It’s 3am in a dark, peaceful room. T breathes steadily beside me. Toddler A rests undisturbed in her bed and here I lie for another hour, exhausted, but awake.
My bouts of insomnia started as a new mum. In the grip of what now I might call post-natal anxiety I would return to my bed after each night feed listening to every snuffle from the Moses basket- will she go back to sleep? Do I need to get up again? What does that noise mean? And then, why isn’t there any noise? Is she ok? Is she breathing? As she grew over the weeks and feeds became fewer it turned to ‘why hasn’t she woken up yet? What’s wrong?’ I would lie staring at the clock until the cry came at 4, then 5am, by which time ‘no point sleeping now’, nearly time to get up. ‘You’re coping so well’ said friends, family as I fed, changed, made routines, baked, blogged, worked out and music-with-mummyed with the best of them in the day, then approached each night filled with fear.
T’s efforts to allow me an undisturbed night by taking on some night feeds on top of a full time job saw me hiding in the sanctuary of our attic room with earphones on top of earplugs still hopelessly tuned into every murmur from downstairs and wracked with guilt about not sleeping when I was being gifted time to sleep.
The sleeplessness soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy that many insomniacs will be familiar with. The relentless slog of days on only an hour or two of rest made me anxious about sleep, the anxiety meant I couldn’t sleep. ‘Why am I awake?’ wailed into the pillow. Anger in the small hours. Tears, panic. Too hot, heart racing, unquenchable thirst.
I sought help and followed advice on diet, exercise, sleep ‘hygiene’ and anxiety management, which soon turned into sleep rituals to trick my body into rest- the door pulled just so, one two three four sprays of ‘sleep mist’ on the pillow, the light turned off at precisely 22.22. Mindfulness and meditations, yoga, breathing exercises, lying just the right way and ultimately a nightly placebo-sized dose of medication – all of which became sources of sleep superstition. One change in the routine meant another night written off to podcasts and fleeting minutes dozing fitfully on the sofa downstairs.
With the end of breastfeeding and subsiding maternal hormones, things improved. I gradually weaned myself off of my crutches; and things seemed more normal; but the flare ups still come, often without warning. Sometimes there’s a reason: for a while, a night apart from A would be an irrationally sleepless one. Failing to switch off early enough from work, exercise or social media means hours of mind buzzing. I write my best PowerPoint presentations and blog posts in the wired small hours to cleanse my busy mind! Often though, there’s no reason: feeling content, relaxed and physically ready for sleep, my mind inanely prattles or my heart races for most of the night. And then there’s the wake-ups. I haven’t woken later than 5am in recent memory; and an unbroken night is a rarity.
At least now I’m less anxious about the wakefulness, knowing that rest will come on the next day, or the one after if not tonight. I feel less stuck in the never ending loop of anxiety, but insomnia flare-ups run me down very quickly- the obvious signs: bad skin, lank hair, a tell-tale sore throat leading to a bout of illness, difficultly concentrating. I often don’t feel safe to drive. The black rings under my eyes are now etched there permanently, topped up once in a while, just after I think I’ve cracked it and rejoined the well-rested part of the human race.
It’s 4am now, I don’t really have a happy conclusion or moral to this tale, sleeping feels like a skill I need to relearn, maybe I need to find someone who can teach me.