Children of the night

It’s a little after four in the morning and already I know that further attempts at sleeping will be futile. It doesn’t matter when I go to bed I’m always woken at four. And it’s always by the milkman on his rounds.

I have two points to make here. Firstly, why does it have to be at four in the morning? What’s wrong with say six? And secondly, what kind of milkman delivers dairy goods in a Subaru? I was accustomed to the gentle whining of the milk float’s electric motor punctuated by the clinking gamelan of empties. Soothing almost. Which is more than can be said for the supercharged snarl of the Subaru making its rounds. They may not even have been in my street, so loud is the sound.

But, milk float or rally car, the effect is the same. I’m awake and, if not exactly alert, at least teetering on the side of wakefulness over somnolence. This, as any parkie will tell you, is bonus time – those nameless hours that span the time until the rest of the world stirs. In the kind of perverted logic that sacrifices sleep on the altar of stupidity, we arise like a legion of zombies from our beds, switch on the computer and watch YouTube or drift through the chat rooms until the grey light of day. We know we shouldn’t but still we do. We are children of the night.

As dawn breaks, we sip espresso, breathing cold swirls of condensation, triaging our email – delete, answer or ignore. The usual misspelt ‘personal’ invitations to launder untraceable Angolan dollars, life changing secrets of the stock market, never-to-be-missed offers on plastic surgery (two nips and a tuck) for one all-inclusive price. The usual stuff. All deleted unopened.

Then there are the more marginal but invariably unsolicited invitations to upgrade my satellite subscription. For additional £5 a month I can have a further 10 shopping channels, endless reruns of half baked sitcoms that should have long since been put out of their misery, and ‘gems’ from the Ready Steady Cook archive. It could be worse – those unfortunate enough to answer within a week receive an additional secret gift which, too late, turns out to be an endlessly repeated treasury of Graham Norton celebrity interviews. Sometimes, if in the mood for sport, I will call the 24-hour freephone number where, I’m assured, “operators are waiting to take your call” to ‘discuss’ their offer. Mostly I don’t. Note to self: cancel the cable subscription. Then there is the weekly invitation from Who’s Who to be part of their next edition. All for a temptingly modest sum upfront and an annual subscription to cover the costs of the “lavishly bound” leather covered volume. I think not. Does anybody fall for this nonsense?

Nestling amongst this quasi-criminal, vainglorious twaddle are prescription transcripts, reminders of elapsed
computer-generated hospital appointment advisories and magazines profiling the condition. Worthy but interesting. Usually they are enough to induce the kind of sleep I have otherwise struggled to attain. Perhaps I should stop trying to sleep in a bed and simply sit at my desk once I have put my pyjamas on. Whatever works.

I have taken to siestas recently, bowing to the need for sleep over the need for coffee. Well, I call it a siesta but it’s not a formal siesta as such. More a sort of crash landing on the bed in an undignified heap. A sort of belly flop. Sometimes not even entirely on the bed. A kind of disaster siesta.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep recently, since reading Matthew Walker’s book which, in an inadvertent tribute to the author, I find particularly somnolent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent book, full of science and practical advice. But there is a certain irony to a book entitled “Why we sleep” when its primary readership is those who don’t.

Over the many years of my insomnia, I have learnt depressingly little about its nature and how to combat it. You tell people you have insomnia and their responses usually one of “then go to bed earlier”, “yes I get that” or “you should take something for that”

Really? Do you think so?

I have tried every sleeping tablet you could imagine (and many you probably couldn’t). I have tried herbal recipes from across-the-board, infusions of improbable garden herbs, tinctures of this, tizanes of that. I have listened to the mating calls of humpback whales, chirping crickets in tropical rainforests and babbling spring brooks. Whilst considerably more soothing than listening to the foxes wailing outside, I cannot vouch for their efficacy. In fact I worry more about the people who recommended these therapies. Just how did they discover that humpback whales humping (or any whale for that matter) might send you to sleep? Has this been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny? I’d be surprised. And what kind of person conducts those experiments anyway? I think I’d rather not know.

Talking of conducting experiments, I’m testing a device at the moment. Two speakers and a central programme tablet which emits some kind of slow pulses intended to mimic or induce normal sleep patterns. No results yet – hold your horses. I’m trying to evaluate it as scientifically as possible. Sleep is notoriously vulnerable to placebo effects.

The device in question comes with a swathe of positive testimonials from those who have tried it and been satisfied. There’s not a lot of data on precisely what they consider to be success. More sleep? Better sleep?Plus the thing carries an eye watering pricetag. If you bought “his” and “hers”, you would not have much change from a grand. Justified I’m sure if it works, less so if not.

So I’m looking at time to onset of sleep, duration of sleep, number of times woken and quality of sleep whilst, at the same time, factoring in as many confounding variables as I can think of – things like temperature, food intake and timing, lighting, ambient sound, drug regime and so on. Essentially I am trying, like all good scientists, to turn subjectivity into objectivity.

Watch this space.