It's 4 a.m. The world outside your window is dark and silent. Your partner/ significant other/cat is snoring gently beside you. Somewhere in the house is a small, regular sound, perhaps a dripping tap or a ticking clock. You turn over, then turn over again, trying to find a comfortable position. The pillow beneath your head feels flat and lumpy no matter what you do. Through your mind, over and over, runs the single thought that's standing between you and golden slumber: I have to get to sleep right now, or tomorrow will be a complete disaster.
I'd better say at this point that I don't suffer from full-blown insomnia, for which I am very grateful. But I do know what it's like to lie awake in an unfriendly night, every minute lasting an hour, fretting over an important upcoming event for which it's vital you're full of energy and feeling your best. The more you think about how important it is to get a good night's sleep, the further that possibility recedes from you. And what happens just as you finally begin to drop off? A little voice in your brain observes oooh, I'm falling asleep – which, of course, wakes you up, to start the whole process again.
People who never have difficulty sleeping can be quite unhelpful about this sort of thing. My other half, for example, drops off almost on demand – lie down, head on pillow, bam. Lights out. Such people tend to give advice like just lie there with your eyes closed or if you're tired enough you won't be able to help falling asleep. They don't seem to understand what it's like not to be able to switch off your brain. To feel as if the basic ability to sleep – something that's usually as instinctive as breathing – has deserted you completely. They should count themselves lucky, but it's not really their fault. They don't realise how desperate it's possible to become when the arrival of morning is something at once longed for and feared.
I've always wanted to be the kind of person who, if sleep is elusive, gets up and does something useful. And indeed, I have been known to write the odd book chapter during the night before an interview or exam. But that comes with its own problems. It's hard to admit defeat when you're convinced it will mean failure at whatever tomorrow holds. And the fact is, being exhausted and frustrated isn't conducive to achieving anything very useful. It's probably better just to read for a while or listen to gentle music. In fact, the best thing to do is simply accept the fact that you're awake – and know, too, that it won't make as much difference to tomorrow as you think it will.
But in the middle of the night, that's far easier said than done.