tentative PS…
If by any chance someone is reading this who has experiences of night terrors, I would love to hear from you. I surprised myself by writing this all out and was close to deleting it all together; this was meant to be a post about how my musings in the early hours have led to me formulating the biggest plan of my life so far, but I hadn’t realised just how broad a range of feelings I had pent up about my sleep, how much I wanted to vent. And it feels suprisingly good to get it off my chest.
Until recently I was fiercely private about what goes on in my head at night, be it sleeping or waking. It felt strange and freakish and I was uncomfortable with the idea of people making assumptions. I thought that I’d be branded overworked or stressed or anxious or just plain weird. What I “see” ranges from the strange and sometimes humorous to the outright disturbing, and it’s an uncomfortable thought to know that it’s my own imagination that is broadcasting these scenes, that the terrors are products of my own subconscious. It wasn’t until I started vocalising all of this to a choice group of friends and family that I began to feel more logical about it all.
But sadly, whilst I’m not short of sympathetic curiosity, it’s incredibly rare to meet someone who has a first hand knowledge of how the unending waves of terrors and insomnia can feel at their worst. I know I would take solace from knowing that I’m not alone, I’m not abnormal – sometimes it’s as simple as sharing an experience. Please do feel free to contact me about anything I’ve addressed in this post if you want someone to talk to. If you’ve spent your nights wondering the metaphorical corridors of your mind, or wandering the more literal corridors of your house, you’re not alone, and I’d love to hear from you.