Recently, I found myself feeling an unexpected rush of sympathy for Eminem. Amid a flurry of "Gangster Napper" headlines, the star cancelled this autumn's European tour due to problems with addiction to Ambien, a sleeping pill popular in America.
This was a public indication of what I have always secretly feared: sleeping pills may guarantee a good night's rest, but at what price?
According to the charity Beat the Benzos, it is estimated that more than a million people in Britain are addicted to benzodiazepines, the family of drugs most commonly prescribed to insomniacs in this country. "Benzos" are also prescribed to those with severe anxiety problems, but that does not make them any less addictive if misused.
My own battle with insomnia has been a long-running one, but the fear of getting hooked has always stopped me from seeking a pharmaceutical ceasefire. I cannot imagine anything more depressing - or ironic - than ending up in rehab after doing nothing more
hedonistic than sipping mugs of camomile tea.
Although I have steered clear of prescription medication, I have tried pretty much everything else. As a rule, I have discovered that the greater the product's effectiveness in inducing sleep, the greater the intensity of the side effects. By far the most unpleasant for me is the over-the-counter drug Nytol, a sedative antihistamine product. It works, but I no longer keep it in my medicine cabinet for fear that I will be tempted, as a last resort, to take it too often and suffer the vile sleep hangover it causes in the morning. Nytol is meant only for occasional use, but anything that provides a respite from tossing and turning all night is going to be alluring for the insomniac.
My quest for sleep has also led me to try valerian tea, skullcap herbal tea and a scary green homeopathic tincture that had a diuretic effect. I soon drifted off to sleep, but then I was up again. And again.
Unless you have gone through a persistent bout of insomnia, it is impossible to describe what a lonely and excruciatingly boring condition it is. Take last night, for example. I open my eyes. It is dark. For a brief moment" I entertain a fantasy that it is just a very grey morning. Secretly, though, I know it is not morning. I know, without peering at the malignant red numbers on the clock, that it is precisely 3.37am. I know because I have woken up at this same time for the past 23 mornings. The best Swiss watches have nothing on the human body clock.
I toss. I turn. I try deep yogic breathing. That makes me thirsty. I take a swig of Evian from my bedside table. Now I need the bathroom. I get up. Get back in bed. Compile imaginary iPod playlists. Then the fear takes hold. What if I can't get back to sleep? I do some mental arithmetic. If I fall asleep again by 4.30am, that will give me another 31/2 hours' sleep. But what if I don't? Forget counting sheep - insomniacs count sleep, jealously, obsessively, the way some women count calories.
What if I have to spend tomorrow, yet again, in that weird state of tearful, jet-lagged exhaustion that lack of sleep creates?
At 5.09am, my neighbour's cats start Fighting under my window. I get up, open the window and start yowling back. I am losing the plot. And that's what insomnia does to you.
In desperation, I seek a telephone consultation with Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. He asks what time I drop off. Typically, it's about 1.30am, but that's only after tossing and turning for more than an hour. Horne suggests that I go on a sleep diet, restricting the amount of time I spend in bed. "Try going to bed at least an hour later and see what happens." What if it still takes me an hour or more to get to sleep? "You need to abandon the idea that it's necessarily bad for you to have less than eight hours' sleep," he says. "Only getting a few hours' sleep is not going to make you ill or die younger. Going to bed later will help you break the pattern your body clock has established."
Horne also says that if I still wake up at night, I must get up after lying awake for longer than 15 minutes. "Go into another room and do something. Anything involving sorting things into piles is good doing a jigsaw, ironing, stacking the dishwasher or knitting." This sounds tedious in the extreme, but this is the point.
He also advocates asking what occupies my mind when I can't sleep. Insomnia, they say, is the indigestion of the soul. Perhaps night-time is the only time my subconscious mind can get my attention? Horne suggests creating a worry zone during the day, to address niggling anxieties and devise an action plan to tackle them.
Horne's advice does not sound dramatic enough to create the shift in sleep I'm seeking, but, in desperation, I do as he says. Even though I think nothing important is bugging me, I create a worry zone, and I am surprised at the length of the list. And I must admit I felt less anxious once I had written down an action plan.
By far the biggest change, however, has come about from going to bed later. Since adopting this practice, I have slept fairly soundly for the whole night. I still wake up, but only briefly; and I have no idea if it's still at 3.37am, because I have taken Professor Horne's final piece of advice and hidden my clock under the bed. 0
HOW TO NOD OFF
1 Set your body clock to a regular pattern. Even if you lie awake until 6.30am, you should still get up at Bam if that is your regular time.
2 Don't use the weekend to catch up on sleep. Having a lie-in can cause insomnia because it puts the body clock out of sync.
3 Restrict daytime naps to no more than 1 0 minutes.
4 Keep a sleep diary. Professor Horne points out that sleep is often a matter of perception. Write down the precise times you wake up each night.
5 Persistent insomniacs should go on a sleep diet. So, if you go to bed at 11 pm, but don't fall asleep till 1.30am, start going to bed at 1.30am instead.
6 Practice good sleep hygiene. This means using the bedroom only for sleep and bed-related activities, including sex. Remove televisions, laptops and other distractions from the bedroom.
7 Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol after 6pm, as these can stimulate brain activity and raise blood pressure. While exercise is good for sleep, as it creates physical exhaustion, it should also be avoided after early evening.
8 Hide your alarm clock under the bed - clock-watching is not conducive to a good night's sleep.
9 Wear earplugs and an eye mask if your sleep environment is too noisy or too bright.
10 Don't ignore insomnia, as it can provide valuable clues about your mental health. For example, if you fall asleep easily, but wake up a couple of hours later, or sleep only fitfully, it's a sign of anxiety. But if you wake up between 4am and 6am, it can be a sign of depression.
Sleepfaring: The Secrets and Science of a Good Night's Sleep by Professor Jim Home will be published by OUP in April.
Sleep Council Insomnia Helpline: 020 8994 9874; Mon-Fri, 6pm-8pm
Loughborough University Sleep Centre: