Sunday 18 November 2018

'I so envy those of you who go to bed each night and fall asleep' - Writer Roisin Meaney on her battle with insomnia

Insomnia is a waking nightmare for which popular novelist Roisin Meaney has found no 'cure'. Here, she writes how learning to function with the condition has been a life-long quest

Roisin Meaney pictured at home in Limerickhas spent years with insomnia
Roisin Meaney pictured at home in Limerickhas spent years with insomnia

Remember those long summer days when you were small, and it would still be bright as midday when bedtime came around, and the last place you wanted to be was in bed, and your mother was your mortal enemy for calling you in from the street, away from the friends whose bedtime always seemed to be later than yours? But then, after the teeth were brushed (kind of) and the face was washed (sort of) and the pyjamas were pulled on, and you climbed reluctantly into bed, it would begin to happen. You'd give a yawn or two, and your eyelids would grow heavy, and you'd sink your head onto the pillow, and you'd float away to the place where dreams lived.

Every single night without fail.

Winter or summer, it made no difference. Whether the July sun was still shining traitorously on, or the January sleet was pelting against the bedroom window, you fell asleep pretty much as soon as you went to bed, and you didn't stir until your mother (mortal enemy) called you for school.

Ah yes, I remember it well. Actually, I don't - but I assume that's how it went, because I have no recollection of sleepless nights anywhere in my growing up years. It wasn't until much later, when I hit my mid-thirties, that insomnia began dropping in for a chat every now and again. I was teaching junior infants in a Limerick school, and from time to time, say one night in 10, I would find myself waking in the small hours after three or four hours of sleep, and watching the digital numbers on my clock radio make their slow, steady way towards 7.30am, my alarm time.

It was a nuisance at first, no more. The tiredness, the mental and physical sluggishness after a tossing and turning night was something to endure, in the hope that it would vanish as quickly as it had arrived. I told myself I wasn't sick, I had no aches and pains; I was simply having occasional sleep issues that would surely resolve themselves in time.

In the meantime, I tried taking a nap when I got home from school on days that had followed a bad night, but despite my tiredness, nothing would happen, and after 20 minutes or so I would get bored and give up.

The sleepless nights didn't go away. On the contrary, they increased and multiplied. By the time one night in 10 had become one night in three or four, and I'd become very familiar with through-the-night radio, I'd had enough. I took myself off to my GP, an eminently sensible and practical man who'd been treating my minor ailments for over 20 years.

"Everyone has sleepless nights," he said. "I have them myself. It's perfectly normal."

I pointed out that now I was having sleepless nights more often than not, and that teaching a class of 30 five-year-olds is really a lot easier after eight hours of sleep. He prescribed daily exercise, no caffeine after midday, a telly and computer embargo in the evenings, a bath and some warm milk before bedtime. I went home and tried all of this, and three or four weeks later I presented again at his surgery.

He gave in and wrote a prescription for a week's worth for sleeping pills, "just to get you back on track". I went home and took the pills, and I slept fine all week. There were two problems: they left an awful taste in my mouth that no amount of toothbrushing or mouthwashing would banish, and they reduced me to a walking zombie by day. The third problem was that I knew my doctor wouldn't give me any more, even if I wanted them, which I didn't. I decided to look elsewhere for a solution.

Over the following few years I tried everything, conventional and otherwise. I worked my way through the alternative remedies in my local heath store, to no avail. I practised yoga and meditation; equally ineffective. I put lavender drops on my pillow. I sprayed sleep spray around my room. I listened to rainfall and waves and whale noises and other supposedly soporific sounds. Nothing, nothing, and nothing.

A kind friend presented me with a yantra mat. In case you're unfamiliar, (I was), a yantra mat is about half as long as a yoga mat with little plastic spikes coming out of it. You lie on it for 10 or 15 minutes before bedtime, and you sleep like a baby afterwards. Well, presumably some people do. I didn't.

And then, still battling with insomnia, and losing most of the battles, I went to Spain one summer, to spend a month at a writers' and artists' retreat in a beautiful converted olive mill. I was still teaching but I'd also started writing, and had a couple of books published. I did my usual tossing and turning for the first week or so, and then one evening I was rummaging through the kitchen cupboards, probably on the hunt for biscuits or something, when I came across a small blue box which held a card of pills.

The writing was all in Spanish: my knowledge of the language extended to please, thank you, and may I have another glass of wine, so all I could go on was a crescent moon on the front of the box. I decided they must be sleeping pills, and I had a think.

What if they weren't what they purported to be? What if some previous resident of the retreat, some deeply disturbed artist or writer - oh yes, I've met them - had decided to replace the original tablets with a card of arsenic pills or something, and left them for the next innocent insomniac to find?

I decided my writer's imagination was losing the run of itself. I popped a pill and went to bed, hoping for oblivion that would last roughly eight hours as opposed to all eternity. And guess what? I slept soundly, and woke refreshed. No aftertaste, no residual sluggishness. I couldn't believe it. The following night I took no pill, and went to bed hoping my night's sleep might have fooled my body into thinking I wasn't an insomniac after all, and I tossed and turned until dawn.

From then until I came home I took a tablet every night, and slept like a well-behaved baby. When I finished what was there I took the empty box to the nearest chemist and bought a new one. Before I left Spain I stocked up on three more boxes.

Fast-forward 11 years. Every time I go to Spain, or a friend goes to Spain, I get a few more boxes. I take half a pill every few nights, and do the best I can in between. I know that many of you will be frowning at the thought of such long-term use of any kind of medication, but I've since discovered that the active ingredient is an antihistamine, and even my anti-medication GP has sanctioned my low dose of half a 25mg tablet. In the meantime, I so envy those of you who go to bed each night and fall asleep, and remain asleep until it's time to get up. Count your blessings.

Those experiencing symptoms of insomnia should seek a doctor's advice before taking any medication

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