April 29, 2005
Insomnia – Nocturnal torture

by Fitz Dowers

My little pocket Oxford dictionary describes “insomnia” in one word: sleeplessness. How wrong.

For me, insomnia is nocturnal torture.

I remember when about 40 years ago I would come home from work, clean up, have supper and a shower and climb into bed by 8:30 p.m. I would sleep unperturbed until 7 a.m. next day when my “body clock” would awaken me and I would climb out of bed, reluctantly, and prepare for work. {{more}}

Today, after 10 years in retirement I am realizing my error in preparing for retirement but not preparing for old age. Clearly, I did not see the co-relation between these two bedfellows – retirement and aging.

For about five years now, I would retire to bed by 8 p.m. by which time I am feeling dog-tired. However, after dozing off around 10:30 p.m., I would suddenly awake shortly before midnight when my diabetic condition invites me to the bathroom to empty my bladder. Following this, here is where the nightly torture sets in. I would lie awake for the next four or so hours with all sorts of thoughts running through my head.

As I re-live the ups and downs of my past life, beginning from childhood right up to the evening before bedding down, I toss and turn restlessly and my once comfortable bedroom is now transformed into a torture chamber and my bed a fearsome torture rack.

Over the past years, I have tried every remedy for insomnia prescribed by traditional medical personnel and practicing bush doctors. Firstly, I swallowed one Valium tablet as prescribed but got no relief. I tried two tablets without my doctor’s advice and found that I seemed to have overdosed. While I might get a few more hours sleep, my diabetic bathroom body clock would still awaken me to pay visits to the “small room”. Next morning I would feel as lethargic as an overweight sloth with my head feeling as woozy as a drunkard with the customary hang over syndrome.

I tried Tylenol PM, but here again, the results were a photocopy of the effects I got from Valium but, accompanied by a good dose of indigestion as an added bonus.

Bush doctor’s advice

A bush doctor recommended sour sop bush tea at night just before hitting the sack. He claimed that the sour sop, a large tropical fruit, had soporific properties. I ended up stripping every leaf from the branches of my neighbour’s sour sop tree and brewing them. The result, not even a half-an-hour additional sleep. So when a friend suggested drinking a glass of warm milk just before going to bed, I was happy. You see, I loved milk. Little did I know that over the years of the aging process, I had developed lactose intolerance. The result was that the first night of the warm milk drinking, I suffered from severe colic and generated volumes of stomach gases which exited from both extremities – top and bottom. Warm milk at night? Never me again, day or night.

I read somewhere that eating biscuits and cheese before bedtime would encourage sleep. I happily ate pounds of sodabix crackers and several kilos of cheese over the next few days with not an additional wink of sleep at nights. After gaining five pounds in weight from the extra after dinner snacking, I finally gave up the practice in disgust.

Next, I tried the hot bath treatment as recommended by a nurse friend. Despite scalding parts of my skin with the hot water, which forced me to lie in only certain uncomfortable positions, this also did not work. I kept on reading every and any writings on insomnia. One writer said you should not stay in bed if you couldn’t sleep. He suggested getting up and reading or watch televisiion. I tried both.

Firstly reading. After lying awake for several hours, I would sneak out of bed trying not to awake my wife who was lying peacefully beside me wrapped in “Arthur’s Bosom”. But in getting up, I have to manoeuvre my large frame from under the cover sheet and over the bedside like a battle ship turning around to exit a small harbour. During the process, my wife would sigh, turn from one side to the other and fall back to sleep in a split second. There was no need to take pains not to awaken her. The police brass band playing a Caribbean carnival calypso road march in the bedroom couldn’t awaken her once she falls asleep.

Tried reading papers

Successfully out of bed, I would turn on the lights in the living room, check the time (1:30 a.m.), then settle down on the old couch and read the three weekly newspapers to which we subscribed. I read them from front to back page, including the captions below the published photographs. For good measure, I also read the advertisements, the divorce notices and the obituaries. It is now 3.45 a.m., I yawn, fold the papers up and sneak back into the bedroom and bed.

Slightly more torturous

One hour after, at a quarter to 5 a.m. I begin to doze off. In three quarters of an hour’s time I am asleep and dreaming, but then, the alarm clock on the bedside table goes off signaling ‘get up’ time for my wife to prepare breakfast, eat, shower and dress for her 7 a.m. job. And that’s the end of my night as the commotion she makes in the nearby kitchen could awaken

the dead and delay the dying process of the terminally ill.

Secondly, the television watching suggestion. This exercise was not dissimilar to the newspaper reading programme. It is however, slightly more torturous in that after switching on the t. v. and pressing the ‘mute’ button so as not to disturb the wife, using the remote control device, I would flick through every channel provided by the service to which we subscribe.

However the glare from the t.v. screen causes me to squint and also has a painful effect on my developing eye cataracts. After only 45 minutes I am forced to return to my torture chamber in frustration.

Eureka! I have found it! An article in an old magazine I found on my dusty bookshelf says that people suffering from insomnia should try counting sheep. The article suggested that by the time the count reaches to 100 sheep, you should be transported deep into Arthur’s Bosom. After reading the magazine article the morning, I yearned for nightfall.

It finally came. I crawled into bed. I relaxed for an hour, then I began to visualize and count sheep. Slowly, deliberately, I counted the first 100 heads of sheep. No sleep. My eyes were still open as wide as saucers.

Determined that this latest suggested remedy must work, I counted another 100 sheep, still no sleep. I therefore visualized a sheep farm where the sheep farmer owned 2,000 heads of sheep of different varieties and strains. There were white sheep, black belly sheep, New Zealand sheep, Australian sheep and a few scores of English woolly sheep. I counted them all.

By this time, it had gone past 2.am but I was still bleary eyed and exhausted from tallying the multiplicity of horned and hornless mammals. I then visualized another 500 sheep, some cloned and dyed in pastel colours and some even polka dotted. I counted them all – one by one, head by head. Still no sleep.

After all of those exercises, suggested remedies and programmes, my sad and reluctant conclusion is that there is just no cure for my strain of geriatric insomnia. Medical personnel would need to re-define insomnia, and the makers of pharmaceutical drugs would need to go back to the drawing board and new research to find a cure. Until then, I have resigned myself to live out the rest of my ‘autumn’ and even ‘winter’ years in retirement with its bedfellows aging and nocturnal torture alias INSOMNIA.