Twenty-four years ago today, I moved in to this house. It's difficult to process the fact that I've lived in the same place for so long; when I was a kid, we moved house every five years or so. Before I moved here, the longest I'd lived in the same house was nine years. That's not long enough to put down roots. Five years is hardly enough time to get settled in and unpack everything (and I speak from bitter experience: after the best part of a quarter century, I still have some boxes of books from my last house that have yet to be shelved). It takes time to get to know a house, to understand its quirks and foibles and—if you're lucky—identify most, if not all of the sources of the strange noises that you hear lying in bed late at night. It takes time to settle in. And it takes time for a place to become part of who you are.
Someone once said that the house we live in in our dreams is the house that we think of as home, and if that is so, then I've considered this place my home for at least a decade now. It has literally become part of my subconscious.
I'm sorry to report that my newly-discovered talents for getting a good night's rest were temporary. Last night I had a truly dreadful night's sleep and the night before that wasn't much better. I was still awake at 4am this morning. I'm hoping I'll be so knackered by bedtime tonight that insomnia will no longer be a problem, but I won't be holding my breath.
Ever since I read Matthew Walker's excellent treatise on sleep Why We Sleep, I have become more than a little bit obsessed about improving the quality of the sleep I get. My Withings watch collects data on how active I am each night; in the morning, the associated app on my phone uses the data to show me when I was likely to have been in phases of the deep, restorative kind of sleep called Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM sleep that's essential for our wellbeing, and when I was in the lighter phases of sleep that help us process the day's experiences (when I was in REM sleep and dreaming). The app on my phone then awards a "sleep score" out of 100 for each night, based on four parameters of the data it collects: duration, depth (NREM or REM), regularity (how often I switch from one to the other), and the number of interruptions (which in my case is usually zero). Last year I was lucky to get a score in the high seventies, and my worst-ever score was just 20/100 (although that was because I'd stayed out late at a concert.) It's been fascinating to track these scores and associate them with how I was feeling from day to day and from week to week. There was a clear association between alcohol intake and quality of sleep, for instance, and this has markedly reduced my consumption of the stuff. The most obvious thing I noticed was that knowing that I would be getting up at five thirty the following morning to drive to work was a reliable predictor of a really lousy sleep score.
Up until recently, each phase of my deep sleep would last less than an hour—typically they were only around thirty minutes long, and I'd only manage to get a couple of stretches that long every night. As Matthew Walker explains in his book, this is bad news, because the deep phases of sleep trigger processes in the brain that "clean up" chemical byproducts caused the day's cognition. In fact, Walker suggests that the sleep habits of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom famously claimed that they could get by on four hours' sleep a night, were a significant contributing factor to their subsequent demises from Alzheimer's disease. In his book, Walker goes on to explain that deep sleep is also an essential part of the process of memory consolidation; in deep sleep, memories are transferred from the part of the brain where they were stored during the day to another part of the brain where they are subsequently processed and organised during light, REM sleep. For this two-stage process to work properly, we need phases of deep sleep to happen when we first fall asleep, then we switch to bursts of REM sleep later in the night. Unfortunately, according to my watch (which, I'll admit, is no EEG) not only was I not getting enough sleep, but when I did finally drift off, I wasn't getting the right sort of sleep. It would often take me an hour or two before I got any deep sleep at all—especially on those nights when I was worrying about not waking up in time for the drive to work. I was stuck in REM sleep for most of the night. This was a particularly important discovery for me, because I knew that sleep deprivation (and disruption) is also recognised as a contributing factor for people who develop depression. But now that I knew what was happening to my sleep, I could start to do something to fix it.
To start with, I worked on improving my sleep hygiene, fitting a new blackout blind and adding light-proof linings to the curtains in the bedroom. If I use a device with a screen in the evenings, I have its "night light" feature enabled to reduce the amount of bright blue light that I'm exposed to. As I've already mentioned, I've cut back on my consumption of alcohol, and I also stop drinking caffeinated drinks at lunchtime. I also stopped listening to loud or uptempo music in the evenings, switching over to more ambient work (and I was amazed by just how big an effect on the quality of my sleep doing this has had). But the biggest effect that I've seen has taken place in the past week or so, since I switched to a different antidepressant. For most of the past week, my sleep scores have been in the mid-90s and I'm achieving big chunks of deep, NREM sleep that last a couple of hours or more. It's early days yet, but I'm hoping that this is the start of a healthier me.
So, here's the special news that I promised a while back:
The cover CD on the May issue of PROG Magazine features my track Xenotaph. This is a really big deal for me, and I'm excited to share my music with a much wider audience than it's ever had before. I hope you'll all rush out and buy a copy of this very special issue of the magazine.
The magazine's intro to the track describes me as "Leonard-Cohen-meets-prog", which is a fair description, I reckon. And the fact that the cover of the CD is a photograph of Frank Zappa's moustache is the icing on the cake. I'm very chuffed about the whole thing. :-)