The sun is going down. It’s July, it must be late. It is always worse for me in Summer. As the day draws to a close, I start to worry. I become agitated. I prepare the bedroom for sleep. The blinds, closed. The pillows, plumped, ready to receive my heavy head after a long day.
The house is silent apart from a ticking clock our landlord insists we keep in the kitchen. I can hear it from the bedroom, which is the other side of the house. The ticks and tocks are evidence that time is passing, even though to me it feels like it is still.
I have read countless articles on how to sleep better. They recommend having a sleep routine and I follow the same routine every night, hoping that tonight will be different. I will be able to convince myself to sleep. Firstly, I take a long hot shower. The warm water raises the body's temperature, which should send me to sleep quickly once I am tucked in bed. At least that's the plan. I dry myself off and slip into my soft jersey pyjamas. It is Summer, but in our Victorian terrace house, the nights remain cool enough to still warrant cosy pyjamas.
A book beside my bed waits for me. It is fiction and not particularly taxing. It has been specially selected to not inspire me or over stimulate my brain. Too many thoughts are dangerous and will keep me awake. I usually read for half an hour or until my eyes become sluggish, dragging themselves across the page. I turn off the light and I wait.
To most people sleep is a passive thing. Sleep washes over you, but I wait and wait and it does not come.
I envy those easy sleepers. The ones who can sleep anywhere. Rocked to sleep by the motion of a long distance train or soothed by the rumblings of a busy airport terminal. I lie with my eyes closed but I am awake. I don't know how much time has passed but I can't check my phone, the light will stimulate me. Instead I take a guess. It must be around 11. Through my blinds shines enough light to see. I know the sun is behind the houses now, moments from clipping the horizon. Soon there will be the tiniest slither of light left in its wake.
I often think I should get a blanket to cover the blinds. They are rickety venetian blinds that don't quite close properly, letting light seep in. Light keeps me awake. I consider getting up. I could use my towel which is draped over the radiator beneath it. It would only take a few minutes. I worry though, that I will have broken my routine. If I get up, I will be properly awake. I choose to ignore it for another night.
I turn on my side facing the wall. I close my eyes. I need to be in complete darkness. I can't be trusted with even the faintest bit of light not to distract me from sleep.
I don't sleep alone. Stephen lays beside me. He’s been asleep for half an hour already. He lays on his back, snoring lightly. He looks content, happy, almost. I envy him. I close my eyes again. Warm breath from his nose passes over my face. I am distracted by his breathing. I turn, my back against him, I am on my left side now, the side where my heart is. Dun dun, dun dun. I become conscious of the rhythm. The slow double beat, the slight pause. I hold my breath. Aware of my heartbeat, I feel it becoming quicker in response. I take deep breaths. I know I am in trouble if it gets too quick. I need to stay in control. I don't want into get so fast that I can't calm it down. I don't want to have to wake Stephen again. When my heart was beating so fast I felt it might burst from my chest. My breathing was so quick I could feel pins and needles all over my body. He was so frightened that he called an ambulance. I thought I was going to die. A kind, older man turned up and talked me through breathing into paper bag. Long, deep breaths, my head between my legs. Eventually my heart calmed down, my breathing steadied. I was so embarrassed. I wasn't dying after all.
I think perhaps I should leave the room. I don't want to wake him. I have a paper bag in the lounge I can breathe into. I turn over onto my other side. I try to forget about my heartbeat. It will eventually slow down. It's just the only thing I can hear.
It must be late now. I squeeze my eyes tighter. Go to fucking sleep. I am pleading. Begging. I lay on my back and breathe deeply. In through my nose, out through my mouth. I am thinking too much. I am keeping myself awake. This is my fault. I always do this.
I focus on the darkness of my eyelids. There is nothing. I focus on nothing. Darkness. My mind has to stop thinking if there is nothing, surely. I am exhausted. My body aches. I know I haven't slept well for weeks.
Think of nothing. Please sleep.
It is the next morning and I am woken by an aggressively loud alarm. The sun blazes through the half opened blinds. Stephen is already up. I slept. I must have done. I don't know when or how, but I have slept. By the weight of my eyelids and the ache in my legs I am sure I only had a few hours.
Stephen comes into the bedroom holding a mug of tea, which he passes to me, handle first. “Did you sleep okay?” he asks. He can, no doubt, see the tiredness in my eyes. “Not too bad,” is my stock response. He knows this means not well but knowing I didn't wake him up in the night and convince us both that I was going to die, so he knows it's progress at least.