On World Sleep Day, Justine Brooks tells us how she’s learned to live with perhaps the most frustrating bedfellow of all: insomnia.
My insomnia really kicked in during a stressful period in my life. I’d go to bed, exhausted and fraught, pass out and then wake up again at about 3am, my fists clenched, gasping for air as if I was drowning, my heart beating fast.
All insomnia sufferers are familiar with the routine: lying in the dark, your head gets invaded by menacing thoughts; thoughts that take on a life of their own, escalating, reverberating, growing like monsters in the early hours.
And the tiredness, the relentless tiredness, the desperate longing for sleep as the minutes pass unbearably slowly and fruitlessly until finally dawn’s birdsong breaks through the gloom, a beautiful yet devastating signal of daybreak, a signal that it will soon be time to get up, exhausted, and face the day.
It has been around seven years that insomnia and I have been bedfellows and in that time we’ve certainly got to know each other intimately. And while I won’t say we’ve become friends, I would say that our relationship has developed into something that’s kind of respectful.
That’s all to do with my attitude towards sleep. What I noticed in myself, and others living with insomnia was a sort of panic. The longer sleep eludes, the more agitated the person becomes: it’s a vicious circle and however many sleep hypnosis podcasts you listen to on YouTube, ultimately you’re never going to get to sleep in that state. I decided to transform the experience and think about it differently.
First I did a little research and discovered that psychologists and historians agree that right up to the 20th century it was traditional in many human societies to have two sleeps. That is, people would sleep for four hours, get up for two hours and then sleep for a further four hours. Some psychologists believe that when we persistently wake up during the night, it’s a throwback to segmented sleep patterns.
I then took my sleep inspiration from childbirth training (Bear with me, this does make sense). There’s a sort of zone I go into if I’m really hot or really cold – it’s the same zone you’re taught to enter into during childbirth. It goes like this: you can manage this pain, you are bigger than this pain.
“Contrary to popular belief, getting up doesn’t then make it more difficult to sleep. After all, this is what our ancestors did for hundreds of years.”
I kind of got there in childbirth (with the aid of some gas and air). And I figured, sleep is a hell of a lot easier to manage than childbirth. I suppose my point is: acceptance. It’s important to accept that sleep may well be gone for the night and not coming back. Once I’ve accepted that, I just need to relax.
And so in these seven years, I’ve practised hard the art of relaxation. When I wake up at 3am and all those thoughts start invading my head, I’ve learned to bat a lot of them away, one by one.
You know, the way that when you’re having a bad dream you can sometimes rationalise it within the dream and say to yourself, “This isn’t real, it’s just a dream, no problem.” So I wake up, I get these thoughts and I say, “No, I’m not thinking about completing my tax return now, it will wait until tomorrow.” Either that or I have to get up and actually do the tax return.
It was my counsellor who recommended this technique. “Can’t sleep? Get up,” he said to me. Go read a book, write, watch TV, or just sit on the sofa with a cuppa and look out of the window. It’s nicer to go back to bed after a break than to lie uncomfortably in your bed hour after hour. And contrary to popular belief, getting up doesn’t then make it more difficult to sleep. After all, this is what our ancestors did for hundreds of years.
If I’m not getting up, I’ve learned to direct my thoughts. To start with I forced myself to think about good things. It has become a habit. When I wake up at 3am, it’s almost like a treat. Rather than saying to myself, “Shit, I’m never going to get back to sleep,” I think: “Cool. Now is the time I think about good stuff” (most of what I write for Standard Issue gets worked through in my head during the wee hours).
Which means that I have a couple of hours thinking constructively about things that interest me. It’s real ‘me’ time. No phone, no emails, no interruptions. It’s great thinking time. And so it has become something that is not insomnia.
If I run out of things to think about I either have the option to get up, or if I’m starting to feel relaxed I try to take that relaxation further by practising body scanning. This deep relaxation technique used by yoga teachers and mindfulness practitioners is a really useful meditation to learn. For me it helps me to at least get to a relaxed state and I often find that I’ll launch straight into my second sleep right in the middle of it.
So, I guess the key to my insomnia – as with a lot of things in life – has just been to relax and accept it.
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Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.