Part of the reason why many of us have a tangled
and unhelpful relationship to sleep can be
traced back to the way we first learnt about
the subject many years ago. Parents of small
children tend to be very careful about bedtimes.
They favour early nights, they give their
babies plenty of naps throughout the day,
they think a lot about black-out curtains,
they are quick to diagnose many instances
of bad temper as stemming from a background
deficit of rest and while they may be indulgent
in some areas, they are likely to be entirely
implacable in any negotiation over routines:
seven p.m. lights out, no ifs ands or buts.
None of this is remotely altruistic: tired
small children are a nightmare to look after.
Every reversal becomes a drama, every disappointment
turns into a catastrophe and every excitement
shifts into mania. A half-way decent adult
existence is impossible alongside a tired
child. Self-interest necessitates totalitarianism.
But while a draconian philosophy is useful
in the early years, it can set up an awkward
dynamic in an off-spring’s mind as adolescence
sets in. Growing up and asserting one’s
independence and individuality can then become
associated with a newly defiant and cavalier
approach to bedtimes. Not for a newly empowered
young adult the strictures and denying rules
of the past. Why bother to put the light out
by ten or even midnight or one in the morning,
given that one is so obviously no longer a
What is thereby missed is how much every adult
shares in a young child’s sensitivity to
a shortfall of sleep. Just like our younger
selves, we do not have an impregnable command
over a reasonable view of our own prospects
or condition. There are many different ways
of telling the story of our lives, ranging
from an optimistic tale of progress mixed
with noble defeats to a tragic narrative of
thorough-going stupidity and unforgivable
errors. What can determine the difference
between madness and sanity may be nothing
grander, but then again nothing more critical,
than how long our minds have been allowed
to lie on a pillow in the preceding hours.
It’s especially unfortunate that this connection
is so easy to miss. No bells go off in our
minds warning us that we are running low on
nocturnal nectar. As a result, we start to
believe many dark things with doomful ease:
that our relationship is over, that everyone
hates us, that our lives are meaningless and
that human existence is a cosmic joke ‘When
we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we
conquered long ago,’ knew Friedrich Nietzsche.
We go mad from tiredness long before we notice
the role of exhaustion in stealing our sanity.
The thinking we do when tired is vindictive
and sloppy. It misses important details, it
gives the advantage over to our enemies, it
hands victory to the evangelists of sadness.
Being careful doesn’t just apply to the
night. At varied points in the day, when possible
and we are overwhelmed, we should know to
stop, hoist the white flag and have a nap.
When we lie in bed, it makes sense to think
of ourselves as akin to a smaller, furry mammal,
a rabbit or perhaps a squirrel. We should
lift our knees up very close to our chests
and pull the duvet over our heads. We might
soak a whole patch of the pillow with our
tears. We should – metaphorically – stroke
our own weary foreheads as a loving adult
might once have done. Grown-up life is intolerably
hard and we should be allowed to know and
We shouldn’t feel weird in our weepy squirrel
position. Other people go to immense lengths
to hide that they do, or would like to do,
the very same sort of thing. We need to know
someone extremely well – better than we know
99% of humanity – before they will let us
in on the scale of their despair and anxiety
and their longings for a cosy, safe nook.
It looks child-like but it is in fact the
essence of adulthood to recognise, and give
space for, one’s regressive tendencies.
What the curled squirrel position indicates
is that not all mental problems can be solved
by active reasoning. Not thinking consciously
should also be deemed a part of the mind’s
work. Being curled up in bed allows our minds
to do a different sort of thinking, the sort
that can take place when we are no longer
impatiently looking for results, when the
usual hectoring conscious self takes a break
and lets the mind do what it will for a time.
It is then, paradoxically, that certain richer,
more creative ideas can have the peace and
freedom to coalesce – as they may do when
we are out for a walk in the countryside or
idling while having a drink in a cafe. Thinking
isn’t what we do best when it’s all we’re
meant to do.
There remain plenty of reasons to live. We
simply may not be able to see them until we
have allowed ourselves the privilege of a
weepy nap or a long night’s sleep.