Up Front by Emma Hart


The Innocent Sleep

Sleep and I have never been great friends. We're more like hostile flatmates: we live in the same space, occasionally we co-operate, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t get on.

The DSPS is manageable, if hugely inconvenient. I didn’t even know it was a 'thing' until a couple of years ago. As a teenager I just accepted the 'lazy' label and climbed out my bedroom window in the middle of the night. (Climbing out was easy, getting back in was a good deal more problematic.) Though if you ask my mother, she tells stories of me baking and rearranging all the furniture in my bedroom at two in the morning, which I believe to be slanderous exaggerations. She also laughs at me when I complain about the difficulty of getting my daughter to go to sleep.

Once I had the hang of uni, I organised my course choices around making sure I had no lectures before eleven in the morning. I didn't need to do biology anyway. This worked until my Honours year, when I had Renaissance Drama for an hour and a half, first thing in the morning, in a room that got full sun. The plays had been about for five hundred years: I’m not sure why they couldn't wait round until I got out of bed.

In recent years, we've fallen into a nice rhythm. My Sainted Partner sees the kids off to school as he goes to work, and I sleep in. Or as I call it, 'sleep'.

Every now and then, though, sleep packs its bags and goes home to Mother for a week or so. For that week, I’ll get something like twenty hours sleep total.

At uni, this wasn’t a problem. In fact it was great. I had two other friends who were chronic insomniacs. We once killed the flat pumpkin (well on its way to becoming a sentient entity) using every knife in the house, and a fish slice. It was a frenzied attack, though to be fair my co-assailant's state might have been caused by the five litres of Coke he’d drunk earlier that day. On, need it be said, a dare.

Night was always my favourite time. It's a night wind that gets under my skin, the patterns of light on black, the unique smell of a city in the dark. Walking alone down Colombo Street at three a.m. on a Wednesday, the only sounds are your boot-heels and that little click traffic lights make when they change colour. The people you meet are different from day people, and in some way kin to each other. Even in prosaic Christchurch, there's a sense you could round a corner and find yourself in a Charles de Lint novel.

But now I'm old. Sleep deprivation is something that - like knocking back eighteen cocktails with a friend while waiting to go downstairs and drink four jugs so we could get one free - I can no longer bounce back from with a cup of coffee and a couple of Panadol.

Being an arts student, an altered mental state was practically de rigueur. As a mum (a phrase that always makes me feel like I should be selling cough syrup) the bizarreness of the sleep-deprived mental state is just a pain in the arse.

Moving through a world with all the internal coherency of a David Lynch adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel makes the simplest tasks nearly impossible. Every object holds equal weight, painfully bright but slightly out of focus. I'll find myself standing in the bathroom holding a meat tenderiser, with no idea what I was doing.

The worst bit of insomnia is going to bed exhausted and not being able to sleep. It’s different from being kept awake by a crying baby or that bloody drummer who lives next door. You have every opportunity to sleep, and instead you're lying awake staring at the clock while someone very clumsy plays an all-night game of Operation with your synapses. (It’s 3:42. I wonder what Turkish Delight is called in Turkey?)

It's not so great for the rest of the family either. The only person capable of remembering where they're supposed to be and when turns into someone with all the even temperament and approachability of a cat wearing dolls' clothes. It's not the best time to tell me the school is having a cake stall tomorrow. Is it, dear?

After a few nights I start sleeping again, and gradually go back to normal. I edit everything I wrote and spend some time explaining to people that when I said 'shut your bloody whining' what Mummy really meant to say was… For now, there's a school cake stall tomorrow. They're recommended 'something healthy, like muffins', which I appear to have read as 'chocolate fudge cake'. So I’ll be needing a packet of wine biscuits and my meat tenderiser. Now, where did I leave that?

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