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To Sleep, Perchance to SCREAM!

You know that fairy tale – The Princess and the Pea? The one about the Prince who was looking for a wife, when a strange traveller lands on his doorstep claiming to be a Princess, so to test this his mother puts a pea under 20 mattresses to see if she’s Princess-y enough to notice. Apparently her rotten night’s sleep was proof of her Royalty.

Well, I have kind of an affinity with this story, and I have sad news to break to that Prince. Maybe his mystery traveller isn’t a Princess, but a backpacker with shocking insomnia. I’m speaking from experience, not because I’m a Princess – my hair isn’t nearly shiny enough – but because I am a terrible sleeper.

I’ve always been that way. Ever since I can remember, maddeningly awake the minute the light turns off. During my decade on Breakfast Radio, a profession that is OBSESSED with the getting of sleep and the lack there of, I went so many nights wide awake, my insomnia became a running gag: “it’s 10 more sleeps till holidays, or 4 sleeps for Jo”.

I know I’m not alone. According to one of the many thousands of articles I’ve read about insomnia (it has to be in the Top 3 Most Written About and Least Helpful topics in our press), it is the cause of up to 70% of visits to GPs in Australia, a figure landed on because of the far-reaching effects of sleep deprivation. These range from heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes and loss of libido, to depression and complete mental impairment. I’d add to that list road rage, supermarket shopping amnesia, bad hair and life-threatening clumsiness.

It’s OK though. There are things you can do to get to sleep, according to the irritatingly smug sites that pop up just about every time I hit the Internet. Paint your room blue, eliminate clutter, switch off smart devices, ban TV, shut out light, silence noise, try white noise, don’t be too hot, don’t be too cold, consume no caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes or sugar, avoid all fun before bed, have a bath, meditate, breathe deeply and above all DON’T OBSESS ABOUT NOT SLEEPING!!!

Great idea. I’ll do that. At 3.30 tomorrow morning when I’m lying in the dark, as wide awake as if it were broad daylight, the sound of my snoring family mocking me until I want to SCREAM!!

However factual this journalism might be, understanding of the problem it is not. To suggest chronic sleeplessness can be cured by ticking off a list of contributors is short sighted, because, at the heart of it, the insomniac is in battle with herself.

Yes, there are external factors at play, be it a small legume under a tower of mattresses or the block of dark chocolate I stupidly shovelled down an hour before bed. But why am I so affected when a good sleeper, like my comatose husband next to me, would be oblivious to a jumbo jet landing on his pillow?

The answer always lies with what is going on inside my head. Whether it’s list making, worry worting or thought racing, a sleepless night – the kind where you count the hours till dawn and time warps into a Dali painting – in my experience, is always related to anxiety.

Anxiety in all its forms. The minor: I must remember to pay my registration. The moderate: Why did I say that thing at work today, everyone thought I was an idiot! The major: This article I’m writing is dreadful! Or the off the scale: Oh God, summer is here and I HAVE TO GO SHOPPING FOR NEW BATHERS!!

And then as the night wares on, and all rational thought becomes a distant daytime memory, I am overwhelmed by a creation of my own sleep-deprived self – Night Woman. She comes to me at around 2am, when I’m in the grip of insomnia, and she is, to be frank, a complete bitch.

If I’ve had a headache, Night Woman convinces me I have a brain tumour. Got an outstanding speeding fine? I’m heading to prison Orange Is The New Black style. If it’s windy, the roof is about to fly off and decapitate the neighbour’s cat.

It’s in this moment, as I sabotage my own slumber sick with worry, the world shut down around me, that there is no lonelier place. It feels like I’m floating out in space, despite there being, in countless beds across the city, equally wired and awake souls going through the same solitary torture.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a number we night owls could call to connect and talk each other through the darkest hours? We’d chat quietly to each other, comparing the symptoms we’re sure we’ve collected due to extreme sleep deprivation. “I can’t remember anyone’s names.” “Really? I’m sure I’d be 5kg’s lighter if I slept more.” “My wife and I only have sex on holidays.” Until one by one we’d nod off, lulled to sleep by the real life bedtime stories of our insomnious bedfellows.

It’s a nice thing to imagine, and kind of comforting to think about. Especially at 3 in the morning, when the alternative is to fret over how long I’d survive in prison. (In case you’re interested, I think I’d do OK, making friends with the older ladies due to my impeccable manners. Night Woman thinks I’d be knifed within a week.)

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