Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

The dreadful purgatory between waking and sleeping

The most depressing sound in the world is the tweeting of the Olive Thrush, Turdus olivaceous. It’s the first bird to wake up for the dawn chorus just before the earliest light leaks over the horizon — and it’s the sound that all insomniacs dread. The mockingly sweet notes mean that soon it will be time to get up and face yet another day of bumbling around like a delegate at a zombie convention, speaking slowly, and staring at a computer screen for inordinate amounts of time as you try to get your synapses to fire.

Actual thinking is a bit like trying to get a Datsun to start on a cold July morning.

In contrast, some of the most beautiful sounds in the world are words like Zolpidem and Zopimed. Say them slowly, taking care to enjoy the buzz of the “z” on the tip of your tongue: Zzzzzolpidem. Zzzzzopimed. Both of them are prescription generics offered by Adcock Ingram, which means that it’s possible to take schedule five sleeping medication and be proudly South African at the same time.

At what point does one who suffers from insomnia become an insomniac? Is there an agreed point at which the inability to sleep comes to define your entire identity? Wherever that line lies, I have long since crossed it. I’ve been taking sleeping pills on and off — mostly on — for more than three years now. I’ve tried lots of other things — Allergex, Melatonin, even a Seagull icebrick after reading about this research. But there are nights when nothing works — absolutely nothing. Last year I tweeted so much about insomnia that people from Michael Mol’s medical show filmed me for a segment on it.

Insomnia is torture. It’s also frightening, because you know if you spend another night suspended in dreadful purgatory between waking and sleeping, you will be even less able to function the next day. You’ll be even slower, even more of your colleagues will say perkily to you, “You look tired” as you walk into the office. I spend far too many days stumbling around in a mildly drunken fug, my eyes too big for their sockets, an electronic whine in my ears, productivity out the window.

Thankfully, I know that I am not alone. Thanks to all those lonely tweets in the darkness — the ones on Twitter this time, not the thrushes in the garden — I know that there are others who suffer from the same affliction. There are others who are only too familiar with the frustrations of not being able to do something that comes naturally to most of the human race, especially MPs during an especially riveting address by some or other deputy minister of something or another.

Mind you, put me in Parliament and I’d probably also fall asleep. That’s the cruel irony of insomnia: try as you might, you can’t sleep at night, but you can pass out during the day without any effort at all. So tonight, I will switch off my bedside light, lay my head upon my Dunlopillo, and lie there in hope that unconsciousness will take hold sooner rather than later, and when the thrushes sing to the last of the darkness, I will not be awake to hear them.

* An earlier version of this appeared on Newstime last year and because it is still very relevant, I thought I’d repost it.

Tags: , , ,

  • The Praetor

    Its all about attitude…If you subconsciously suggest to yourself that you wont be able to sleep, you probably wont.

    I suggest doing the opposite, and promise yourself that you will have a good sleep, and not doubt it.

    The Praetor

  • ian shaw

    I heard a rumour that good sex can be instrumental in puting you to sleep.

  • peter nel

    Not being able to sleep is for the birds. There are of course some things you may pay attention to when laying on your dunlop pillow. Firstly examine your thoughts and make an effort ot switch off your brain which you will find is overactive with thoughts of the day passed, new ideas which you wish to explore and which excite you. You will notice that your toes, feet and your hands are tense which will prevent the relaxation required in order to enjoy your well earned rest. Inhaling fresh air to fill your lungs fully ,holding your breath until you really need to exhale, whilst making a concerted effort to relax your toes and hands is a good idea. Several repeats of this exercise may be required but usually 3 or 4 will suffice to send the sandman to visit. Try this Sarah and you will fall asleep without knowing it and wake in the morning fully appreciating the thrush’s enthusiasm and exuberance at seeing the wonder of a new day awaiting. Have a great day and sweet dreams later.

  • Robard

    What works for me is to avoid eating raw onions and garlic after 2pm. Also, have a innocuous food for dinner, like a bowl of mashed potatoes or pasta.

  • Sanza

    insomnia is a pain in the something or other and being a former sufferer (over 2 years) i know something of your struggles – which becomes even more annoying when the person your next to seems to have just died in their sleep, and lies motionless and happy whilst you want to punch someone. i stopped taking sleeping pills and started counting backwards from some ridiculous number, like 15980384, before dozing off – and now i think i am cured on most days ending in a ‘y’. all the best to you in your efforts, i sympathise

  • MLH

    Perhaps all that lipstick is making you high?
    This only works for the religious: switch of the light, lie back and begin to say your prayers. You wake every morning wondering how far you got. The guilt gets you out of bed pronto.
    It’s like trying to find a husband. Decide against the need to try to sleep; read a good book or listen to the radio and you’ll drop off.

  • stelios

    Sarah, having suffered from insomnia for many years. I found that counting sheep and all the other forms of meditation and medication don’t really work. One sleepless night I tried something completely different … I pretended that I was a dumb blonde (sorry about the hair colour). Breath in, breath out, so I wouldn’t die – as the joke goes. Eureka, it worked and has done so for many nights. Just say it over and over in your mind. It clears you head of all the thoughts that are keeping you awake,and it cost nothing.

  • myth

    Whiskey and milk, slightly warm, does it for me. And if not, why, just have another until nirvana approaches..

  • http://none Lyndall Beddy


    Do you belong to a club or society where you eyeball real people face to face and do not socialise through the medium of a computer? A tennis club? A chess or bridge club? A bird watching or hiking club?

    A friend of mine met her long term lover and supporter through a wine tasting group.

    One of my colleagues in Cape Toen joined a divorcees/singles club, where she met her second husband. They only married again over a decade later – the rules of the club, which they loved belonging to, meaning they would have to resign once married.

    And if you need pills to sleep – why not? But have you tried herbal tranqillisers or muscle relaxers instead of sleeping pills – they are as effective for many people.

  • Franki

    Try sleeping with earplugs in. And an eyepatch. The sensory deprivation stops you worrying about when that damn bird will tweet