Carla Carlisle on the need for sleep

I have been dreaming of a week like this for so long, I’ve lost track of time. A week in bed. A quartet of goose-down pillows gently supporting my head at an angle where reading is possible, but dozing is easy. No appointments or deadlines that can’t be delayed. Livestock duties reassigned. Surely, this is the purest pleasure on Earth: waking up to Farming Today and slipping in and out of consciousness. News. Hallucinations. Thought for the Day. Drift of sleep. A thoughtful husband bringing a cup of tea. Comforting sips and then a little nap. Only a few things dented my pleasure. A temperature of 102˚. A cough that sounds like I’ve lived on a diet of Marlboros since I was 10. A dull ache from head to toe.

Taking to the bed as an invalid isn’t the same as taking to the bed in a sybaritic, feline way. Although it’s liberating to be free of the Puritan tyranny that makes even a 10-minute snooze in daylight hours feel like an immoral act, taking to the bed because you can no longer remain vertical isn’t the same velvet pleasure. For one thing, when your head aches, you don’t feel like reading. You gaze at the pile of books with longing and regret. Only when antibiotics arrive and and the dial is moved to Radio 3 does a feeling of deliverance and hope descend on the subtropical world beneath the duvet.

Although I suspect my illness began on a train journey from Liverpool Street seated next to a sneezing man, I may have been more vulnerable due to lack of sleep. Words I thought I’d never write. I pride myself on my ability to get by on just a few hours of sleep. I’m an owl married to a lark. He keeps farmer’s hours and always has a 10-minute nap after lunch. I turn my light out at 2am, sometimes later, but my work day starts at 9am, which means being out of bed by 8am. But, just lately, I’ve noticed my Thatcher-like hours aren’t working.

For instance, almost as soon as I sit down for my evening appointment with Jon Snow, I fall asleep. The moment my feet are raised in the dentist’s chair, I begin to fade. I’ve even perfected a light snooze at the computer without my head hitting the keyboard. But, tempting as it is to call these dozy intervals catnaps, they interfere with my image of the power woman who strides across fields by day and works while the rest of the world sleeps.

Sleep is now a hot topic. Scientists are researching the relationship of sleep-or rather, the lack of it-to Alzheimer’s, exploring the idea that brains that are deprived of sleep over long years wear out, lose their mental agility and memory. The very thought makes you want to sleep in purely for medicinal reasons.

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Then there are the feminists who say that sleep is a gender issue. Arianna Huffington, one-time president of the Cambridge Union and now powerful publisher of the online Huffington Post, believes that sleep deprivation is the next feminist issue. She maintains that women are more sleep-deprived than men because we have to do it all and do it better. Consequently, women are exhausted and that makes us cranky and irrational.

At the Sleep Research Centre, Loughborough University, Prof Jim Horne has done studies that prove that women really do need more sleep than men because we tend to work our brains harder. We multi-task, constantly switching from one thing to another, using the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for intelligence, language, memory and consciousness. Men tend to work sequentially, which is less taxing.

Meanwhile, I am embarking on a new-call it horizontal-life. In fact, I am writing this in bed, so if my sentence structure seems a little slovenly, you know why. But Proust did it and Churchill did it, so I’m giving it a go. If it lacks a tidy conclusion, it’s because I fell asleep.

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