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Top Ten Tips (that never work): an Insomniac's guide to the small hours

Ysenda Maxtone GrahamThis week's guest blog is from Mumsnet Blogger Ysenda Maxtone Graham whose new book An Insomniac's Guide to the Small Hours takes us on a journey through one woman's long night of anxiety-ridden sleeplessness. It's fiction, but inspired by all-too-real experience - and here she shares her Top Ten Tips (that never work).

We've all read countless listing methods to cure insomnia. Friends give you advice and tell you their tricks for dealing with it: 'That always works for me,' they say. But nothing seems to work for you, least of all any top tips.

So here are my Ten Top Tips for Insomniacs: every one destined to fail.

1. Have a warm milky drink before bed The calcium will soothe your jagged nerves.' Not even a hot milky drink - 'Warm', the Top Tip specifically says. So you heat some milk in a saucepan before bed, remembering, as you stare at it, the warm third-of-a-pint bottles of the stuff you were made to drink at break-time in the milk-obsessed 1970s. You add some chocolate powder, and stir. It's revolting: both sickeningly sweet and nauseatingly sour, but you glug it down for sleep's sake and then brush your teeth. The fluoride and mint meld with the chocolate and milk. An hour later it brings on the need to go to the loo, which takes you further away from the desired goal.

2.Only use your bed for sleep and for one other thing Your bed seems to be have been used for neither of those two 'things' in the last fortnight. The lack of one leads to a lack of desire for the other. Just thinking of this Top Tip makes you feel sad.

As it happens, you do use your bed for one other thing, and that is watching television. In order to comply with this Top Tip, you would have to unplug all the wires (so many of them, so confusing) and carry the whole thing (plus DVD player and Sky box) downstairs and find another place for it all. It can't be done. It would defeat you. And actually, one of the few things that does send you to sleep is the 'News where you are' section of the Ten O'Clock News. Horrific, but soporific local stories. The only problem is, you then wake up three hours later.

3. Listen to your favourite soothing music before you hit the sack Two problems with this. First, you live in a small house and there are quite a few family members sitting around in the evening. Your idea of soothing music is not their idea of soothing music. One of them would prefer it to be Adele and one of them would prefer the Five Live football commentary and one would prefer silence. Whereas you'd go for Bach. You could listen to Bach with headphones on - but that would look decidedly weird and unfriendly in a family setting. You could go upstairs and listen to it on your bed – but that would be breaking the 'Bed only to be used for…' rule. Second problem: is music ever really soothing? Bach is indeed a hotline to God, but his music – and indeed all music – can stir up deep sadness as well as well as manic excitement, whatever the purveyors of Classic FM's 'Relaxing Classics' might say. 

4. If you can't sleep, read a book But in order to read, you need to switch the light on. You turn on the low-watt bedside light, causing the distant sleeping beloved to stir and turn towards you. Oh, God. As quietly as possible, you reach for a Jeeves story - surely, as soothing as books get. You start to read and you're gripped, totally caught up in the world of Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink Nottle and the cow-creamer. Not soothing enough, obviously. Keeping you wide awake. 

Insomniac's guide to the small hours

5. Go to another room and read a boring book. Then go back to bed after half an hour You get up, put a dressing-gown on and go downstairs. Reach for a boring book. On the desk is your son's IGCSE Chemistry textbook. That'll do. 'Table 3.6 shows the outer energy level contains only one electron.' The outer energy level. What about your own outer energy level? Perhaps it doesn't contain any electrons at all. Perhaps that's the problem. Your mind is wandering already. It's freezing down here. When you get back to bed your feet will be blocks of ice and it will be impossible to warm up.

6. Less caffeine, and don't over-indulge In other words, live a godly, righteous and sober life. The person who wrote that probably isn't a tired mother who's trying to goad unwilling children through their chemistry prep. The glass of wine at 7 pm, and the second glass of wine at 7.15 pm, are both godsends in their own way, blurring the edges of your too-sharp existence. And you mustn't drink on an empty stomach, must you, so you have some crisps, and crisps are nicer dipped in to something… and that's only the nibbles before you embark on cooking the pasta. You have to feed your family, after all. And as you're cooking all this delicious food, it only seems fair to be allowed to eat some of it. So, unrealistic to obey that Top Tip. If you manage for a day or two, you're kept awake by gnawing hunger and a detox headache in the middle of the night.

7. Write away your worries before you go to sleep The idea is that you sit up in bed with a Post-It notebook, scribbling down your 'to-do' list for tomorrow. This, supposedly, will stop you worrying about them as you try to get to sleep. But your 'to do' list is endless: it's really a 'should-have-done-ages-ago' list. The unwritten letters, the unpaid bills, the unbooked dentist appointments, the schools not yet applied for, the tax disc form, the parking-permit form, the lost insurance certificate, the unwritten will, the vague worries about your and your children's health, should you take him to the doctor to get that mark looked at? If you open the Pandora's Box of the 'to-do' list, there'll be no closing it; you'll be awake all night.

8. Avoid using the computer/iPhone/Blackberry after 8pm What planet are they on? You're so addicted to your phone these days that you go around clutching it and feeling its contours like a rosary. A large portion of your self-esteem (or lack of it) is packed into that little machine and no way are you going to be deprived of it from 8 pm onwards. You would be lost. If you try to do without it all evening you end up so frustrated that you're too cross to go to sleep. As well as curious: maybe a really important email has come and you don't know about it.

9. Fix your mind on something calm - such as waves lapping against the side of a boat, or coloured fish swimming by. OK, let's try that. Waves lapping against the side of a boat. Calm? The very thought of this scenario makes you seasick. What is your 'POV' for this vision? Are you inside the boat, feeling nauseous on deck, or are you outside, flailing in the saltwater, trying to get a foothold on the rope-ladder and cutting your legs on the barnacle-ridden hull? If you have an anxious, insomnia-prone mind, every image quickly finds a horrific association.

10. Do five minutes of deep breathing to help you relax when you get into bed Never, ever will five minutes go more slowly – except, perhaps, when you are trying this very same method (of no discernible use whatsoever in the great scheme of pain) during labour. It's nice feeling all that air going into you. But the very fact that you have to concentrate on bringing the air in makes the whole scaffolding for life suddenly seem very wobbly. The thought of your mortality, combined with the irregular, unnatural breathing you are trying to do, makes you feel faint and panicky. 

Last updated: 09-Apr-2013 at 4:43 PM