For more than 69 years I never had any trouble sleeping. As a kid I was very active, riding a bike to and from school and playing back-yard and street cricket and football after school until darkness fell. Later I pounded a tennis ball against the back wall of the house for hours, wearing patches in the lawn, to my father’s distress. As a teenager I played club tennis at the weekends, singles and doubles. Most weekend nights I was knackered.
I was a hard worker at university, putting in long hours at the library and preparing for exams. As a graduate student I did likewise; I burnt the midnight oil but never stayed up all night. Nothing much changed in that regard as the years went by. As a partner and father, as a teacher and writer, I had my share of emotional ups and downs, excitements and regrets, but my sleep never really suffered.
All that changed early in 2012 when I was in a rehabilitation hospital for six weeks following an accident in which my leg was badly broken. Initially, I was given a drug, an opiate of some kind, to ease discomfort from the damaged leg at night. I slept deeply.
Then, after about three weeks, the drug was withdrawn, presumably to avoid the risk of dependence and because such drugs cause constipation. I was distressed to find that I couldn’t get to sleep. I was given paracetamol, which didn’t help. Despite being tired after two gym sessions each day, I found myself reading until beyond midnight and then limping about the corridors trying to tire myself out.
The insomnia has persisted from time to time ever since. At home I’ve sometimes had the – for me – novel experience of staying awake all night, reading and writing, until mid-morning, when I’ve been able to get to sleep at last. I consulted doctors and was prescribed sleeping pills. When they worked, which wasn’t always, I felt stunned and wretched the next day.
As things stand now, insomnia can reach out and grab me unexpectedly. I can go days and even a fortnight without the problem and then be unable to sleep until 3 am. It is a torment and I find it almost humiliating to lie awake, my head buzzing with inconsequential debris – snatches of dialogue from films, lyrics from popular songs, desperate attempts to recall unimportant names and dates.
As far as I am aware I don’t have any anxieties or serious misgivings. Age is no doubt a contributing factor, older people needing less sleep, and I can’t exercise as I would like to because of health problems. This column is being written at 2 am during one such sleep-deprived night. I am wide awake, not yawning. The only benefit from what I feel as an affliction is that writing cleans out the mental detritus and I can get a hell of a lot of reading done.
Must be sure my Kindle is fully charged.