Sleep is a country. I am a great believer in sleep. And if it’s a country, I hold a passport in apparently good order because I visit, regularly and with gratitude. At various times in my life I have been unable to sleep and crawl into the next day feeling like I look – grey. There are people who don’t sleep, through personality or illness – I worked for one true insomniac, by which I mean nothing to do with drugs or drink, and I marvelled at him. Rather him than me.
There are times in your life when you don’t sleep.
My son slept through the night twice in the first three years. The first time I thought he was dead, waking with “mother’s ears” to stumble to his cot where I couldn’t see anything moving. Eventually he muttered and I let out my caught breath. The second time was a slightly less dramatic re enactment, almost as shocking because of the infrequency. On a good night he woke three times, on a bad a lot more. Three years of sleep deprivation were offset by the fact that I had got him at all. It made me think, with new respect, about my mother who had me when she was even older – though she had WWII for prep.
In my last full time job I was absolutely shattered by unexpected tension and unpleasantness, and when we parted company, I fell asleep in every comfortable corner for next several months. I was as they say “fair wore out.”
Of course there are times when there is an extraordinary demand on you .
Someone is ill, you have to work a different shift pattern, or you have to be on call, to be awake. And you do it. Needs must. I don’t remember (though we all know how exclusive memory is) being ongoingly cross with my son, I was so darned glad to have him. I do remember that the golden pleasure of him seeped in and drove the fatigue into retreat, not quickly, not easily but over the years.
When you are younger, time is elastic.
You can stay up all night, and another night, catch a few zzzz’s and go off to basketball practice or meet friends for a swim (I use these examples just to prove that not everybody likes football.) In a sense, when you’re young, you’re in puppyhood. One of the nicest things about a young animal is how it gads about till it’s tired and then falls asleep where it stands.
I learned something about sleep from my son. He was big – tall and big made – and he needed sleep. And if he were unwell (which didn’t thank heaven happen often) he could sleep himself right – an idea I grew up with.
As you get older, sleep changes.
It becomes elusive, never enough, never deep enough, unsettled, unsatisfactory and people start reading theories about sleep – how you should this (oh, should !) and you mustn’t that … any or all of which may help you or not. The best sleep in the world, over time or a terrific holiday, is only a step in the right direction. How you sleep now is more or less how you sleep now. And if I go back to the beginning, that sleep is a country, then it has its own customs and the interpretation of them varies.
Older, I can’t eat late any more. I drink less than ever simply because it keeps me awake. Though occasionally, several glasses of a really good organic red has the opposite effect. I looked at the opening of a film the other day and thought “Right – I am in the company of a violent person – do I want to be with him for the next two hours ?” And switched off. I often read old favourites last thing at night, the rhythms familiar, enough – now try …
But if I can’t sleep, I can’t. I get up, find a book, make hot milk, take two digestives and face it till I can or not as the case may be. And if I am ill or shocked, I channel every puppy I have ever known, on to the couch, under a blanket and into surrender. Sleep as a healer, thank heaven for it.