This competitive tiredness is just SO exhausting…
22:13 GMT, 2 May 2012
The alarm goes off, and the person slumbering deeply beside me jolts awake, gives a dramatic sigh and gropes for the switch. ‘Oh God, I’ve had the most awful night,’ he groans, staring at the ceiling in the wild-eyed way of the sleep-deprived. ‘I’ve hardly slept a wink . . .’
As I have been awake since 3am — in fact, I got up around dawn, tiptoeing across the bedroom floor so as not as to disturb the Snoring One — I find this hard to swallow.
‘Well, I even went downstairs and read on the sofa for a while because I couldn’t nod off — I’m completely shattered,’ I counter with a massive yawn.
A big yawn: Tiredness can be catching
He regards me blearily. ‘It’s not a competition,’ he says, trudging to the bathroom. ‘And honestly, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep for weeks now.’
I’d continue to argue the point but, frankly, I’m too tired to bother.
I think he’s wrong, though — it is a bit of a competition. And it’s not just me and him playing, is it Across the land, I suspect many couples hold ‘who is the tiredest of them all’ championships on a daily basis.
And if we’re not complaining to our nearest and dearest about how shattered we are, we’re doing it in the workplace or when we meet up with friends.
For instance, when I recount the morning’s episode over coffee with a neighbour, she in turn can’t wait to tell me that she’s been up for the past three nights with her poorly toddler and tiny baby.
‘I can hardly walk for tiredness,’ she sighs. Not least, her husband — on returning from four days away on business — announced he was so exhausted he might have to give his weekly game of squash a miss that evening.
'It seems we’re compelled to discuss our levels of exhaustion with anyone who'll stay awake long enough to listen'
It’s no exaggeration to say that all of us in modern society are obsessed by sleep — the quality of it, the lack of it, the amount of it, who’s getting it and who isn’t.
When I edited a health magazine, you could guarantee that a coverline such as Wake Up Refreshed would see sales soar — hardly surprising when research reports that 30 per cent of Britons claim to endure sleepless nights.
But the days of being tired, yet soldiering on in stoic silence, are long gone.
In our ‘share-the-pain’ society, it seems we’re compelled to discuss our levels of exhaustion with anyone who’ll stay awake long enough to listen — it’s possibly more boring than counting sheep. There’s even a name for it: competitive tiredness syndrome.
‘How are you today’ you might ask a colleague who is slumped practically comatose across their keyboard.
Over-worked: Many of us think we're not getting enough shut eye
‘I only got an hour’s shut-eye last night,’ they’ll whimper wearily. ‘God only knows how I’m going to get this report done — I can’t even think straight!’
Another will join in, notching it up a gear. ‘Well, I didn’t leave the office until nine last night and then stayed awake half the night worrying about stuff — I’m delirious.’
And one more for good measure, this time cunningly introducing illness to gain extra points: ‘I shouldn’t even be here! This cough means I haven’t slept for four nights.’
Much of this need to relay our tales of tiredness in (exhaustive) detail is reflective of the way we live now, says counsellor Dr Andrew Reeves.
‘Society values hard work and sacrifice,’ he says. ‘What better way to show how determined we are to do our bit than through exhaustion
‘We’re hard-wired to be competitive anyway — even a race to the bottom can be hard to resist — so plodding on regardless is a way of saying: “Not only have I got an incredibly stressful life already and am working hard, but I’m doing it on hardly any sleep, too!” ’
'Everyone talks about the magical eight hours, but most of us don’t get that — and don't need it'
According to Dr Frank Lipman, author of Revive! End Exhaustion And Feel Great Again (Hay House, 10.99), we’re in the middle of an exhaustion epidemic.
He blames it on the pressure of today’s fast and furious lifestyle — which means we don’t follow the natural rhythms of our ancient ancestors.
Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre in Loughborough agrees.
‘Tiredness and sleepiness are two very different things,’ he says. ‘You might feel permanently exhausted because you’re stressed or weary — which is nothing to do with lack of sleep, even if you think it is.’
This is partly, he says, because we need less shut-eye than is commonly believed, and panic if we don’t get it.
‘But if you’re not falling asleep during the day, you’re not deprived of sleep,’ he says. ‘Everyone talks about the magical eight hours, but most of us don’t get that — and don’t need it.’
Well, that’s all right then. Next time I’m tossing and turning in the wee small hours, wondering where the hell Mr Sandman has got to again (he’s so unreliable), I will not panic. And even if the following day I look like Whistler’s Mother and have the energy of a sloth, I’ll resist the urge to tell everyone why.
Anyway, this fixation on sleep is no new thing. Professor Horne reveals every generation has endured insomnia issues.
‘The Victorians may not have discussed their tiredness over afternoon tea, but you’ve only got to look at advertisements from that era promoting various remedies to realise they were as obsessed as we are with sleep,’ he says. ‘That, and their bowels.’
I suppose we should be grateful! At least, we’re not discussing that ad nauseam by the water cooler every morning. Indeed, the very thought of it is enough to give you sleepless nights . . .