I've always been good at sleep. My mother used to say that as a baby I slept through the night well before any of her friends' babies. She thought that was something to do with her mothering skills until she had my brother who didn't, and she realised that babies will do what they are suited to! As a child I loved my bedroom and I loved my bed. I liked to have the door closed so that nothing could get in during the night (I still do, to my husband's amusement) and I loved the sense of my bed as a nest, warm and snug and mine. In winter I loved my flannelette sheets and the comforting weight of the blankets. In summer I loved turning over my pillow to get the cool side against my cheek. Bed was a place for dreaming, for reading. I was an outdoor child and for me inside was for making and eating food at the kitchen table or for bed. You can tell I was a child from an age where television was a rare thing!
I love sleep and I need it. When my children were small babies I quickly became a milk spattered zombie, groping through a sleep deprived fug, barely able to speak but miraculously restored to competence by six consecutive hours of night time sleep. I don't sleep well in the day and if I do nap in the daytime I struggle to sleep at night. So adult life has fallen into a pattern; day for wakefulness, night for sleeping, now, without the demands of work or children, bed at around eleven and ideally around nine hours of sleep. How I would have longed for that when my children were small. Easy.
Or perhaps not quite so easy. Because sleep, it transpires, even for one like me who seems to have been built for it, is the measure of a quiet mind. If Ian and I have one of our rare but brutal arguments I might as well spend the night reading in a chair. When I have known that one of our daughters or daughters in law was in labour I have bobbed in and out of sleep all night like an apple in a bowl, coming up for air, wondering why I am awake and immediately remembering. How is she? Is there a baby yet? How is the baby? Is everyone all right? And the night before I see my father, roughly once a week these days as his motor neurone disease paralyses and silences him, I both struggle to go to sleep and wake at three or four in the morning. I have grown accustomed to making myself sleep on these nights by sinking half a bottle of wine at speed when we arrive at my sister's house after a five hour drive. Is this wrong? Probably. But it works and leaves me with only the darkest hour to contend with.
I have become good at not allowing my father's illness to overwhelm my life in the nearly two years since my mother died. I have learnt to focus on the fact that I am doing my best for him, that I am a wife, a mother, a friend, a grandmother, a sister, as well as a daughter and I know he wants me to live as well and happily as I can. I can see that even now he can no longer tell me because he himself lives as well and happily as he can, an extraordinary example of what can be done in adversity. So it is only in that dark wakeful time that I am invaded by thoughts of what it is like to be him now, paralysed and silenced, staring into the dark. I can't seem to stop those dark minutes but I have learnt to go with it, to breathe slowly and calmly, feeling the breath coming in and going out as we do in my yoga class, accepting that it is what it is and letting it go, opening my hand and seeing the thoughts fly away like the swallows above our bakehouse.
So I can't really give anyone else any advice about sleep. For me it seems that sleep is easy when life is easy and hard when life is hard. I know all the advice about restricting screen time before bed and gently raising your temperature with a warm, not hot, bath. Mostly if life is ok and I cannot go to sleep it is because I have not enough done enough physically to make myself tired and getting up for an hour before trying again seems to work. I certainly do not recommend my half a bottle a wine technique except in extremis. And night waking for me is the simple result of the fact that not everything can be slept away.
But sleep is to be treasured and the place that you sleep to be cared for: a clean bed, a calm and quiet room, an electric blanket in winter and dark and star filled skies, if you are lucky.
How do you sleep?