Tag Archives: sleep

Escaping clock time

Clock time is very much a feature of industrialisation. It goes with shift work, and the need to have workers in the right place at the right time. Regular working life gives us little to no scope for improvisation, flexibility, time off when ill or when needing things. For most of human history, we haven’t had clocks. We’ve had sun time, and operated in small enough communities that organising without clocks has been just fine. It’s notable that industrial towns and cities tend to have clock towers so that people too poor to have their own watches would know the time.

When the schools closed in 2020 for the pandemic, we no longer needed alarm clocks. Both Tom and I are self employed and can work when we choose. With study moving online, James’s start time was a lot later – he’d been getting to school by bicycle and needed to get up early for that. Suddenly we had a lot more flexibility. This was as well because pandemic stress played havoc with my ability to sleep. I slept when I could, and got up when I couldn’t sleep, and paid little attention to the clock.

We’ve stayed that way. James has continued studying from home and is old enough not to need any help with that. He’s also not faced with an early morning bike ride, so does not need a hearty breakfast, so we can leave him to it. In practice I mostly still get up early, but it’s nice not having to.

Last winter was the first winter I can remember of being free to wake with the light. It was lovely, soothing and restorative. I find winter difficult. Not having to get up in the dark helped me emotionally.

It’s also great having the freedom to sleep in a bit if I’ve had a bad night. I take sleep seriously, I go to bed at sensible times, I drink soothing tea, I am mindful of screen use and over stimulation etc. But, sometimes I get hit by insomnia. Sometimes the anxiety gets me, or the depression, or the menopausal weird night events – sometimes all of these things together, which means failing at sleep. The freedom to wake when I do has brought a lot of health benefits and greatly reduced my stress. Insomnia is much worse when you know how many hours you have left when you could sleep and you can see the next day falling apart before you’ve even got to it. The freedom to sleep in changes everything.

I’m not convinced that the way we currently organise our lives is necessary. With increased automation, we aren’t going to need people in factories working to clock time. Clearly there are some jobs – medical and emergency especially – where you have to be able to count on other people being there. But what if other work and activities were organised in more flexible ways? What if we had more scope to negotiate, or respond to the situation on the day? It would be a much kinder way of interacting. It would be interesting to see how much work doesn’t really depend on clock time, because my suspicion is that many things could be done more flexibly and much more comfortably than they currently are.

Waking with the light

I’m a very light sensitive sleeper. I have a lot of trouble sleeping when there’s light (unless a cat assists me!) and I tend to wake with the dawn. Around midsummer, this can leave me a sleep-deprived wreck if I’m not careful. For a long time now, winter has meant waking in the dark, and I’ve also found that difficult. My body is pretty clear that if there is darkness, I should be asleep, so midwinters can be… odd.

This year my son is studying for a degree course and I no longer have to deal with waking up ahead of going to school. We used to get up as a household because it is in many ways the nicer thing to do, and with a cycle ride to school, the mornings were early. In winter this has never suited me. So, this is the first winter in 18 years where there’s no alarm, or small child, and my body can do what it likes around waking up.

I find it a lot less stressful waking with the light. There’s no awful push first thing in the morning to force myself out of bed. I’m still waking fairly early, as my window faces towards the dawn, and pre-dawn light seeps in through the curtains. It feels so much gentler.

Clock time and alarm time go with industrial time. We have work and school lives that run by the clock – and there are advantages to this, but it is hard on the body. Our bodies are different, and what we need at different times of year and at different life stages can vary rather a lot. It is a wonderful thing to have some flexibility around that and to be able to let my body set the pace. Everything else this winter looks set to be challenging, so it’s helpful to have at least one thing lining up to be easier!

Changing how I sleep

Back when I wrote Pagan Dreaming, I speculated how interesting it would be if we could all just sleep when we feel like it. Sleep is one of those basic, essential human activities, but most of us are sleep deprived.  Capitalist industrial clock time makes a lot of demands on what we get to do when. At the time of writing about sleep, I had a child in school and was tied to clock time.

Here I am in lockdown, with a teenage son who can take responsibility for himself. Like a lot of people, the distress caused by the virus pushed me straight into insomnia early on. Rather than fight what this did to my sleep patterns, I went with it. I’ve been getting up when unable to sleep, and sleeping when I can and the result is a glorious hot mess in which I no longer have any kind of discernible pattern.

I am never going back!

I’ve never much liked routine anyway, so the less predictable sleep pattern is giving me a different shape to each day as I encounter it, and I’m enjoying that. Sometimes I have to make an effort to stay awake for things I’ve agreed to, but there aren’t many of them and I’m getting the hang of fitting the naps in. I go walking in the night, I see the dawn up, I get my much needed outside time when there are no people in it. This has done wonders for my wellbeing.

Some nights I sleep in two hour bursts, getting up each time to stretch and do whatever makes sense. It’s fine. Some night I sleep straight out for seven or eight hours. Sometimes it’s only four or five and I make the rest up in naps. On the whole I get a better quality of sleep for doing this. I spend more time in dream sleep – naps are often full of dreams. I feel better. I no longer suffer from insomnia, I just have times when I am awake and times when I am asleep. Insomnia is really only a problem if you can’t get on with being awake when you’re awake, and can’t sleep when you’re able to.

It all feels a bit wild and revolutionary. It definitely feels like stepping out of capitalist models of living and being. It feels free, and natural. I just go with what my body wants and lo and behold, that works.

Re-wilding my sleep

One of the few unexpected gifts from having been so ill for so long in the spring, is that I learned how to nap. I’d work mornings, and then flop on the sofa to rest, and often, sleep would follow. I’ve not been able to nap since early childhood, such that being sent off to nap as a child was distressing and frustrating for me. For much of my life, going to sleep has been really difficult, and in the last six months, that’s changed too.

Back when I was writing Pagan Dreaming, it struck me that sleep re-wilding could be a thing. When most of us sleep, and how long we sleep is dictated not by our needs, but our responsibilities. Jobs, families, and fellow denizens of the same house, school runs, traffic, the noise around us – these things all get more say in our sleep options than we do.

Imagine what would happen if we just slept when we needed to? Imagine how different life would be if the wellbeing sleep brings could take priority, not the back seat?

For some months now, I’ve been sleeping at need. I sleep in the afternoons. At the moment, I also have an option on sleeping in the morning. My dreaming has changed, becoming richer and more complicated. My thinking, now that I’m not ill, is sharper. At time of writing, I’m sleeping a lot more because there are distressing things I need to process and I do better at that when I can do it unconsciously.

Resting when you need to rest is a truly powerful form of self care. It boosts self esteem too. The person who is obliged to push on through exhaustion is being treated, or treating themselves as less important than the things they are keeping going for. It’s dehumanising after a while. The need for rest and sleep are fundamental needs, and often not taken seriously.

Resting and sleeping are normal mammal behaviour. Even mammals who have to chew a lot of grass to get their daily food rest more than humans do. We’ve made laziness a sin and industriousness a virtue. Laziness is natural, happy and rewarding. Industriousness is destroying the planet and taking all the joy out of life. The more able I become to sleep when I need to, the more I want this for everyone else. Why are we killing ourselves to go a bit faster or make someone else a bit richer? This is madness, and it is the cause of madness. Being sleep deprived will always leave you feeling inadequate and needy. Sleeping is the only answer to this, not the consumables we’re encouraged to use as a substitute.

Sharing a sacred space

We’re in school holidays at the moment, and so I have had the luxury of not having to set the alarm clock. Usually I’m up and working, and parenting before seven. On the plus side it gives me a solid working morning and I tend to get a fair bit done. However, I’d much rather wake naturally. I tend to wake with the sun, so at this point in the year I’m surfacing before the alarm would have gone off, and then I’m just lying there for a while.

Back when I was working on Pagan Dreaming, I thought a lot about the possibilities of bed as sacred space. For this to be so, your bed must be a place of comfort, safety and joy. Of course for many people who experience abuse inside their own homes – adults and children alike – the bed can become a focus of misery, not a place of safety. When you’re living with abuse, if can be very hard to see what’s going on. Abusers use shame, blame, mind games, criticism and lies to confuse their victims. So let me mention that if your bed is not a safe place, there are some very serious things wrong in your life.

There is profound luxury for me in these current, small lie ins. An extra hour here and there, warm, relaxed and relishing the company of the man who shares the bed with me. It is a gentle intimacy, rich with affection and good for the soul. But, there have also been times in my past when I’ve woken in beds other than this one, tense with anxiety and hurting with my whole being.

Care and respect are the basis of any healthy relationship. If we are kind to each other, if we take into account each other’s needs and feelings and check in with each other about that regularly, it is not difficult to have a good relationship. And yet, so many relationships are blighted by one person’s need to have control of the other person. It is usually men controlling women, and it is a state of affairs backed up by centuries of cultural norms and ideas about marriage as ownership. Fear of what the other person might do if we don’t control them can turn us into monsters. You can’t have a good relationship with someone who is afraid of you.

Lying next to someone when there’s nothing to prove. When there are no points to score, and there’s no fear of being judged, or blamed. Lying next to each other because it’s inherently lovely to do that, sharing space and skin and togetherness. What shocks me about this, sometimes, is how blessedly easy and uncomplicated it is. How little effort it takes to have this beautiful time. And in turn, how deeply unnatural it is to de-sanctify this sacred space with power games, bullying, and physical cruelty.

Night Waking

It may well be that babies start out entirely natural in their waking patterns, and learn to sleep through the night. It might well be that once upon a time we’d all have been waking up in the night. The night prayers of monasteries are one piece of evidence for this, and there’s some interesting stuff in Don Quixote about how many sleeps a person needs. Pre-industrialisation, we probably slept like babies.

I’ve experienced night waking over the last few years. Sometimes it happens when I’ve consistently slept well for some time and can afford to be awake. Sometimes it feels more like insomnia. In recent weeks, I’ve found that Tom often surfaces when I do, and that makes for a very different experience.

When writing about this sort of stuff for Pagan Dreaming, I observed that, waking in the night I could think things that weren’t available to me at other times. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore – I think that’s simply because my mental health has improved and I can think whatever I need to think whenever I need to think it. Lying awake in the darkness can be strange and lonely, but lying awake companionably is a whole other thing. There may be few words and little activity, but there’s scope for a deep sense of communion here. I wonder how the monks felt with their night time prayers, with little light to guide them. Did that feel like isolation, or intimacy? The same experience can be a chore for some, and touched with numinousness for others.

I’m very conscious that my sleeping time is dictated by the needs of the day. I seldom have the luxury of being able to stay up late, or be awake in the night, and then able to offset it by sleeping in. I can’t be led by my sleeping impulses. I have to respond to the alarm clock. Adventures in night consciousness are always accompanied by an awareness of having to really pay for it later.

We’ve become so involved with clock time, work time, school time. To be a modern human is to have a schedule, and dire consequences if you don’t stick to it. Our whole culture depends on this, and we arrange our lives in confidence around the expectation that everyone else will be in the right place at the right time, like a well oiled machine. Excerpt we aren’t well oiled machines, and I wish we had more space to let mystery come to us in the darkness.

Healing the broken

(If you are struggling, bear with me, where this post starts is not where it’s going.)

I suffer in ongoing ways with depression, I have a body that frequently hurts and less energy than I need to do the things that need doing. It’s not a great combination. I regularly run into books, blogs and people who tell me that it would all be better if I just made the time to do the magic thing. What the magic thing is varies, although yoga, and meditating for at least half an hour a day come up regularly. I do meditate when I can. It does not stop me getting depressed.

I never cease to be amazed by people who magically know what’s going to magically sort my life out, with no reference to my history, the state of my body, the options I have, or how I feel. Faced with a ‘your life would be great if you just made the effort and did this thing’ what I feel, invariably, is despair. I don’t feel inspired, or encouraged or uplifted, it feels like a swift kicking.

Depression is all about not having anything more to give. It catches us all differently, but exhaustion is a part of it, as a cause, as a symptom, as both. Facing physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, about the last thing you want to hear is that if you just made a bit of effort with this thing over here, you would get better. It’s worse if you have tried other people’s magic solutions and they’ve not produced a miracle. You ask yourself why you’re such a failure that the sure fire thing won’t work for you. You ask what you’re doing wrong, and you feel worse.

There are some very dodgy ‘facts’ floating around about the usefulness of meditation in ‘curing’ depression. Without getting bogged down in the details, the short answer is that the evidence has been spun somewhat, but meditation is cheap and your Doctor has no resources to send you for counselling and would rather not put you on costly anti-depressants if they can avoid it. For all the people who benefit from meditation, this has seemed like a thwacking great validation, so the idea that meditation can save you is doing the rounds in earnest. It might, or might not help.

There are no easy magic cures for long term mental and physical health problems. However, if having something shoved your way leaves you feeling even more defeated and demoralised, you can rest assured that it isn’t The Answer and that it wouldn’t have saved you if only you’d been able to do it properly. Also, positive thinking and positive affirmations will not save you from serious issues either. They may help, they may not.

It’s always worth trying things to see if they help, assuming you have the time and energy. If you don’t have the time and energy, the priority must always be getting to a place where you do. Rest and sleep are the most reliable restoratives there are. Sleep is the nearest we ever get to a magical cure for all ills. It’s a much better use of your time than anything that you feel pressured into doing because someone else has put pressure on you. People who are deeply involved in a practice can be evangelical, and can crave the affirmation of other people finding it very useful too. You don’t owe them anything.

You don’t have to validate their yoga practice by appearing to be saved. You do not have to squander your precious resources of time and energy on anything that does not work for you. It doesn’t matter how much someone else thinks it ought to help. It doesn’t matter how much someone insists that this one special thing saved them and will save you. What works for you, works for you, and what doesn’t, doesn’t. No one has the right to add to your discomfort by insisting you be magically cured by something that does not work for you in the slightest.

The hellish culture of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is torture and is recognised under international torture laws as such. I know from personal experience that if you are constantly deprived of sleep, there comes a point when you will start to do or say anything at all that you think might end the nightmare. Because (trigger warning on the rest of this paragraph, but the blog content afterward should be less alarming and not triggery) the relatively brief misery of forced, painful, humiliating unwanted sex is actually less bad to deal with than extreme sleep deprivation. Both cause longer term emotional and psychological distress, but trust me, when you’re agonisingly sleep deprived, these are not things you can weigh up.

Again, speaking from experience, sleep deprivation messes with your thinking and makes it very hard to make good choices. It slows the mind and impairs judgement. It can cause hallucination – amusing at a weekend festival perhaps, nightmarish when you’re trying to deal with real life and can no longer quite tell what’s real. Waking dreams invading your consciousness in the wrong context are a real problem. There isn’t an illness or issue out there that won’t be made worse by sleep deprivation. I gather (from New Scientist a couple of years ago) that studies show a distinct correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain. It really isn’t good for us.

Other studies show that as a whole we have a sleep deprived culture with a lot of people reporting far less sleep than they want. Work that follows you home, awkward and changing work patterns that shift when you can sleep, and thus disrupt your sleep. Not enough exercise to tire the body. Too much mental stress to be able to settle. Light pollution. Noise pollution. Over-stimulated environments. Too much caffeine to try and function the rest of the time. We’re tired, most of us, and that we are tired is not taken as a reason to do differently. You still have to turn up to the job when it suits your employer. You still have to go to school bright and early – or get up and get kids to school. Most of us are not in control of our timetables, and if we desperately needed more sleep, there’s not much we can do about it.

Sleep deprivation is a recognised form of torture. This is not taken into account when ordering people’s change of shift, and I’ve seen the consequences for friends. It’s not taken into account for the parents of young babies when they need to go back to work. It’s not at all recognised by the on demand 24/7 lifestyle we get pushed towards.

I’m a sleep evangelist, because there aren’t many things in this life that can’t be helped with more sleep. Any illness is more quickly overcome if we can sleep enough. Good, deep sleep helps with many kinds of mental distress (not the staying in bed drowsing in apathy semi sleep of the depressed, though). Sleep helps with learning. We don’t learn well if we aren’t sleeping enough because our brains need that time to consolidate new input. This applies to new experiences as well as deliberate study. If we sleep well, our moods are better, we aren’t as short tempered, we are less likely to get the threadbare exhaustion that paves the way to depression and anxiety. A well rested, clear thinking person makes better judgements. Sleep more. If you don’t need an alarm to wake up, you know you’re doing it right.

Pagan Dreaming is not just about dreaming, it’s also about the context for dreaming – namely sleep. I chose the title because it’s punchy and attractive, but in terms of what is in the book, I think you can tell it was written by a sleep evangelist, and there’s a lot in there about wilder, more natural, more beneficial approaches to sleeping. After all, if your sleep patterns are lousy, your stressed and anxious mind is never going to get round to the really interesting dreaming. I learned this stuff the hard way…

The day after

So, yesterday was an experiment in fasting, with no caffeine and no solids. Not eating did not present a huge challenge, staying off the caffeine was much harder, although I didn’t get the withdrawal headache until well into the afternoon – I take that as a good sign in terms of addiction level.

In terms of the ‘rest day’ side of things, I did manage to take the day fairly gently – physically speaking, and also resisted the temptation to start painting a wall. But, I finished the current draft of the next Pagan book, finished making a rag rug, worked on a novel, had OBOD students to write to, and a bunch of blog related things to write and sort. A relatively quiet day compared to normal outputs, because I spent more time reading and had an earlier night than I normally do, but still busy.

I slept long and deeply, and I had some of the strangest, and most significant dreams I’ve had in a long while. I have reoccurring anxiety dreams about being back at school. Last night I dreamed about being back in the one space at school that was reliably happy for me, which made me realise that in twenty years of reoccurring school dreams, I had never dreamed about the good bit before. Why? I don’t know. It gives me much to ponder.

This morning I am a little slower and less sparky than I’d expect to be, despite having had the first coffee of the day. So be it. I came to realise yesterday that I need to learn how to be more accepting of tiredness in myself. I need to learn how to slow down, to rest, to stop. Yesterday was my best attempt at a quiet day in a while and I still managed to be really, rather busy. I don’t actually know how to do differently, without the context of a Druid contemplation day, or something else that gives me a framework and takes me away from things I could be working on.

I recognise it’s possible I’m just a bit of a workaholic – I am prone to addiction (see all previous remarks about caffeine). I am careful around any substance I might get hooked on having, for example, managed to become addicted to passive smoking on two separate occasions. Work is not something I’d been looking at that way, but it might be worth considering on those terms.

It’s there in how I frame things, even. I don’t know how to stop, and so I think to myself “I need to work on investing in gentler, frivolous things I enjoy.” I bring the language of work to pretty much everything I do, and I suspect that has consequences. So, clearly, I will be working on that…

The Power of Sleep

Sleep has a huge effect on both mental and physical health. Sleeping in darkness is profoundly good for you, while shift patterns that mess about with your sleep are seldom good for a person. Sleep facilitates healing, learning and general bodily functioning. And yet… we have invasive street lighting so many houses are not dark unless you get blackout curtains. We have a noisy culture that makes sleep difficult in urban environments. There is pressure to work ever longer hours, and we create over stimulated environments that make it harder for us to settle and sleep. Many people do not get the recommended eight hours a night. I find it shocking that hospitals expose patients to light and noise at night in a way that makes sleeping there very difficult. I’m not going to go through and diligently source all of this, forgive me, but there’s nothing obscure here and google is your friend…

Not enough sleep can mean some or all of the following effects: Poorer metabolism function leading to weight gain. A few nights of poor sleep is enough to have a discernible impact. Tired people are also more likely to snack to try and maintain energy, which doesn’t help. Reduced learning ability. Particularly an issue for students, but we are all learning all the time, or we could be. Much sorting of information and consolidating of learning happens during sleep. The more sleep deprived you are, the less able to reason you become and the more unstable your emotions are likely to be, leading to higher risk of depression and other mental health problems. Impaired judgement and impact on decision making skills also a likely outcome. Not getting enough sleep puts stress on the body, so if you have higher blood pressure, that adds to the problem, and also makes it harder to get over illness.

There are specific ailments underpinned by poor sleep. Insomnia in and of itself counts as a medical condition, and turns up alongside depression and anxiety – often in a circular relationship, rather than linear cause and effect. I find there’s a direct correlation between how much sleep I get, and how much physical pain I experience. I notice that I am less emotionally functional when sleep deprived. My brain becomes so dysfunctional without sleep that after a while I start to hallucinate – which is not unusual, but dangerous for people who are driving, working heavy machinery and the like. People die on the roads all the time because sleep deprivation slows reflexes and impairs judgement.

Here we are, with an obesity epidemic, and with depression and anxiety such common ailments as to be becoming part of normal life experience. Yet no one seems to be talking about the simplest, cheapest, most available intervention capable of helping a lot of people. It won’t solve all problems, but a culture of good sleeping would make a lot of difference. But we don’t do that, we dish out pills, and adverts for yet more bleepy apps to put on your phone, and we play more games, and crawl into our beds too wired to sleep, only occasionally wondering what went wrong with our lives. I’ve lived with chronic sleep deprivation, with late night computer games and pressure to work all hours. It did hideous things to me, and yet we are showing each other images, all the time, of people living as normal in over stimulated environments, and we keep piling on the noise.

Seek now your blanket, and your feather bed… and let me point you at one of my favourite songs… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D_fJr12MYs with the lovely Emily Smith singing Bill Caddick’s classic song about sleep and dreaming.