At 11.35pm a door slams as the neighbour’s teenage son comes home from the pub. An hour later the last Tube rumbles past.
After that, there’s a bit of a stretch before planes start circling overhead, the milkman delivers his cargo, and the birds start the vile dawn chorus that signals the start of another interminable day. Game over, yet again.
From July 2010 until approximately six months ago, I could have told you exactly what happened at every single moment throughout the night. 24/7. Because for the best part of a decade I suffered from crippling, total insomnia. The doctors shook their heads, friends rolled their eyes, but the truth is I was simply unable to fall asleep. At all. For more than eight years.
Miranda Levy (pictured) who recently celebrated her 51st birthday, revealed her battle with insomnia that has lasted more than eight years
Last weekend, picking up the Sunday papers, I was pulled up short by a headline, My Sleepless Hell, by Tom Bradby, the ITV newsreader. I drank in the interview he gave about his insomnia. ‘It’s no surprise that intelligence agencies around the world use sleep deprivation as a form of torture,’ said Bradby. ‘It’s really frightening, a dark place. You don’t know what’s happening. You think you are going mad.
‘I mean, I got shot in Indonesia in 1999. This was ten times more frightening.’
Frightening, lonely, and impossible for the (slumbering) world to understand. Because when you are tossing and turning at 3.57am with only the numbers on the alarm clock for company, you think you are the only person awake on the entire planet.
After seeing a psychiatrist, Bradby came to the conclusion that his sleeplessness was due to an ‘underlying’ mental health issue linked to the deaths of his parents. For me, it started with the breakdown of my marriage.
My husband and I had been together for 13 years, married for nine, but busy careers and the ‘competitive tiredness’ caused by two beautiful children born within 20 months meant things started to fracture. By summer 2010, when I was 42, it was clear my husband wanted to call time on our relationship, which caused me deep distress.
This, coupled with a history of depression and a previous episode of severe insomnia, spelled the beginning of a terrible period whose impact I have difficulty putting into words, even now.
Miranda (pictured in 1999) says a two-week prescription of sleeping pills from her GP didn’t work to cure her insomnia
A few days before my son’s sixth birthday party, I found myself struggling to fall asleep at my usual bedtime of 11pm, and waking up a bit earlier every morning. Over a week, my ‘nights’ contracted until I could no longer sleep at all. I recall making my boy a cake in the shape of a football field. Somehow, I managed to sleepwalk though baking it. The party, I remember nothing about.
I soon realised what was happening, having been here before several years earlier. Over Christmas 2005, I suffered a burst appendix, undiagnosed for three days, leading to emergency surgery, peritonitis and septicaemia. The doctors told me I was lucky to be alive.
While I escaped physically unscathed thanks to the skill of my surgeons, two weeks on a noisy, bright NHS ward hooked up to intravenous antibiotics seriously interfered with my sleep.
When I got home to my dark, quiet bedroom, things surprisingly did not improve. For several months I was incapacitated by insomnia, unable to work as a freelance writer or properly take care of my children, who were toddlers.
The UK divorce rate is highest for women aged 25-29. At 23.6 per thousand married people, it is more than twice the national average
Somehow, with the support of my husband, time to heal and an empathetic psychiatrist, I got back on my feet again. But the second time, I had none of those things. I called the consultant who had seen me four years earlier, but he had retired. Did I really want to start again with a new specialist, when all I had done was miss a few days’ sleep?
Trying to head off the worst, I saw my GP and asked for a short course of sleeping pills. He was sympathetic and wrote me a two-week prescription. But the tablets didn’t work.
As long as you keep on working, I told myself. I loved my job. I was the editor of Mother & Baby magazine, a position I had held for two years after an 18-year career in newspapers and magazines. I had a bright and talented team, and enjoyed the job and the satisfaction of putting together a product we were proud of. But almost immediately, I was unable to perform.
I was honest with my supportive boss, who told me I could have time off for medical appointments or even therapy (I was still committed to saving my marriage). But within several days of no sleep, I was quivering at my desk. Normally a decisive, confident person, when my staff asked for advice, I would stare blankly at them.
The former editor of Mother & Baby magazine recalls her workplace making every effort to accommodate her health issues before she was made redundant in 2012 (file image)
I remember being sent an email by a TV company, asking me to appear on their morning show about a celebrity who had endorsed breastfeeding. Normally unfazed by this sort of request, I sat there for an hour, unable to decide. ‘Should I do this?’ I asked my 22-year-old, new graduate assistant.
In lunch breaks I raced around Central London, looking for solutions. Acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki — nothing I had ever believed in, but I was desperate. A fit person who was proud of her figure, I tried to continue my regime at the gym, knowing exercise was key to sleep. But my arms couldn’t support my body to do press-ups, my legs buckled.
Eventually, I was placed on sick leave. My boss rightly surmised a paralysed jelly was not fit to run a magazine. Take as long as you need, she told me.
But at home, my health deteriorated rapidly. As it was the start of the summer holidays, the children had clubs and playdates. We had a wonderful ‘after-school nanny’ who increased her hours and took them on trips.
But as summer turned to autumn and the new term started, I was less able to hide. The school mums could tell something was up. I remember, on the first day back, saying ‘hello’ to an acquaintance I had not seen since the end of term. The shock on her face was palpable. Cheerful Miranda had become a pale ghost.
Miranda (pictured) recalls becoming less able to function as the years progressed, she became too exhausted to even cry
The situation at home was a stalemate. Around the time that I stopped sleeping, my husband moved to the spare room. Neither of us was going anywhere, but we started to lead separate lives — and this uncomfortable co-existence was to last, remarkably, for a further six years. My husband took on much of the day-to-day care of the children, something for which I will be eternally grateful.
I was on sick pay until October, tried to go back but was hardly able even to get on the train. My employers made every effort to accommodate me, but I was eventually made redundant in early 2012. At various times over the next couple of years I tried to relaunch myself as a freelance writer, occasionally turning in a sub-standard piece of work.
And so continued the years of sleepless torture. Here’s the thing about insomnia: it is a self-imposed nightmare. I didn’t have a small baby keeping me awake. I had black-out blinds and a big bed, all to myself.
Sleep deprivation is used as torture around the world, but I wasn’t being attached to electrodes or kept in a neon-lit cell for 24 hours a day. The enemy was myself, my own brain. I was beyond drained, emotionally numb, too exhausted to cry. I don’t know how I was still alive.
As my nights shrank, so did my days. Over the years, I became less able to function. I stopped taking care of myself and hated leaving the house. Often I would stay in bed reading, or surfing the web. One year I watched every second of the Olympics, down to the dressage and kayaking.
Miranda recalls being placed on a variety of anti-depressants after her GP referred her to the local NHS psychiatry service (file image)
At my very worst, I wasn’t even able to talk in sentences, but a kind of a gibberish which infuriated and upset my family.
‘Ican’tsleep Ican’tsleep Ican’tsleep.’
After the first few months I was seeking specialist medical help. My GP referred me to the local NHS psychiatry service and I was placed on a variety of anti-depressants, which made me feel odd but didn’t help me sleep.
As I went further into the system, my diagnosis changed from anxiety to ‘regular’ depression to treatment-resistant depression. At some point in the nightmare, I became hooked on a valium-type drug and had to go through the hell of withdrawal.
I spent time in a private psychiatric hospital, funded by my family, and a few days in an NHS ward where trains rattled past and the lights were kept on all night. It was not conducive to sleep.
I tried a psychological approach. A wise Hampstead-based therapist saw me for years at half price, until eventually he threw his hands up in despair and powerlessness. The local authority sent over a well-meaning mental health care assistant. I endlessly bitched about how no one believed that I didn’t sleep at all. ‘Well, would you believe you?’ she asked, reasonably. She had a point.
Eventually, in August 2016, there was a shift. My loving widowed father retired from his dental practice. We decided collectively that it would be better for my husband, my children and myself that I temporarily move in with him — at least until my health improved and the finances were settled so I could get my own place.
Miranda who began feeling better after the Christmas just gone, says she began to feel useful again after a friend of her brother sent her a chapter of his novel for her opinion (file image)
By necessity, the children stayed with my ex. There was never a moment’s argument that it was the right thing to do, and there is not a day that it doesn’t break my heart.
I didn’t improve immediately. In fact, if anything I got worse. But somehow, around the Christmas just gone things started to get better. There was no lightbulb moment or magical drug: in fact I stopped taking one of the drugs that made me pile on weight.
I started to have ‘dreams’ that lasted a few minutes. Then there were a couple of hours during the odd night that I couldn’t account for. Other things changed.
My father bought me an iPhone, I set up a new email address. A friend of my brother sent me a chapter of the novel he had written for a ‘professional’ opinion. Interested in something for the first time in years, I felt useful again. We got Netflix, and I watched Mad Men, then Breaking Bad. I started watching the news and reading the papers.
It’s not clear how these little things helped me sleep, but they did. It was a virtuous cycle, a snowball that grew. As I got a little rest at night, I was able to do things that perpetuated further sleep. I went for walks and started to spend time with my children when they visited.
Miranda (pictured in 1999) says her recovery hasn’t been exponential but her waking hours are now starting to once again be a joy
A cousin called the house persistently until I agreed to speak, then meet her. We reconnected instantly and my recovery took another big step forward.
I signed up for an online creative writing course, and earned a couple of hundred pounds writing a piece of journalism. I started taking some control, instructing a lawyer and finally facing up to my divorce.
Earlier this month, my two best friends and I went out for my 51st birthday meal, complete with a couple of glasses of celebratory prosecco (I hadn’t had a drink for many years). That night I slept for four and a half hours. My recovery has not been exponential: one morning I rejoiced in the fact I had been ‘out’ for six hours, but last night I managed only two and am consequently exhausted.
I am not out of the woods yet. Even writing this article seems like tempting fate, a wanton two fingers held up to those invisible powers who may yet get their revenge and steal my slumber.
But my waking hours are starting once again to be a joy. On Friday, my two wonderful children chose to come and spend the evening with me, enjoy an Indian takeaway and spend the night here at my father’s house.
As we slouched on the sofa, watching Skyfall for the 15th time, I silently gave thanks to the Gods of Sleep for being so kind as to give me my life back again.
Have you been tormented by insomnia? And how did you cure it? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org