To fly, perchance to sleep


Counting time between proper sleeps – it was 48 hours. From waking up in my own bed in England (8am Saturday morning) to falling asleep in a hotel room in Melbourne (10pm Monday evening). We can argue about the definition of a day. The number of hours between these two times is theoretically 62 hours. The real number – subtracting the 11 hours time difference was 51 hours.

Let’s also establish that a nap is not a proper sleep. For me a proper sleep has to be 6 hours at least. For others, nothing under 8 hours would be given serious consideration. In that period, I think I had maybe 4 naps of between 30 mins to an hour. Hardly even naps – a mere sequence of napettes.

This had not been the plan. The plan was to sleep on the journey courtesy of the joyful provision of a “flat” business class bed. Flat of course is a relative term. As also, as it turned out to bed, is “bed”.

I don’t count myself as a fussy sleeper. i spend over 100 nights a year in various hotels in various countries and on the whole sleep well. The beds can vary in width, height, bounciness and sheet quality. None of these phase me, so long as I can untuck the linen, wrap it around me and adopt the foetal position. I’m a little fussier about the pillow. It need to be soft enough to be cuddled, and thin enough to be able to support my head without bending my neck.

But the bed does need to be smooth and big enough. By definition, a seat which turns into a bed will contain at least two lumps, where the bends for the human bottom and knees are positioned. No amount of flattening can seem to remove these. I’m no princess, believe me, but two small ridges become like mountain ranges when you are trying to lie on them. Also by definition, a seat is designed to accommodate your back and behind – not to lie on side wards in the foetal position on. I’m not a big guy by any standards – I’m short and wirey. But as soon as I lay down and bent my legs, I was pushing my knees or my bum against the uncompromising hard plastic of the sides of the seat-cum-bed.

All of this I could have coped with, I suspect. I pressed all the buttons to make my bed horizontal. I stood by as the nice flight attendant positioned my mattress. I had a nice small pillow and a blanket. I was all set. Thankful for the comparative luxury of a flattened seat. I got over the lumps – figuratively and literally and found a comfortable posture. And I shut my eyes.

Now, I confess to a degree of flight anxiety. I am not scared of flying as such – there is a greater chance of being killed on the way to the airport than on the plane. And I am no control freak. I was happy to trust the pilot, the crew, the engineers, the designers and the physicists whose frankly ridiculous hypothesis that a plane will take off because of the shape of its wings seems nevertheless to backed up repeatedly by the evidence of 120 flights last year.

No – my anxiety is a combination of claustrophobia, being trapped, and being a long way from home. All three of which were now asserting themselves. I was encased on this plane for 6 hours, with no sensible way of getting off. I was contained in a system which meant I would not escape into the open air for about 20 hours. I was hurtling away from home at 570mph. And I was feeling trapped in this small seat-cum-bed contraption, which made me feel like a baby confined to the prison of its cot. They do say these things are all traced back to early childhood.

When you close you eyes, you shut out reality. Reality is replaced by what is inside your head and memory. Your fears come out to play, rising up from the shadows, telling you all sorts of exaggerated horror stories.
All of which I had anticipated. Of course the problem with anticipating anxiety, is that it serves only to bring it forward and exaggerate it. Welcome to anxiety about anxiety.

Suffice to say, that I have learned a number of methods and techniques to cope with this. And suffice to say that they broadly worked to the extent that my mind became relatively calm, ready to drift into sleep. Another hurdle jumped.

So what finally stumped got me was the lights. When I sleep need (almost) complete darkness. A hotel room with curtains which let daylight through, or which don’t quite meet in the middle, is of no use to me. I am evangelical about this on TripAdvisor. There is a terrible hotel in Holland with slats on the window and a glass portal in the door. My regular hotel in Denmark has curtains which are so effective that, when I wake up, it is impossible to tell whether it is night or day. At home, we have blinds as well as curtains. I am obsessive about shutting them properly.

In a dark room, the slightest light illuminates like a laser beam, cutting through the blackness, inevitably targeting my face and tapping persistently on my eyelids. I hide the light on my clock, put my phone face down, take the black electrical tape from my emergency bag and stick it over the blue light of the television. Long ago I disabled the red glowing light in my portable USB charger.

Economy travellers may not sympathise, but this is where business class becomes a liability. The TV monitor glows.. So does the TV control unit – an iPad-style device. So does the alternative handheld TV remote control. The four buttons to control the seat glow. As do the power sockets. And the little shelving unit containing the bottles of water and fruit juice glows a soft yellow light.

I tried covering some of these with a combination of paper and books. It was as pointless as stopping the water flow through a colander with sellotape. I tried the sleep mask – not only was it disappointingly vaguely translucent, but it was uncomfortably tight around my head and ears, and I don’t believe I have an unusually large cranium. The final recourse was to pull the thin blanket over my head and hide from the evil of the lights. But then the heat and the lack of oxygen only served up a different set of challenges.

When, despite all of this I drifted into unconsciousness through sheer exhaustion, the final enemy was the noise. The noise which had not conspired to stop me sleeping, but cruelly let me dip into sub-consciousness and then wake me up. The noise of the people walking past my seat-cum-bed, the hum of the engines or – the ultimate irony – the heavy breathing of the man sleeping across the aisle, all assumed the proportions of a cacophony

In total across the two flights – six hours to Dubai and then twelve more to Melbourne, I fell just-about-asleep about four times, and each time woke again. each time I checked my watch, only to find time had moved on a mere 20 or 30 minutes. I tried everything from red wine to reading, to every combination of seat Incline and position. I tried lying on both sides of my body and even on my back. And that was probably the problem. The more you try to sleep, the less you succeed.

By the time we landed in Melbourne I had managed about three hours of light snoozing in the 40 hours since my last sleep. It was 630am. My taxi driver took me to my hotel, not to sleep but to drop my bags and shower. Then another car took me to the office, and somehow I stayed alert and awake for a full day’s work – although a few sentences came out scrambled at the first attempt. Nobody noticed the difference.

In the evening, determined to force myself onto Australian time, I walked through the city like a zombie, watched a little tennis on the outside courts of the Australian open, ate some pizza at the side of the river.

Back in my room, I face-timed my wife. She mentioned I looked a little tired. It was 9pm – another hour and I could just about go to bed on local time. So I popped downstairs for a small glass of wine. I sat in the corner with my phone. When I woke up I realised I had been the old guy in the corner of the bar asleep. On auto-pilot, I found the right room number and even cleaned my teeth.

And finally, finally, sleep, having been so elusive, drew me in like a warm blanket, wrapped its warm arms around me, and embraced me like a mother welcoming home a long lost child. Bliss.

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