This is a quick post about sleep. This week I’ve been pretty busy – I’ve had something on every night. Chorus rehearsals on Monday; they finished at 10.30, and I got home about 11.30. Dinner with a friend on Tuesday, followed by a long phone conversation with my brother and sister till 10.30; then I had a bunch of ironing I needed to do. Then last night, rehearsals again, from which I got home at about eleven. I wanted to get up early today, as I have to leave early as we’ve got a concert. And I wanted to be well rested for the concert, as well as because I’m going to a festival over the weekend, so (a) I need to be early tomorrow as well and (b) I probably won’t get much sleep over the weekend.
In other words, I’ve been very busy and I’ve known all week that at the end of the week I’d need a lot of energy: the perfect reason to try to get a solid eight hours’ sleep each night. Every day I’ve gone through the day thinking, “must get to sleep a bit early.” Every day I’ve got to about 11.30, I’m home, all my stuff is done. And every day I’ve watched TV or fiddled around on the internet till about 12.45. As a result, I’ve gradually become more and more exhausted, until yesterday I nearly feel asleep at work. But even then, even when I desperately wanted to go to bed early and had rushed home from chorus in order to do so, I stayed up an extra hour fucking about on the internet.
Why do I do this? Left to my own devices, I think my ideal timetable would be to sleep from about 2am to 10am. I feel far more alert during the evening than during the day. It’s like I wake each day with my head full of fog, and it’s not till the evening that the fog clears and I can think clearly. When I get home from a busy night out, and I’ve got a window of time when I can think and sit down and feel at rest, why would I want to just go to sleep?
But it’s not working out. I can’t really get up at nine each day. I mean, I just about could; I could start work at 10.30 and finish at seven. But increasingly, I realise this isn’t really compatible with society; people I meet for dinner want to meet at seven; to get to chorus on time, I really have to leave a little after six. So I would really, really like to adjust to getting up at eight. Now, ideally, I’d like to still go to bed at one, and get up at eight. But that’s effectively what I’ve been doing this week, and I’m basically a zombie. Last night I couldn’t face the thought of another night of seven hours’ sleep a night, not with the concert tonight and the festival at the weekend. I can’t enjoy myself when I’m tired, and when I’m doing things I enjoy it usually means late nights. It’s catch-22, and it basically means I’ve been tired constantly for the last ten years. The fact that I’m now clinically obese obviously doesn’t help.
Then there’s weekends. An amazing number of my friends go to bed at 10pm during the week, and yet seem able to literally go without sleep each Saturday night without any lasting ill-effects. Apparently this is because one-off sleep deprivation like that is easier to bounce back from than milder, long-term deprivation. Personally, I tend to give up the ghost at parties at about 4am, usually from boredom as well as tiredness. Recently though, I’ve found myself wondering what the hell I’m doing even staying up that late at weekends. I’m a grown-up; I have things I want to do on a Sunday. I’ve been trying to use the weekends to do daytime leisure things, like go to galleries; run errands; go out all night, and catch up on sleep missed during the week. It’s too much. It can’t be done.
I find myself doing absurd mental calculations, like, “if I go to bed at 5am on Saturday morning and get up at 9 to go and meet my brother, that’s four hours; then if I get two hours’ sleep between coming home in the afternoon and going out this evening, that’s six; I can make up the rest with a lie-in on Sunday.” I find myself wishing there was a sleep overdraft facility I could use, where once or twice a year you can simply erase your exhaustion without actually getting that 10-hour sleep you need. Add in the fact that with the heat, the seemingly ever-growing noise outside and the light streaming in through my windows, I’m not always sleeping well, and I’m badly in sleep debt.
So I need to start going to bed at midnight.
Certainly during the week, and maybe during the weekend as well. I certainly don’t see myself staying up beyond two at the weekends any more, except on special occasions. When I look at my life now, the things I want to do more of: write, create, exercise – are daytime things. And if you want more daytime, you need less night-time. It’s one of those fundamental truths we find so hard to stomach these days, like “if you want to lose weight, you can’t have junk food” – and like that myth, it’s constantly being perpetuated by adverts and TV and films where people seem to party all night, work all day, have energetic sex in between, and never, ever sleep.
So. Midnight. Bed at midnight: it’s not exactly a bloody sacrifice, is it? But I know I’m going to find it fiercely difficult. No matter how exhausted I feel during the day; no matter how close I come to dozing off after lunch, I get to 11.30 and suddenly feel wide awake. I think it’s actually the thought of morning that puts me off; if you go to sleep, the next thing is you wake up, and you get up and you go to your crappy job. Think about it: if you don’t enjoy your job – and 95% of people don’t – then at bedtime the next thing you have to look forward to is the next evening, 18-20 hours later. And for me, that’s likely to mean a boring chorus rehearsal, or sitting at home watching shit TV while James does his marking. If I had something to look forward to, of course going to bed wouldn’t seem so off-putting.
But there’s more to it than that, I’m sure. I’ve always stayed up too late. When I was a kid, I always begged for a later bedtime, because all of the best TV was on late. It’s one of the ways society perpetuates the myth that artistic, bohemian people necessarily live at night: 9pm drama is family crap, 11am drama is adult and serious. The late evening is edgy. It has swearing and sex. It’s adult. Mornings are about responsibility and misery. This is hard-wired into us, and I suppose it’s only kids that snaps a lot of people out of it.
Plus, I tend to eat and smoke in the last hour before bed, which can’t help. And during the day I drink a lot of caffeine, trying to clear that fog from my head. It’s your classic vicious cycle: I’m tired, so I drink caffeine, which means that when it’s time for bed I’m not tired.
So some of these habit changes will help. And if I manage this, and get eight solid hours of sleep a day, it may help me lose weight, which will eventually mean I may need less sleep. Turn the vicious circle into a virtuous one. But I can’t shake the feeling that ultimately, I’m just denying my body’s instincts to fit in with the way society happens to be structured. When I was doing my dissertation at University, it was the closest I’ve ever come to making my own timetable; I used to get up late, piss about, and not start work will 6pm. I used to beat myself up about it, because my friends would be off in the pub while I was working; but, dammit, it worked for me. If I feel at my most alert in the evening, why waste that time taking hot baths and drinking hot drinks to try to get to bed? Why not use it? Will I ever really be able to shift my circadian rhythms, or whatever, to become a morning person? What if, even if I get totally in the habit of going to bed at midnight and getting up at eight, it’s always a struggle to get to sleep – and always a struggle getting up?
A few weeks before she died, Mum tried a dairy-free diet. She had heard that Japanese women have extremely low instances of breast cancer because of their low dairy consumption. Part of this, of course, was a complete reliance on soya milk- on cereal, in tea, in soup. A man came to the door one day and offered to deliver soya milk once a week. He said to try the first one for free. So she did, and he brought another one the next week.
Of course, she was miserable. She stopped drinking tea, the only time i’d ever known her to. And she was losing weight dangerously fast. Her nurse ordered her to go back to dairy to help slow the weight loss. There was no real evidence, she said, that dairy was linked to cancer.
Just a few weeks later, Mum was dead. Since then we’ve been back to her house every week, going through her things, sorting out paperwork. And every week, outside her door, we find a carton of soya milk. No-one knows how to contact the guy. He’s never been paid. And we just have an ever-growing pile of a dead woman’s soya milk.