This might seem like an obvious point, but when you interview people about sleep, you have to wait until they’re awake. We can’t tell people about our sleeping patterns or our dreams while they’re happening (and despite the name of my show, I don’t actually talk in my sleep … ) so instead, we have to talk about them in the morning.
By the time we talk about our sleep, the memory’s already faded. I wish I could dive inside your head and listen to your dreams tonight, but instead I’m relying on what you can recall tomorrow (which, chances are, won’t be much). I wish I could know what it felt like for you to fall asleep – but if I tried to record it while it was happening, I’d intrude on your sleep, the very thing I’m trying to record, and you’d stay awake.
So instead, I’ll ask you to remember the moments before you drifted off, and by talking about the time you spent unconscious while you’re conscious, we’ll try to create an intersection between being awake and being asleep.
In a recent episode of SleepTalker, Clem Bastow told me that she dreams about her half-formed stories, and her pre-sleep stage is a ‘fruitful zone’ for ideas.
‘It’s regularly been that time when I’m trying to fall asleep that, you know, you stumble upon the perfect sentence.’
If you try too hard to observe your sleeping mind, you’ll wake yourself up.
Hypnagogia is ‘threshold consciousness’ – the transition from wake to sleep – and it is perhaps my favourite state to be in. I love the lazy magic of thoughts that are just beyond my conscious reach. But if I try too hard, if I think about them too much, then I interrupt the drift and I keep myself awake. It’s like trying to twist your neck to view the back of your head; you’ll never get far enough around, and you’ll just end up turning in circles. If you try too hard to observe your sleeping mind, you’ll wake yourself up and there’ll be nothing to observe.
When I fall asleep next to someone, it’s so much easier to access the hypnagogic state. The drifting conversations we have with our partners in bed so often slip out of sense and it’s hard to say ‘goodnight’ sometimes. Even as pre-sleep talk becomes more and more nonsensical, it can be hard to let go of its nebulous beauty.
When I sleep alone, I know I’ll sleep easier. I won’t be interrupted by someone else’s restlessness. If I always slept alone, I’d spend more time asleep. But when I don’t have anyone keeping me awake, I’m less conscious of when (and how) I’m unconscious.
I interviewed an ex-partner about what it’s like to share a bed with me. I found out I was ‘comforting and cuddly’ (his words) but that I’m also selfish with the space. He told me I spread out diagonally across the bed and I’m ‘scabby’ (also his word), hogging the bed and stealing the doona. I feel so guilty learning that I stopped someone from sleeping, and part of me just wishes he’d woken me up; if only I’d known, I could have made it more comfortable for him. But then the other part of me says: I was there to sleep. If he’d woken me up to tell me how I was sleeping, wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?
It’s the same with snoring. When one partner snores, the other person can either lie there awake and frustrated, or move to the couch and have an uncomfortable night of sleep, or wake their partner up and make them sleep on the couch. The person who’s snoring should take the responsibility for it, right? But the person who’s snoring doesn’t have any control over it, and the one who’s awake is the one who’s bothered by it.
‘When you share a bed with someone, compromise is a big part of getting to sleep,’ says Michael Brydon, who produced an early episode of SleepTalker.
He talked about the frustration of waiting for his partner Manderlee to be ready to sleep.
‘I’ve got to sit around and wait until Manderlee wants to go to bed. But it’s like one of those arguments that you can’t win. Because you’ll be like, “I want to go to bed.” But it’ll be like, “Well then why don’t you just go to bed?” “Because I can’t. I’ll just get woken up again.”’
Across the pillow, Manderlee said she couldn’t sleep when Michael wasn’t home. She said: ‘It’s awful. I’m really restless, and it’s just like there’s something wrong or there’s something missing, or I haven’t done something.’
She also said – and I really like this quote – ‘This is the most amount of time that we spend together, just together on our own. We probably spend more time together unconscious than we do conscious.’
Someone else I interviewed told me it was ‘ridiculously comfortable’ and ‘a treat to lie down’ when he started sharing a bed with his girlfriend. When I spoke to this couple, I was sitting on their bed. There was a deep comfort between the two of them. He said she doesn’t move much in her sleep and never seems bothered. He said they don’t interrupt each other in their sleep.
‘It always helps to have a good example,’ he told me. ‘It always helps to have someone in front of you conking out really easily, and I think you can actually hear … like when you hear someone’s breathing go deeper, you feed off that.’
To me, the night is such a restful time. But it’s also lonely, dark in all definitions and terrifying. The people we share beds with share our quietest moments, our most intimate and sometimes our most vulnerable moments.
But, even with the people we know best, sleep is so hard to talk about. Talking to people about sleep is about trying to get them to remember something that they may never have been conscious of. Most of us let sleep happen to us, instead of pursuing it actively. It’s just a thing that happens until it doesn’t – and that’s when we start to think about it.
Since I started SleepTalker two years ago, people have been asking me why I’m so interested in sleep, and I often struggle to answer. I switch between thinking about sleep as something universal, translatable and relatable, and thinking about sleep as private, individual and unique from person to person.
I’m still figuring that out. In the meantime, if you notice a microphone hidden in your bedroom, just try to forget it’s there.
This story was first published at wheelercentre.com.