On July 23, 2018, Zoe Holohan had been married for just four days to her soulmate, Brian, when Greek wildfires took his life and their shared future. Four years on, she talks about trying to find a remedy for those sleepless nights
I’ve never been a morning person. In the good old days, I could barely string a sentence together until I’d consumed at least a gallon of caffeinated gunge and not much has changed in recent years. The only notable difference is that my Columbian blend has been replaced by Earl Grey tea (thank you stomach ulcer for banishing yet another of life’s little pleasures).
Currently, however, I’m more lethargic than usual — even the strongest coffee wouldn’t cut the mustard — because the curse of the night-time zombies has returned with a vengeance. In short, I’ve been surviving on a lousy three or four hours of sleep per night and let me tell you, a tired Zoe is a grumpy Zoe.
Insomnia has been the plague of my existence since childhood. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with either getting to or staying asleep. While these days I lean on some nifty medicinal aids to help matters (nothing heavy duty, just a dash of melatonin, a powerful antihistamine and, on particularly challenging evenings, a nice little hot toddy to send me to the land of nod) I’m currently going through a particularly bad spell.
Nothing seems to be working. My brain seems to be on ‘all systems go’ as soon as I turn out the light and I’m spending most nights either staring blurry-eyed at the ceiling, checking my phone or, more often than not, watching some mind-numbing drivel on the television until I eventually drift off, usually at around four am. I know many will disapprove of my late-night TV habit but believe me, watching dodgy 1980s re-runs until dawn is preferable to the alternative — lying wide awake staring into the abyss, slowly going out of my tiny mind.
Brian always used to say the TV should be banned from the bedroom but as he was a deep sleeper, contentedly snoring away night after night, he didn’t get much of a say in the matter.
My current dilemma stems from an inability to switch off from stress. I’m not alone, everybody seems to be nibbled by anxiety right now: amongst other concerns our bills are all going up while the temperature’s going down — it’s not a good winter combination.
Personally, I’ve also the upcoming Greek court case to contend with, related to the wildfires that killed Brian and 101 other victims back in 2018. This is the same fire that branded my body with a cornucopia of scars and while I can’t divulge too many details about the litigation yet (suffice it to say several key players are facing criminal felony charges), it wouldn’t take a genius to work out that the case has triggered some disturbing flashbacks and nightmares.
Strangely, after four years I’ve become used to waking up with a shudder. Perhaps I’m resolved to a lifetime of unpleasant dreams. As long as I manage to get some decent REM sleep, I’ve grown to accept those traumatic replays. My nightmares are simply a fact of life and an integral part of my inner psyche.
While the court case is definitely one explanation for my current plight, it’s not the only reason I’m having difficulty sleeping. I’ve always had to endure sporadic spells of insomnia and sometimes the cause is a mystery. Last year, it got so out of control I sought medical advice, consulted numerous sleep gurus (you’d be amazed who you can find on social media) and tried every relaxation technique invented.
Some tips worked for a short spell: lavender spray and breathing exercises were particularly effective, as were blackout curtains, a cool bedroom and eye masks. Caffeinated drinks were banned after lunchtime and upon my shrink’s advice, I created a strict sleep-time routine, forcing myself to rise at the same time every morning, sleep or no sleep.
Naturally, while some of the above worked, some tricks of the trade were less successful. The scented candles were a diabolical idea for somebody with a phobia of fire (what was I thinking?) I stared at the charred wick all night, terrified I hadn’t properly extinguished the flame. Nonetheless, things improved considerably for a time and perhaps that’s why I’m frustrated right now as nothing is having the desired effect. For once, I’m following all the rules (a novelty for this rebel) and still can’t muster more than four hours of shut-eye.
A great many famous insomniacs from history used those magical night hours to their advantage creatively
The one upside is that judging from conversations with my girlfriends, I’m not a solitary sufferer. Suddenly insomnia is the favourite topic amongst gals in my age group (you know the group that’s old enough to know better but still sufficiently immature to be in denial about getting older). I am, of course, referring to the dreaded ‘perimenopause’ phase when hot spells (of the non-erotic variety) invade the bedroom and destroy any chance of a sound night’s sleep.
The expression ‘ladies don’t sweat, they glow’ no longer applies unless a ‘glow’ can drench the sheets right through and make you feel like you need a cold shower. At least we live in an era where all things menopausal no longer carry the secrecy they did in my mother’s time, and our chats often cover such fascinating subjects as burning face syndrome, temporary amnesia and brain fog.
The sweltering nights appear to be the main culprit at play, and we can drone on for hours complaining about our shared exhaustion. With every exchange I confess to feeling a tiny surge of satisfaction — finally, my mates understand how adversely insomnia can affect your life. It’s my guilty pleasure, at last, there are other members in my club — Zoe’s no longer the only zombie in town!
In my quest for the ultimate sleep remedy, I did make one curious discovery, a revelation that almost had me embracing the delirium. A great many famous insomniacs from history used those magical night hours to their advantage creatively.
Van Gogh is a prime example (less Sleepless in Seattle, more sleepless with sunflowers). There was something about his manic genius that fascinated me — the man was a total contradiction, plagued by depression and the darkest of thoughts, yet capable of capturing nature’s magnificent beauty like no other. I question had he been a better sleeper would we have been gifted with spectacular masterpieces like The Starry Night? Was the curse of wakefulness for Van Gogh a blessing in disguise?
Thomas Edison was another notorious insomniac, but he chose to throw some light on the problem (excuse the dodgy pun) and changed the world in the process. My reckoning is that he probably had his ‘light-bulb’ moment just before dawn broke.
Then there was Franklin Roosevelt, reportedly no stranger to treading the floorboards night after night. I’m guessing he came up with his epiphany ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ in the wee hours of the morning, though I wonder if it was the fear of fear that stopped him sleeping in the first place.
Each of these famed creators and innovators used their night hours productively. They considered those additional moments of consciousness to be a gift. I’m just speculating here, but even had television been invented when they were kicking around, they probably wouldn’t have stayed awake watching re-runs of Charlie’s Angels and Mash (I’m ashamed to admit they’re my current addiction) but rather put that time to better use.
Therefore, I’ve resolved — until this current spell of insomnia wanes — to use my night-times more productively. Who knows where my adventures will take me, and what masterful inspiration the muse will bring? I’ll be sure to let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, good night, sleep tight and don’t let those zombies bite.