Perchance to dream

What’s your sleep been like this past year? Mine’s been all over the place. I suppose it’s hardly surprising, given that 2020 quickly became all about uncertainty and bracing for the worst, and 2021 hasn’t been much better. The problem was that we all needed an extra helping of strength to deal with it, and strength is what good sleep gives you. Without it we are adrift.

I remember the all-nighters at university, trying to finish an essay that had to be on the tutor’s desk by 9am. No problem. Later, in London, I could party all night and still get through a day at work the next day. More recently, I would fly twenty four hours to Australia from London, arrive around 7am, and go straight to work. Somehow I could do that. A bit bleary but I managed. Now, though, a duff night’s sleep has me stumbling around the house like a zombie.

Sometimes it’s mea culpa – like when I’ve drunk too much red wine, which wakens me with a thumping heart, or eaten too late or too much. A snuggly duvet at lights-out can wake you in a sweat in the small hours of the night. But I have control over all that.

The problem, really, is all in the mind. The overactive mind, that is. Instead of floating through pleasant dreams – discovering a lake at the bottom of the garden, having a nice chat with people long dead, that kind of thing – I’ve been waking up at three in the morning and allowing my mind to snap into action. Not big thoughts, either, just processing the status quo. Sometimes it’s been to fume about the awfulness of Trump and the calamity of Brexit, other times it was pondering if there was enough food in the freezer if one of us got Covid. Occasionally I would run through the plotline of the episode of ‘Vera’ or whatever else we’d watched before bed. And often it was to go over the next Design Icons I was about to write for the radio or coming up with the perfect start to a novel. (At 3am, most writers are geniuses. Reality hits when you try to put it down on the page later and can’t quite see what was so brilliant about it in the dark.)

When I lived in London I was often woken by the sound of someone trying to break in, testing the windows or the door. Putting the lights on made them scarper but it was virtually impossible to fall back to sleep after that. No such problems now. Suburban nights are pretty quiet. A few years ago some goon would often let off a single firework nearby which someone told me was a signal that a drug dealer was about but now it’s all very respectable. I might get woken when the possums jump on the roof above the bedroom from a nearby tree. The fruit bats flap about and squeak noisily whenever there’s nectar to be slurped or fruit to snaffle in the garden. On wild stormy nights I can sometimes hear the surf crashing on the beach, which makes it sound much closer that it is. But normally it’s dead quiet and the perfect setting for a good night’s sleep. And yet I lie there awake.

I always advised clients not to put their bed under a window when I was practising feng shui. ‘But I love looking up and seeing the stars,’ one person said to me. ‘Which means you’re not sleeping,’ I replied, in a patronising way. Sorting out the bedroom is half the battle – getting the electronics and flashing lights out, the windows covered, and the bedhead against a solid wall will all help. But sometimes it’s not enough.

Some members of my family will do anything to avoid going to bed. They’re on the computer or watching films until the small hours, and they think nothing of chatting on the phone at midnight. They blink uncomprehendingly when I say I like to be asleep by eleven. One friend uses sleep when she feels overwhelmed or experiences the warning signs of depression. She can sleep for ages and will eventually emerge feeling able to deal with whatever’s next. That’s the wonderful therapy of sleep and I want some of it.

We’re about to move to our place in the country. Whenever we first arrive there I always conk out. It’s like I need time to adjust to the different energy of the place. I usually sleep really well there. I think it’s about being isolated, where the only sounds around me are the sounds of wildlife. Although once the nocturnal calls from the Tawny Frogmouths kept me awake, thinking someone was whispering my name in a hoarse voice. ‘Colin! Colin!’ the voices called, passing overhead. Country life can be spooky.

I’m holding out for a good night’s sleep. In the meantime I have developed a strategy. When I waken then I try to think of a particular day – any day, really – in a foreign place. I conjure up what it felt like sauntering through the Alps or dashing along Piccadilly in the rain and eventually I drift off. It works for me. The past is another country, certainly, but it’s also very good for boring yourself to sleep.

What works for you?

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  1. My sleep is challenged even in a good year. But one of the weird sides of Covid was some especially twisted sleeps with frightening mental confusion in lieu of dreams. Thankful that’s behind me now and I’m back to my regular crazy dreams. The middle-of-the-night brain overdrive hits me a lot too, and the too-much-wine anxiety, but not much helps me beyond waiting it out. Breathing can be good for the anxiety though (2 secs in, 2 secs hold, 2 secs out, 2 secs hold).

  2. I really loved this post, Colin. It felt very gentle.
    The UK is definitely in the grip of Coronasomnia, with many reporting intense dreams. This is certainly true in our house. My younger daughter has always gone to sleep watching something on her phone, but during lockdown I have finally convinced her that reading a book before bed might be more rest inducing.
    I love all the photos. Particularly the red beds – not a good colour for rest at all! Is that something to do with the Papal Conclave?

    • Sleep issues have been quite a theme for these past ten months, certainly, and that’s a great name for it, Coronasomnia… The setting-up for sleep is certainly important, and mobile phones are verboten in my bedroom. Those red beds are quite something, aren’t they! They’re in the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital started in the 15th century, each side of the main ward lined with those cosy beds. An amazing building, too, absolutely brimful with colour, including the roof tiles (check it on google). I suppose red might help keep the heart a-pumping!

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