Tuesday 15 October 2019

'Insomniac since I was a boy of five'

Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell opens up about an affliction a growing number struggle with, writes Niamh Horan

BATTLE: Alan Farrell TD combats his sleeplessness by walking his dog Holly around
Malahide. Photo: Steve Humphreys
BATTLE: Alan Farrell TD combats his sleeplessness by walking his dog Holly around Malahide. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Alan Farrell has spoken of his lifelong battle with insomnia - which once kept him awake for four days.

The Fine Gael TD for Dublin Fingal is among a growing number of people struggling with one of the modern age's most frustrating and loneliest afflictions.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he opened up about how his problem first developed as a young child.

"I was very young, I was five or six," he says. "I can't put it down to any particular incident in my life. I had a rather uneventful childhood, thankfully."

His parents became alarmed when his condition became chronic. "There was one particular incident where I was awake for hours and hours and it turned into days [going into the fourth day] and obviously my parents got a bit concerned about it," he says. "At that stage I probably was an anti-Christ. I remember my mother being very worried."

He explains: "It can become dangerous for someone to stay awake that long."

When a person stays awake for days on end, he says, "long term absolutely [it can turn into psychosis]. The human brain relies on REM sleep and without it a lack of sleep is used as a torture technique - as we now know with rendition - so it is a very dangerous thing".

Now aged 40 and married with two children, Alan still battles with the disorder, but has learned to manage it so that some weeks are better than others.

"I could have a week of bad nights and then sleep soundly for a month," he says, "Right now, every third or fourth night I am not able to sleep.

"On a bad night, I will lie awake until 4am and that happens regularly."

On an experience many can relate to, he says his "mind is running at 100mph".

Describing his tendency to be 'a worrier', he says: "The worst thing is waking up with a fright. You get startled and you sit up in bed thinking you have something important to do because it's been part of your dream," he says.

"There have been many times where I have ended up getting out of bed, pulling on a dressing gown or going in to wash my teeth and I'd be half-way through the process when I would go back and look at the time and it will say 4am and I'll think 'this is ridiculous' and go back to bed."

On the thoughts that occupy his mind in the early hours, he says they can range from the mundane to the weighty.

"Look, what does your average 40-year-old man with two children and a large mortgage worry about? What are you going to do the next day? Are you going to make it to the next month? What are you going to do with the kids on your day off? Everything and anything. It doesn't matter [how trivial the concern] you could be worried about the dog, but you magnify these things when you are sleep deprived."

When he can't sleep, he says, "I voraciously read. Not books or novels but copious amounts of information online".

Instead of staring at the ceiling he says he reads the following day's papers from 1am into the early hours when they are first published online.

"My worst attribute is wikiloops. I might look at something on Wikipedia and I would research something and then I would click on a link to the next page and the next page and all of a sudden it's three hours later and you've gotten nothing done and you are in a wikiloop, going down a rabbit hole."

Having never taken a sleeping pill, instead he takes his dog, Holly, for long walks during the night along the coast of Malahide where constituents working on night shifts are used to seeing him pound the pavement in an attempt to bring on slumber.

He says: "The best advice I would give, apart from walking, is reading. It will either enthral you or put you to sleep, neither of which is a bad thing."

He also ensures his room is kept in complete blackout and has invested in bedding to help his night's rest. But he says: "I don't think the environment you are sleeping in is the problem. I think it's what's going on between your ears that's the problem and whether you might need to talk to someone."

He adds: "When we need to get fit, we exercise, but we often don't exercise the most important muscle in the body and that's the one between your ears. It's so important to exercise your voice and to find someone who can sit and listen in a non-judgemental way and sometimes they can offer advice."

He explains: "I am not depressed, it's more just life/work balance and finding ways of coping."

He says the reasons for his insomnia are unknown, but he adds: "I have gone to talk to someone and I have found it helps over the years."

Latest figures show insomnia affects 15pc of the Irish population and, according to experts, it's on the rise. The average person falls asleep within seven minutes and stays asleep for eight hours but an international survey carried out by Aviva health insurance last year found that 35pc of Irish adults said they do not believe they are getting the right amount of sleep.

The same survey ranked Ireland as the second most sleep-deprived country after the UK.

Sunday Independent

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