Schlafenschmerz

It’s been a while since I wrote. A few kind souls recently asked me over Twitter/Facebook why I’d stopped posting, and there are lots of reasons, the primary one being this: A member of my string quartet Raven threw eggs at Simon Cowell live on the final of Britain's Got Talent.

“Egg-gate” took over my life for months. I couldn’t write about it at the time because the fallout was nuclear and every time I so much as tweeted it ended up on the Daily Mail Online in the space of two minutes. I still can’t write about it because there may well be more fallout as a result. And frankly I’m all talked out. I can barely muster the enthusiasm to type this paragraph on the subject. Suffice it to say, the result of the egg lobbing was a clusterfuck of gargantuan proportions. The desire to engage with any kind social media after receiving several thousand abusive tweets and emails from irate BGT viewers understandably disappeared, and Strungout was the inevitable, if temporary casualty.

That’s all done now though and I’m back with blog posts coming out the wazoo. Those “Where have you been? I’ve really missed your blog!” people are going to wish they'd never mentioned it. 

The combination of the new year, my fast approaching 30th birthday and the change in my career situation have all contributed to a burning desire to overhaul my life. There are a few things I’ve been putting up with for as long as I can remember that I am finally ready to roll up my sleeves and tackle with gusto.

The first thing on my shit list is INSOMNIA. (a.k.a schlafenschmerz. Ok not really. I just like adding “schmerz” to things and pretending I'm fluent in German.)

Ah insomnia. I could write a BOOK on the subject. I suffer with it profusely. To make myself feel better about it, I have been going around the last few years thinking and saying things like, “Sleep’s for wimps! I’m like Maggie Thatcher, I only need four hours a night to function.” Clearly I should have mentally checked myself and acknowledged that the comparison to the iron lady alone was a shriek for help. (Do you know who else didn’t sleep? Hitler. And we all know how well balanced and rational he was.) I have smiled sympathetically over the years at the many people who have said to me things like, “Gosh I’m just USELESS if I don’t get my full eight hours,” whilst thinking, “Get a grip, you big girls’ blouse. Who the feck ever sleeps for eight hours? Continuously?!”

I have never been a proficient sleeper. I used to dread bedtime as a little person and read prolifically to escape the gnawing anxiety that used to creep up with the approach of midnight. Apparently even as a baby I hated the concept of “bedtime” so much that my poor knackered parents were forced to trick me into going to bed. They baby-proofed my room and left me out of my cot with all my toys and blankets etc until I fell asleep on the floor, where I had played until I passed out, before scooping me up and into my cot. Staying awake until I pass out out is a pattern I’ve been observing for a considerable portion of my adult life, as a lush and in recovery from lushery.

                               See? I've always been knackered. My Grandpa is holding me up in case I pass out.

                               See? I've always been knackered. My Grandpa is holding me up in case I pass out.

When I sobered up, aged twenty-three, it felt like I never slept. My alchie brain did all it’s most dysfunctional whirring in the hours between midnight and 6am. Dawn would break, the birds would smugly chirrup their morning chorus, I’d hear the neighbours get up and start blow- drying their hair and conversely, my body would relax. I’d sink fast into an hour and half of coma-like slumber before my alarm went off and I hobbled, shrouded in failure, to the shower feeling like I’d taken three mogadons, knowing I’d lost all hope all of a normal day. To be deficient in completing one of the most basic human functions made me feel like a freak of nature. I slept walked through my early recovery temp jobs, grey-faced and scratchy with dread. Mind you, that could have been to do with the fact that I was dispensing parking permits for a living. Being a zombie was probably a godsend.

After a while I had to stop obsessing about it. Getting cross with myself for not sleeping and worrying about how I was going to feel the next morning just perpetuated the problem and increased the mental torture. Luckily I share a bed with a man who could sleep through a nuclear explosion. I can read, watch things and even write this blog right next to him and he doesn’t stir. All kinds of admin I’ve procrastinated over gets done at 4am next to my sleeping, considerably more functional husband. Often I have to work the next day, or travel early, or do a whole day of recording, and the copious amounts of adrenaline I’ve always ran on gets me through the day. I’ve done some of the scariest performances of my life on no sleep at all. I started to get cocky and think, “Jesus, what’s the fuss about? I never sleep and I’m just fine. No one ever died of lack of sleep.”

The things is though, years of this on and off sleep is starting to take its toll. Running on adrenaline, whilst useful, is horrible. Turning up to an orchestral education workshop feeling like I did a ton of blow the night before due to the compensatory chemicals coursing through my veins is no fun at all. My morning coffee is now mandatory. Heads roll if I don’t hear the whirr of the Nespresso machine the very second I awake. I crave odd foods at odd times, and in the cold light of the day, the 4am admin turns out to be the work of a lunatic. Researching insomnia (in the middle of the night, natch) brought up quite terrifying articles that put paid to my “sleeping is for pussies” mentality. Did you guys know about sleep debt? Because I didn’t. Sleep experts say that we surreptitiously accumulate a deficit between the sleep we need and the sleep we actually get minute by minute, until it takes an extra full six or seven extra hours just to make up the shortfall. For the permanently sleep deprived, shift workers, parents of young children, or neurotic loopers like myself, it can take months to make up the deficit. In the New York Times the other day there was an article about the purpose of sleep...something that has confounded experts for a long time. According to the Nedergaard lab who have been researching the effects of sleep deprivation on mice, new evidence suggests that the main purpose of sleep is a kind of neural cleanse. The accumulation of waste products in the brain as the result of its intense daily activity are cleaned out during sleep. The brain cannot complete its purification when awake, as it takes so much energy. Long term sleep deprivation results in a brain filled with unfiltered proteins, some of which are linked to cognitive disease such as dementia, or Parkinson’s. I read this in horror, wondering just how much toxic gubbins is floating around my uncleansed brain right now. There is also evidence to suggest that more tired you are, the less tired you feel. Which means loads of us are walking around thinking we’re a bit tired, when in actual fact we’re on the brink of total exhaustion and need to sleep for a month.

All my glibness about not sleeping is a defence mechanism. I haven’t wanted to acknowledge how often or how badly sleeplessness affects me. The ugly, slightly wimpy truth is this: I’m KNACKERED. But then so is everyone else I know. I haven’t got the excuse of young children or even a dog jumping on my head at 5am demanding to be fed. I know new parents reading this will be thinking, “this bitch don’t KNOW from tired.” (If said new parents are from the deep south.) But I do, I promise. Not sleeping is drearily normal for me, but you know what? NO MORE. 2014 is the year I sort it out. I’m going to instigate a cull on screens before bedtime. I’m cutting out caffeine from midday and mainlining camomile tea from 9pm. I’m going to be bathing in lavender, meditating like a smug zen twat, and taking myself off to bed at a reasonable hour. If I’m not working. Otherwise you will find me sucking it up on the M40 at 1am. Maybe I’ve been kidding myself that not sleeping and working hard anyway means that I am somehow macho and superior, in order to compensate for the dysfunctional piss-artist I once was. However, there’s nothing macho and superior about falling down the stairs crying, wearing inappropriate shoes you ordered at 2am from the ASOS sale that make you look like a transvestite. Putting eyeliner round your mouth and cleaning your teeth with E45 because your eyes stop registering anything but shapes isn’t a great look either. And screaming “GET OUT OF THE WAY YOU ENVIRONMENTALIST FUCKTARD” to a hesitant cyclist out of your car window because you are so irritable you want to chew off your own arm is positively NOT OK. I know that.

There are plenty of esteemed people who have suffered insomnia to their detriment. Bill Clinton is a famous martyr to sleeplessness and has even said, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired,” which must have made Monica Lewinsky feel great. Lack of sleep has been cited as one of the reasons Governor of Texas Rick Perry under-performed so spectacularly in the 2012 US presidential campaign. A recent back injury prevented him from exercise, which Perry relied upon to combat his lifelong insomnia. On the campaign trail he was forced to forgo his daily run resulting in lack of sleep so prolonged and detrimental that his advisors sent him to a sleep lab. Despite sleeping under observation, covered in electrodes, the results were inconclusive. He lay awake night after night on the campaign trail, which led to a series of mortifying gaffes in the debates. Who can forget the toe-curling “Oops-gate”?

If I was ever asked on Desert Island Discs (bound to happen any day now) I would take The White Album by The Beatles. Bugger the eight piece rule. I’d take the entire remastered double album. I spent my teenage years obsessed with it. One of the songs on it spoke to my soul even as a lanky fourteen year old was “I’m So Tired”. It was one of the many songs on TWA written in India, when the Beatles were on retreat studying transcendental meditation, probably sporting cheesecloth tunics and long lentil-matted beards. Lennon was pining for Yoko Ono during the three weeks away from her and was plagued with insomnia as a result.

“I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink." Lennon sighs. "I’m so tired, my mind is on the brink. I wonder should I get up, and fix myself a drink? No no no.”

That’s my internal monologue at 4am. So at least I’m in good company.