Geeks Vs Loneliness: Acquainted with the night

In which Jane talks about her persistent lack of sleep...

Insomnia sucks. Let’s just get that out there. It’s hell. Bed becomes the enemy. All soft and inviting during the day with its feather pillows and soft blankets. Night time? A torment for the soul.

There’s a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson called The Princess And The Pea. To be a princess born you must feel the pain of the pea through mattress piled upon mattress, while surviving suffocation by a thousand duvets. It all looked a bit sinister in the Ladybird book I had on the subject.

The pea lurks, a malignant pod that pulsates and mushrooms its nasty little feelers under your skin to make you scratch and squirm and writhe until you’re driven from slumber as if the screaming banshees of hell are after you.

I hate it. In my younger days sleep came like a blessing. I could sleep anywhere, whenever I needed to. I always needed a lot of sleep thanks to having M.E. but I was able to spark out like the proverbial dormouse and recharge my diminished energy with relative ease. Developing insomnia in my mid-thirties came as a shock. The trigger – in my case – was work-related stress.

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There are many triggers for insomnia – and the form it takes can differ widely sufferers. The NHS has a handy guide to insomnia which includes a test to ascertain whether you may be a sufferer. It was no surprised that I came out as chronically sleep deprived.

It’s worth taking a look but, as a guide, indicators of insomnia include:

– finding it hard to go to sleep

– waking up several times during the night

– lying awake at night

– waking up early and being unable go back to sleep

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– still feeling tired on waking

– feeling tired and irritable during the day

– finding it difficult to concentrate during the day

I can’t get to sleep. I go to bed limp with exhaustion where I lie next to someone who puts their head on the pillow, hears the first bars of any Pink Floyd song and slumps into contented oblivion in seconds. Comfortably numb indeed. In their defence they do have the opposite problem to me – they are wide-awake with stress from 3am onwards. Sweet Morpheus plays cruel tricks in our house.

I have specific triggers that make my insomnia worse. Anaemia makes you tired but it also makes my knees and wrists ache and the pains intensify, magnify until I want the world to swallow me up and I stumble out of bed looking like Gollum’s ugly sister seeking sugar and the History Channel at midnight.

Ah, history documentaries. I love anything about ancient kings and queens, violent deaths and burial chambers. After midnight they have the appeal in that they are guaranteed to send me drifting off to sleep on the settee before waking some time later with my neck bent at an unholy angle and biscuit crumbs stuck to my chin. I’m not sure this helps in the long term.

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People say, oh but you can read! You can write! Use those dead hours! Erm, no? I feel dead in those hours. Telling me I’m wasting my insomnia really doesn’t help me feel any better. There is no real cognitive ability, no shred of creativity that I can draw on through the fog. There’s just nail gnawing anxiety and worry and self-castrating thoughts spinning round in my head like a never ending litany of failure.

Insomnia sucks. I think I have made that point! But there are things I can do to make mine a little less unpleasant. I keep my iron levels topped for starters. There are no gadgets in the bedroom, no televisions. Phones are on silent. No Wi-Fi during bedtime hours. I do read in bed, and I play mindless object finding games that help me calm the vicious thought cycle down before I switch off the lamp. I am aware that screen glare can exacerbate sleeplessness in some people but the Kindle stays.

It’s a calm cool bedroom. No clutter, no unnecessary furniture, thick curtains. I don’t sleep well in high winds. It slithers into my dreams exacerbating the ants under the skin feeling that has me festering under the duvet. If I want food, entertainment or stimulus other than a book I have to get up. Crumbs are not welcome in the marital bed!

My Fitbit monitors my sleep patterns though I don’t wear it every night because the flashing green sensor light makes a disco under the duvet. I sleep very lightly which is common in someone with M.E. It has highlighted that I sleep best between 3am and 7am. I try to ensure that if I get up I am back in bed for those four crucial hours to get some of the deep recuperative sleep I need. It also shows that in a seven-hour space I wake up between 30 and 40 times a night. Great.

I avoid all caffeine after 2pm. If I have even one caffeinated drink after mid-afternoon I am a basket case in bed. Jittery, anxious, downright annoying – and unable to sleep until around 6am. It’s easily avoided. Alcohol tends to keep me awake the night after I drink. Mostly avoided but I’m not a saint!

If you are afflicted with insomnia – for whatever reason – you have my sympathy. If you have worked out your particular triggers and how to deal with them it would be great if you share them. Meditation, music, food that helps or to be avoided – anything that you think may be helpful.

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Not everything will work for everyone. My GP was helpful in coming up with measures to reduce my triggers. There is medication that can help if it is right for you to take it – again, talk to your GP or a pharmacist as it isn’t suitable for everyone (including me). He gave me a free meditation soundtrack to relax my muscles in bed that oddly has proven most helpful when I am sick and a whining ball of bedbound misery.

Meanwhile, I will remind myself on future sleepless nights that I am in theory a bona fide princess. Just don’t smother me with yet another a duvet.

Thanks as always for reading.

More details about the causes of and advice to avoid sleeplessness as well as the sleep self-assessment test can be found at