Sleepless at 3.45am


I’ve been awake for a while, although I am trying very hard to be in denial. It’s impossible to calibrate time when you are in that indeterminate fuzzy zone between awake and asleep, floating between reality and dreamland.

I try to drift casually back into sleep. It’s like I am lying in a rowing boat which has drifted to the shore of a beautifully calm lake and bumped against a bank of dry land. I want to drift effortlessly back out to the deep water, but I have no oars. So I close my eyes and hope the light breeze takes me.

It isn’t going to happen. I have lain and hoped for long enough. I have been trying to conjure up dreams to persuade my brain to go back to dreamland. In that semi-sleep zone, it’s sometimes possible to persuade your imagination to create unreal and fantastic images which beckon you back into that fantasy world of dreams and sleep.

But after a while, as my logical daytime mind steals space and energy from my disconnected night-time mind, I know that this battle is being lost, and some new tactic is required.

With looming trepidation, my now dominant waking mind asks the inevitable question – how serious is this? In other words, what time is it? and how many hours are there between now and the time I need to get up? The longer that time is, the less sleep I have already had, the more stressful the situation becomes, the less likely more sleep is. It becomes a nightmare you can’t fall sleep from !

So this is a question best avoided, as there is rarely a good answer. Like asking your boss how much your colleagues earn. The answer just gives you a bigger problem. Ignorance can be bliss.

In normal circumstances this avoidance tactic can work well. I can quite easily go to the bathroom without opening my eyes or looking at a clock. Then I can pretend it is whatever time I want it to be. Even in a strange hotel (which is half my life) my memory is sufficient to navigate into the correct closet reasonably safely, without visual help. The only tricky bit is finding the toilet itself and then standing at the appropriate distance – otherwise the consequences can be messy. So I walk with my hands out in front of me, as if sleepwalking, until I touch a wall. I have managed to convince myself I am still effectively asleep – just sleepwalking.

Tonight, I know that a mere bathroom visit will not solve the problem. So I look fearfully at my watch. It reports 3.45 a.m. A very poor answer indeed – my watch is not my friend anymore.

At 8am I will start a day of reasonably demanding meetings in an office 20 minutes away, and I need to shower, dress, pack, have breakfast and check out – ideally in that order.

I try simply rearranging the pillows and lying back in bed. I try opening a window. I try different sleeping arrangements with my duvet. Legs in, legs out. Head under, head over. Foetal or recovery position?

I try eliminating every source of light in the pursuit of total darkness.

Any tiny source of light can wake me up and prevent me from sleeping. The smallest spec assumes the magnitude of a laser beam in a darkened room.

The usual culprits are an early sunrise coupled with inadequate curtains. The first being determined to find the smallest chink in the second – like a thief finding the weakest point to break into a house. The slightest gap under, over or between the curtains will be exploited and a dazzling ray of light will penetrate and glare menacingly through my eyelids. I don’t believe that light travels only in straight lines, it is far more devious than that.

Tonight, there is a light on my phone charger, a light on the TV, a light on the hotel phone, lights on the clock radio, and even a light on the coffee machine. It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here. Why does every piece of technology need to have a light to announce it is availability? Spare me from attention-seeking domestic appliances (the clock radio has a legitimate excuse, I guess)

So I did my best to fix all of the above. To be fair at 3.45 a.m. there is no sunrise yet, not even in July, and the curtains seem pretty effective in this hotel for once. Nevertheless I scrupulously check they are totally drawn in the unlikely event I fall back to sleep.

I have smothered the device lights with the multiple extraneous pillows and cushions that every hotel provides these days. They can no longer disturb me. I will plead mitigating circumstances for these murderous, suffocating acts.

After all of this attempted remediation, I lay back in bed for another 20 minutes. There is no light, and now in the darkness, dark anxieties and fears start to creep in. I have a number of these demons, which I won’t confess in detail, suffice to say they revolve around mortality, the past and the future and/or being trapped (no surprises there I hear you say).

I also have one where I remember a place I have been to – usually on some far distant holiday – which I can’t get back to, or probably will never go back to. I start to walk through it, as if I have returned as a ghost. I can sketch in a surprising amount of detail. For whatever reason, this creates a feeling of rising panic and I have to open my eyes to break free, to reconnect with the here and now. None of this madness makes sleep any easier.

The other distraction is an interminable song which keeps playing through my head. Tonight, for no particular reason it is “All the young dudes” by Mott the Hoople. The opening guitar sequence. Work that one out. Great song normally – but it’s on some deadly loop in my head, a one track iTunes playlist which repeats ad infinitum. How do I turn it off? And is it in your head yet?

In quiet desperation at 5am, I try plan Z, which is to get up, make a cup of tea and let wakefulness have its 20 minutes of indulgence, on the assumption it will then be content to pass the baton back to sleep-fullness.

I try that. I also tidy the room and put everything in its place, as if I were rearranging the chaotic contents of my mind into some semblance of order and calm. I realigned the duvet and pillows, and quietly snuggled back up to the pillow, armed with a flight magazine to read (nothing too demanding). The anxieties have gone, but the tune hasn’t. And now, finally, sunrise and the light is tunnelling under the curtains ready to launch a full dawn raid.

I have accepted the inevitable. I shall get no more sleep. I will be tired all day. The day will be a battle.

But I’ll get through, try to take it easy and try to stay awake until the next match between me and insomnia, which is scheduled for this evening. I will be back in my own bed so it’s a home fixture. Hopefully my sleep brain will put in a better performance lying on its own pillow.

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