We are as sleep-deprived nation. This is because sleep is for wimps. It is a waste of precious time. Hours we could utilise more efficiently to grind through our task list, clear down our inbox, build up our social network or soak up more electronic moving images.
My wife says she enjoys sleep, which is why she has so much. I say she is nuts. How can you extract pleasure from being unconscious when you are, well, unconscious? There may well be joy in the process of entering or exiting the sleep state. But this is independent of the gap in between.
Sinking into sleep in the soft embrace of the duvet, breathing in the comforting aroma of our pillow at the end of a stressful day, running our toes across the coolness of the sheets as we awaken, the sun sneaking through the curtains, caressing our eyelids, easing us out of sleep, satiated and rested. All of this can be a delightful dream.
Conversely, flopping unconsciously onto an unfamiliar hotel bed, utterly exhausted after a long journey and the obligatory rounds of drinks, knowing that in about 5 hours you will wake up to that wretched soothing tune you have set on your phone alarm to, having stirred a dozen times already in the early hours, stressed and unrested, with a whole load of work to do before that impossible meeting you have to present yourself presentable to. All of this can be a nauseating nightmare.
Then we chastise ourselves for staying up so late and long to fast-forward the day to the point where we can crawl back into bed and get an early night. Which we fail to do, and so the cycle continues.
After a week of such unsatisfying and stunted sleep, I went to the works Christmas meal and party on a boat in Southampton harbour. After the party I had to drive the 160 miles home, unpack, repack and sleep, before the 4.45am alarm. Two hours later we would be sat on a plane hopefully flying to Lanzarote.
The party was more of a senior management duty than a pleasure. I guess when they booked it, taking the IT team out on a boat seemed like an exciting idea. It may well have been on a balmy summer’s evening. But this was a perishing winter’s evening, the biting cold given extra incisors by our movement through the icy water.
Either way, mediocre food on a swaying vessel followed by a disco (or whatever they call them these days) with no possibility of escape is not my favourite evening out. I was crammed in a hot confined space with lots of people at various stages of drunkenness. The cacophony of loud music made any semblance of coherent conversation impossible.
Added to this the challenge of avoiding people you don’t really like, even when they are sober, and the challenge of not dancing, but without looking like the party-pooper you are, and it all becomes rather uncomfortable and pressurised. So I stood holding my empty diet-coke glass watching people with fewer inhibitions dancing outlandishly to modern music. Clearly you needed to know the moves, so I was off the hook.
And so I spent a good proportion of the evening standing outside at the stern of the boat, where it was possible to engage in some proper conversation or to look wistfully out to sea. I actually had quite an interesting chat with a Greek guy about the Greek economy and then an Egyptian about life in general. The only drawback to all of this, in the absence of my string vest and a coat, being the aforementioned intense cold.
I nipped back inside to thaw out just in time for the ritual rendition of “Hi Ho Silver Lining”. A woman who works for me had promised to drag me onto the dance-floor. She failed. I was resolute. I hadn’t come this far to fail at the final hurdle. Finally, they put on a couple of slow numbers. At an office party? Surely not. A couple of girls danced with each other in a mock-show of affection. Keith from Applications Support refused my invitation.
If you can be sober and restrained when those around you are drunk and dancing, yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
We swayed back into port at 11.10. I could escape. The drawbridge lowered and I made a run for it. I wanted to get as much sleep as possible; without starting on the motorway. So after an hour, I turned off the M40 and stopped to pick up a Costa and crisps.
My preferred route to the M1 was closed, so I doubled-back onto the M40, unfortunately heading southbound by mistake. I stoically suppressed by annoyance, did a volte-face at the next junction and ended back where I had stopped 30 minutes earlier. My sleep deprivation was both kicking in and creating more of itself at the same time.
We spend a lot of our lives topping things up. Sleep is only one of them. We top up with food probably more than is necessary, even out of prudence. Then there is our petrol, our phone, our batteries, our bank account, our printer ink and paper, our wine rack. When did we make our lives so complicated and stressful? And why do all of these things inevitably run out just when we need them most and have the least time to replenish them? So we are late for a train, only to find we need petrol. Or we have our boarding passes to print and we have no ink.
I arrived home at 2am, pretty much on schedule despite the diversion. I completed my repacking. My wife had not replenished the wine rack (purposefully I was to discover) so I had a beer. Not my favourite drink at 2.30 a.m., but I felt I needed something to help me sleep. I could still hear the drone of the motorway.
Red wine works best for me after a tough day. It is a sedative and a depressive. So I often fall asleep a mellow, morose and melancholy. Which is preferable to staying awake all happy and joyful. Unfortunately our liver and kidneys still operate whilst we sleep with the inevitable need to pass water about 3 hours later. Not that this was a problem this time as I would be up by then anyway. I do believe I had one of the best, uninterrupted sleeps for 2 hours I had enjoyed (or not) for many a week.
At 4.45am the alarm on my topped-up phone sang a soothing melody. My eyes felt like glue, my eyelids felt like rocks and my head felt like a sponge. Apparently we need a minimum of 5 hours sleep and even I prefer 6. So I was four eggs short of a carton. And my wife was faring no better. I had inadvertently woken her when I arrived home, after her two hours of sleep and she had been unable to drop off again.
Fortunately, between us we were able to function sufficiently to dress ourselves, complete the packing and close up the house. In fact the taxi-driver seemed less coherent than we were.
Security at the airport was ridiculously busy for 6am. Why airlines insist on compounding the nation’s sleep deprivation with a plethora of early flights is beyond me. And then, just as we were about to boost our mental awareness with liquid caffeine and sugar-enhanced-pastries, our gate was declared “open” precipitating the usual undignified scramble to get to the head of the non-priority queue.
Here we stood obediently for 30 minutes whilst a woman with an oblong bottomless cardboard box fitted it over each suitcase like a tea-cozy, hoping to trick someone into paying the excess fine. I had purchased my case carefully, the girl in the luggage shop reeling off a long list of airlines who accepted it in within their cabin restrictions. It was a beautifully tight fit. As the woman lifted her box off my suitcase, I almost expected it to have disappeared like that old magic trick. Ryan Air would have charged extra for that.
On the plane, we need to eat before we could snooze. My eyes were intent on closing, despite the excitement of the Ryan Air in-flight magazine. My wife was already horizontal across two seats, which was hardly enough room even for her. A pastry and a cake later and we were floating through semi-consciousness into the clouds of sub-consciousness. My wife was grateful to be woken by the announcement of irresistible offers available only to Ryan Air elite customers.
We ached for a bed. First we had to land, collect our hire car, drive half-an-hour to our hotel and check in. Then, bliss, a lovely double-bed, and we could finally catch up properly. My wife was grateful to be woken by the arrival of a small plate of complementary cakes.
Later that evening, after sharing a bottle of wine and a couple of free cocktails with dinner, we slept again. If only I had remembered to switch off my phone alarm we would have slumbered undisturbed beyond 4.45am. It was restful sleep nevertheless. No deadline to wake up for. Missing breakfast would have been the worst outcome.
We do need to be relaxed to get quality sleep. Having too much to do keeps us up late and/or gets us up early in the morning. And it compounds this by creating stress and reducing our sleep quality. Ironic how we rarely get a good night’s sleep when we need it most – before an exam, on the day of a difficult meeting, when we have an early morning appointment. Ironic how the earlier we set the alarm, the more likely we are to wake up before it.
A holiday is an rare opportunity to kick this negative loop into reverse. I will chill out this week, sleep more and sleep better. My to-do list can remain undone, my inbox can fill up unattended. Then when I get back I will be in a far better place to deal with life, on a full tank of sleep.