Memories of sleep

I ONCE fell asleep with my legs up against a wall while wearing a face mask. Night duty will do that to you.

One minute I was stretched out on the bed hoping a face mask would help me recover from a busy few hours as a trainee nurse at a big city hospital. The next I was struggling to work out which way was up, and why my legs were lifeless and my face was caked in concrete. You can be that tired.

I remembered putting my legs up against the wall because they were aching. I didn’t remember being hit by a truck, which is what it felt like in the first few seconds after waking from a dreamless sleep.

I was a trainee nurse for about 18 months from the age of 18. Sleep, or lack of it, was the foundation issue, backdrop, framework and overriding memory of that time.

It was great training for having children – that big chunk of your life when sleep’s siren call is your constant companion, along with baby howls, desperate 2am car rides to nowhere and luridly-coloured dreams because you don’t ever reach a point of deep sleep. It’s the years when it’s hard to read anything more demanding than the instructions on a baby formula tin, and where your brain seems to turn to the same kind of mush as the mashed vegetables and fruit you beg your baby to eat without projectile vomiting.

We don’t get enough sleep, according to an Australian study published this week that put a figure of $66 billion per year on how costly lost sleep is. Who even knew we had a “national sleep problem”? I know plenty of people who constantly complain of being tired, but I thought I was just hanging around too many oldies who binge-watch Homeland or spend hours lost in the far reaches of the internet. 

How you quantify a dollar figure for the lost sleep of millions of people I don’t know, but the list of things you can experience from lack of sleep are worth noting.

They include reduced attention, motivation, problem-solving ability, confusion, irritability, memory lapses, impaired communication and impaired judgment. And, as I’ve noted, here I was putting it all down to advancing age.

The study’s authors described lack of sleep as a “worldwide epidemic” caused, in part, by people working into the late hours because they can communicate with others in different time zones.

I don’t know any of those people. But I do know plenty who stay awake into the ridiculous hours for all sorts of other weird and wonderful reasons.

“It’s the only time of day when the house is peaceful because everyone’s asleep,” said a friend who flops into bed at midnight after a couple of hours of “Me” time with a glass or two of red, only to drag herself up at 5.30am for an early start before the kids are up at 6.

I can’t sleep on planes. I know how quickly I’d crack if I was a spy in a locked room being deprived of sleep to force me to spill my guts and reveal national secrets… because I haven’t slept on long-haul flights.

“I am constantly, constantly tired to my very bones,” she says. She acknowledges that about five hours’ sleep a night is not even close to the recommended seven hours, but says she would go insane without a couple of hours of quiet at the end of each day.

“I’ll catch up when the kids move out,” she said, which might sound like a solution to the problem until you discover the kids are barely in their early teens.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr David Hillman from the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, said sleep is the part of the day where we think we can cut corners or make up for lost time. But lack of sleep is what breaks our spirit quickest. I know this.

I can’t sleep on planes. I know how quickly I’d crack if I was a spy in a locked room being deprived of sleep to force me to spill my guts and reveal national secrets… because I haven’t slept on long-haul flights.

There’s a panic that sets in when you’ve spent hours contorting yourself into a small seat, pacing the aisles, and watching films before realising you will stay awake for the whole 14-hour leg that you embarked on only an hour before your normal bedtime.

Sleep deprivation is that desperate need on a plane just to lie down flat and close my eyes. I would sell my soul for a few hours’ sleep in those situations.

I know plenty of people who wake in the middle of the night and stay awake. I’m one of them.

I’ve written before that reporting on child sexual abuse for years can have a rather negative impact on your sleep. I learnt somewhere along the way that staying in bed was not the best way to deal with it.

That’s when my dog, Lloyd, and I started our night walks around the neighbourhood – me being comforted by the dark, the quiet and the calm, and Lloyd taking great delight in sniffing and piddling on whatever took his fancy.

There was something about walking beneath a dark but starry sky, with nothing but a piddling dog and a few possums for company, that reduced the stresses of not being able to sleep and put the significance of one person’s dramas, in a great big universe, into perspective. I recommend it.

I wandered the streets in the middle of the night with my middle son when he was just a baby, during a period when he slept in 30-minute stretches until he woke and screamed the house down.

He often didn’t sleep while I carried him around but it did stop him screaming and waking his brothers. I once even had a pleasant, but whispered, conversation with police at some ungodly hour when they expressed concern for the welfare of a mother carrying a baby in the street, until I told them they’d have to take him with them if they woke him up. I wasn’t a troubled, scared or dispossessed woman. Just a mother coping with a beautiful but fiendishly sleep-challenged infant.

I don’t know how we address our “national sleep problem”, other than by turning off gadgets and going to bed.

As for sleepless babies? They grow up eventually. And every so often give the adults they’ve become a friendly 4.30am wake-up call to tell them how much you love them. Just for old times’ sake . 

This story Memories of sleep first appeared on Newcastle Herald.