My morning conversation with my partner routinely begins: ‘Did you sleep?’
In response, by phone, by text or at close quarters, a full report is given.
‘I got off quite quickly but then I woke up at two for some reason and didn’t get back till four.’
‘Did you take anything?’
‘I played on the computer for a bit then took a Nytol and slept till nine. Not bad — two hours plus five hours — that’s seven all told… How about you?’
I give a weary précis of my consumption of hot milk and nutmeg at three and half a Schloffadene at six and frankly, between us, we sound like an episode of The Golden Girls rewritten by Alan Bennett.
And it’s not just us. It’s my entire peer group. Why don’t we lay down our grey heads on our hypoallergenic pillows at 11 and wake up eight hours later with sparkling eyes and flexible limbs, ready to kick the hell out of another day? Why are we like this? Was it something to do with the end of rationing? Too many National Health tooth fillings? Overimbibing of cod liver oil? Why has the Land of Nod closed its borders to baby boomers and torn up our visas?
One of my girlfriends sleepwalks, as did her father. Once, when she was a baby, he tried to throw her out of the window, convinced that the house was on fire. Anna only sleepwalks when she’s anxious and stressed but, it has to be said, that’s pretty much her natural state. She hasn’t yet pitched anyone out of a window, which is fortunate as she lives on the sixth floor. For years she and I have swapped remedies. I once told her to get into a hot bath and run cold water on her feet. She got off to sleep beautifully and woke with sinusitis.
Then there’s Lucy, who is the real thing: she is an actual insomniac. She holds down an important job on less sleep than a giraffe (five minutes an hour, since you ask), she watches TV or reads all night then lurches kicking and screaming into the arms of Morpheus just before the alarm goes off. Naturally, she wakes with an anvil on her head and a fur mouth. Mrs Thatcher famously ran the country on four hours’ sleep (and, allegedly, several snifters) but, like Lucy, she always looked a bit cross. Being a night owl is not a hoot.
During the two years when my late husband was fighting myeloma, I slept like a baby (I’ve always thought that was a strange analogy since most babies wake every couple of hours). But I think I knew subliminally how much energy I’d need to get through the next day. These days, just knowing that I’ll need to look my best for a fleeting appearance on The One Show guarantees me eight hours of dry-eyed ceiling-staring and a permanently pleated face.
Dolphins sleep and swim at the same time because they can shut down half of their brains. Genius. It’s the open brain that is the culprit. Much as I enjoy preparing for sleep, bathing with relaxing essences, reading last Sunday’s supplements, having a cuddle etc, I’m aware that I don’t really relish settling down to nothingness.
‘What shall I think about?’ is the first thing I think about as I turn out the light. Counting sheep is pointless. Counting backwards from 200, as recommended by hypnotherapists, is certainly boring enough to induce sleep — but by 150 I’ve forgotten I’m doing it, dredged up some old feud or humiliation instead and have to go back to 200… 198… 197… wasn’t it 1978 when I had that argument with… And so it goes on.
Recently I read that regular use of sleeping tablets can lead to —whatsit — you know — oh yes, dementia — and that melatonin messes with your hormones. Post ‘the change’, my late mother and most of her friends took a valium every night, and she was hale and hearty at 80 and bright as a bullfrog after a strong cuppa in the morning.
Let’s be honest, chamomile tea tastes like boiled underpants and, like most herbal remedies, it works once and then never again. Holidaying recently in north Wales, however, I wandered into a kiosk of soaps and tinctures on Llandudno pier. There was a remedy for sleep that Peter, the knowledgeable proprietor, told me was his biggest seller. It contains lavender (naturally), ylang ylang (not a sleepy Chinese pianist) and odorata (not an impregnated insole). I paid three quid and left smiling drily. That night, still sneering. I applied it to my temples, wrists and the soles of my feet.
Reader, I slept like a warthog! Result!
The next day in pelting rain I ran back to the kiosk and bought six more phials for myself and my baggy-eyed friends. It’s not an infallible cure — it can disappoint, and it only worked once for Lucy the actual insomniac — but, if I’m awake enough to reapply it in the small hours, I have to say, it sort of works. Sheepishly, I’m beginning to count on it.