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Jake O'Kane: Waking up to the problem of sleep

King Kong knocked the sleep out of me for a month as I lay in bed in terror, waiting for a giant gorilla hand to come through my bedroom window and snatch me away

Jake routinely finds himself unable to sleep at night - it's a problem many others have experienced since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted normal sleep patterns
Jake O'Kane

I am writing this week's column at 4.45am. Yet again, I find myself creeping around the house, unable to sleep. This isn't new.

Whilst I wouldn't class myself a card-carrying insomniac, I can identify with a number of the signs associated with that condition.

For instance, I find it hard to get asleep; I wake up several times during the night; I lie awake at night; I wake up early and can't get back to sleep; I'm then tired when I wake up and can be irritable due to lack of sleep. That's six out of eight symptoms listed on the nidirect insomnia webpage.

My sleep problems go back to childhood and are partly due to my family owning a pub. As both my parents worked in the business, I was left in the care of a babysitter, Mrs Mac. I never knew her real name; she was always Mrs Mac to me.

Mrs Mac was an elderly widow from Cork who lived up the street. She regularly shared with me her sorrow at having been dragged from Cork to live among the savages of Belfast.

Mrs Mac didn't like sitting up alone so most nights, having put my younger brothers to bed, she allowed me to stay up and watch whatever movie was showing on one of the two channels available.

I remember watching the 1933 King Kong movie - that knocked the sleep out of me for a month as I lay in bed in terror, waiting for a giant gorilla hand to come through my bedroom window and snatch me away.

The jobs I've worked also haven't helped. I followed my father into the bar game before moving into stand-up comedy - both meant I was going to bed as people on an early shift were going to work.

Whilst my dad kept late hours, he never missed his evening nap. After dinner he went to bed for an hour. This is something I've never been able to do; if I snooze for 10 minutes during the day, I'm guaranteed to be awake all night.

Pain is another contributing factor. With a long-term back injury, I often go to bed feeling as if a demon has used a sledgehammer to play my spine like a xylophone. If I do manage to get over even turning in bed can feel like a stab in the back.

Having problems sleeping can feel as if you're trapped in a vicious circle. Convinced you can't sleep you go to bed, already anxious about not sleeping, which - you've guessed it - then becomes a self-fulling prophesy.

Over the years I think I've tried most of the common remedies. Everything from drinking hot chocolate; adopting a disciplined sleep routine; ensuring my bedroom is the right temperature; taking herbal remedies. The last had the unfortunate effect of acting like a diuretic, which of course meant I was up all night.

Of all the advice I've ever been given I think the best was also the simplest. A friend and fellow sufferer advised me to remove all clocks and watches from my bedroom. He explained if I couldn't see the time then I wouldn't know how tired to feel the next day. While this helped, it wasn't a cure.

While I try not to disturb my family with my nocturnal wanderings, there was one night when, with a sleep deprived-addled brain, I inadvertently tripped the house alarm.

My wife and children scrambled from their beds to find me fumbling with the alarm panel, unable to remember the code to turn it off. Oh, how they laughed. Oh wait, they didn't.

Insomnia feels worse during the summer; at least in winter it's still dark when I eventually crawl back beneath the covers. But, as I write this, I can hear the dawn chorus begin and light has begun to crawl from beneath the curtains.

At least I'm not alone, as it's being reported Covid has resulted in disturbed sleep patterns both for those who contracted the virus and others who found their normal sleep pattern disappeared when furloughed.

While I've treated insomnia with a light touch, I'm very aware that for many it can be disabling. Thankfully, there's plenty of support and advice - look at nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/insomnia.

I wish you all a good night's sleep but, if you happen to find yourself awake in the wee small hours, don't despair - there's every chance you'll find me tweeting nonsense around 3am most mornings.

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