If I still had Facebook, my relationship status with sleep would be: it’s complicated.
It was in my mid-twenties that things started getting rough. I have always been a bit of a worrier – my fingernails are little more than gnawed nubs of calcium – but after a few years in London, my anxiety grew.
Get to bed at 10pm. That’s a respectable time, right? Roll around for an hour, during which time I have inflated even the tiniest problem into an unavoidable catastrophe for which I am solely responsible.
By midnight I’m so pumped up on all this anxiety, I can’t sleep. So I’ll turn on a film or a TV show or I’ll read. I try to trick my brain into shutdown, but by then it’s gone out on its own, like a rogue shopping trolley filled with boxes of bullshit, rattling down an infinite hill.
By 2am, I’ve decided that I’ll never watch porn ever again. This usually lasts 24 hours.
Somewhere between 2.30am and 4am, my body will have seized control of my brain and I will have reluctantly succumbed to sleep.
A few hours later, my alarm will go off and I’ll drag myself, zombie-like, into the shower.
A day of anxiety awaits and it all starts again.
Have I told you this before? I don’t think so…
In 2009, I was running on about 2 hours of sleep day. I was so out of it that I took the 38 bus to work from Hackney to Green Park every weekday morning – which took an hour, rather than the Tube, which took a mere 30 minutes – because I was scared of falling asleep standing up and stumbling onto the train tracks.
Anxiety breeds anxiety.
I worked in a very plush office space in Berkeley Square during that time, and the company paid for a private doctor on Dover Street to see their employees whenever they needed it. Perks, eh?
Anyway, half an hour later, I was sitting in the consultation room with a doctor. I told him my symptoms. He opened his drawer, handed me a packet of tablets and said, with a Russian accent, “Take one of these every night for a month and come back if you still can’t sleep.”
The packet contained 28 10mg Silnoct (Zolpidem) tablets. And that night, after washing one of those bad boys down with a few glasses of whatever budget Scotch I was drinking at the time, I slept like a fucking baby. I didn’t even have any nightmares. No dreams at all, in fact.
After a week on Silnocts, I met a friend of mine called Charlie. We sat in The Dove in Broadway Market, nursing pints of Kriek and he said, “Shit, Jack. You don’t look too good.”
“Yeah?” I stared into nothing.
Charlie was wearing fishnet stockings underneath ripped jeans, his mop of curly hair was matted with what looked like paint (everybody’s a fucking artist, right?) and he was shaking because he’d spent the last few days on mephedrone.
And he thought I looked like shit?
I called my mother, who used to be a nurse at a GP’s surgery, and told her about the pills. She said in her old practice, they used to prescribe one at a time everyday and then monitor the patient the following day.
This Mayfair motherfucker had just given me 28 and told me to go on my way.
I stopped taking the pills after that, saving them only for when I really needed them.
Six months later, the doctor got arrested due to the fact he wasn’t actually a doctor – his only formal qualification was a BA in French.
True fucking story.
Meditation vs Medication
A few years later, I embarked on a yoga course. It was held in a freezing warehouse in Haggerston by an angry lady called Janet (or was is Jeanette..?). I tried to kid myself that I was doing the course to get healthier both physically and mentally, but really, I as kind of lonely at the time and I thought it might be a booze-free way of meeting a nice girl.
During the ten-week course, I did indeed meet lots of nice girls, but I soon realised that a room full of sweating vegans on Monday night wasn’t really the ideal environment for romance to blossom. However, what I did find was that the yoga – and particularly meditation – worked wonders for me. I began sleeping like a normal person. The stresses of life shrunk into the insignificant little nothings they always had been and my mind was tranquil.
But the problem with meditation is this: It makes me feel like a cunt.
I whack on my headphones and listen to some asshole saying “breathe deeply” and “feel the warmth of your body”.
As my old friend Neil used to say (usually about Glastonbury Festival) “I didn’t fight the punk wars for that.”
When I moved away from East London, I had to quit Janet’s (Jeanette’s?) yoga classes. But life calmed down a little by then and I started sleeping better.
That lasted for about a year. And then something happened in my job: I started giving a shit. I remember when it happened – I was sitting in a meeting room with a guy and girl from the marketing team. The girl, let’s called her Eva Braun, was a school bully who never grew up.
I was in her crosshairs.
After one thinly veiled putdown too much, something flicked on in my head. I thought I’m not going to take this shit from you. You’re dumb and you’ve got bad teeth.
So I said, “Eva, let me make this perfectly clear. You do not tell me what to do. Your rationale is weak and if you want me to carry out this piece of work, put it in a fucking email and be specific about it. You’re wasting my time with this woolly bullshit. Meeting over.”
I was shaking as I did it, but I still did it.
The thing with bullies is, once you stand up to them, they tend to back right down.
Ava sat gawping. A few months later, she quit and moved to Poland and I got promoted.
With the promotion came stress. For example, whilst writing this piece, I am also engaged in a blazing row with the director of the Nordic office. (Edit – he has just apologised to me and backed down. Jesus, why do people make it so difficult?)
There’s some very interesting research about the intelligence of employees and how that relates to their various positions they hold within the companies they work for. Basically, people of a certain level of intelligence (smart dudes) question their competencies, whereas people who are less blessed in the brain cell area tend to assume they’re right.
And we all know that success had more to do with being brazen than it does with being smart. That’s probably why your new book sells far less than James Patterson’s next piece of crap.
Your boss is probably an idiot. And if that’s not the case, then his or her boss almost certainly is.
On the back of that, I started to question all people at work I thought were wrong about certain things. Trouble is, people don’t like being told they’re wrong, so it caused a lot of conflict. Rumour has it that in certain departments, I’m now known simply as The Bastard.
I’ll take that. I have enough friends. And sometimes being right is more important than being popular.
But it doesn’t make one sleep well at night, so the insomnia came back again.
I took to self-medicating. A shot of bourbon or vodka when I step through the front door at 7pm. Carry that on until midnight, when my body (hopefully) passes out.
But that was a pretty well signposted route to alcoholism, so I cut it out, too.
In certain parts of Asia, they’ll sell you most prescription drugs over the counter. At home, in the medicine cupboard, underneath the paracetamol and the plasters, I have a box of Valium I bought in Bali. I took to swallowing half a pill after a stressful day to calm myself down enough to sleep.
I discovered this was a bad idea, when I was standing in front of a large flat screen monitor in a meeting room on a Tuesday morning, battling against a vicious salesmen with a single-digit IQ and realising I was still whacked out on pills. Valium is strong.
I won the argument nonetheless.
So I guess I’m back to meditation for the time being.
You lot will understand – you’re all creative and the off-button for your brains will also be fucked.
Got any coping strategies? Right now I’m averaging about 4 hours sleep a night.