Very often, I wake in the night. I’m not sure if it’s because of my age, my brain, my hormones or a heady mix of all of the above, but wake in the night I do.
Once upon a time, I’d worry about the waking. I had read (and written about) the importance of a good night’s sleep. I’d lie there, way too comfy and cosy to be awake, and wonder what I was doing wrong, why I couldn’t succeed at sleep, why I was a snooze screw-up.
I would avoid coffee and tea after midday, I’d eat a carb-heavy meal that might make me sleepy. Or I’d eat a light meal that might help my digestive system relax. I’d be sure to move my body during the day. I’d do bedtime yoga. I’d meditate.
Yet I’d still wake in the darkness, slide my eyes over to the clock and note that it was 2am or 3am or if I was lucky 4. (4am meant that it was nearly 5am which mean that it was an okay-ish time to get up and face the day.)
For a while, after I moved from Victoria to Tasmania, I slept more heavily. The sensory overload and daily drama involved in being in another part of the world were settling.
But not for long ..!
Soon it was back to the middle of the night waking. The still room. The possums scuttling outside on the roof. The cracking eaves. The snoring pups. And sometimes the clattering rain.
Often I’d lurk on social media to see who else was awake in the deep dark night. There were a LOT of people marked ‘active’ most nights. I didn’t talk to them, of course, because the deep dark night hours are extremely private and breaking into someone else’s sleepless bubble would be terrible manners.
Eventually, if I caught myself non-asleep at 3am despite best efforts, I’d get up and make a cup of tea. I’d take it back to bed, re-plump my pillows, snuggle back under the covers and listen to something new. It might be the radio, it might be an audiobook (they always make me fall asleep and force me to replay the missed bits, so they’re not my number one choice) or it might be a podcast.
One night at 3.30am I was sipping tea in the lamplight and listening to (wonderful) Wintering author Katherine May talk about her own night waking. I was delighted. Katherine seemed to be a sleep screw-up too. Clearly I was not delighted that she found sleep complicated at times, dear reader. I am not a monster. It was more that I was comforted by someone speaking about the sleepless hours in a positive, accepting way.
I immediately resolved to stop worrying so much about the waking and the toll it was taking on me and the terrible self-looker-after that I am. Instead I decided to just live this part of the evening as I saw fit. Perhaps with a hot water bottle refill, perhaps with some reading, perhaps with some listening, maybe with some tea.
Katherine pointed out that in ye olden days, it was very normal wake up in the night for a period known as “the watch”.
The French apparently called the night waking period dorveille which means ‘wake sleep’ and they treated this segmented approach to sleep positively too. Some wrote poetry or journals. Others had sex. A few chopped wood.
An historian named A Roger Ekirch says that for centuries, waking in the middle of the night for an hour or so was common practice. He even wrote a book (in part) about it. It was a time used to interpret dreams, reflect and pray, all of which sounds like the opposite of worrying why the heck one is not asleep. I much prefer the reflection model.
Jesse Barron writing for The New York Times Magazine notes that the middle-of-night waking has a special feeling about it .. a “non anxious wakefulness.”
“The time feels freer. The urge to be busy abates,” Jesse says.
I agree wholeheartedly and now think of these hours as a gift, rather than proof that I am a sleep screw-up. The watch is a well-earned snippet in the night where I can think deeper thoughts, sip bigger sips, take care of my own comfort and feel a little bit more in sync with myself, the world, and my fellow night-wakers.
What do you do when you wake up in the night?