Insomnia Mental Health Stress

Insomnia and the four poster bed

Image: Elizabethan ornate oak four poster bed. Wikipedia, Public Domain

It may come as no surprise, given our circumstances, to read that I/we have suffered bouts of insomnia these past few weeks. Selling up and moving from our home of the past 17 years was one major stressor that contributed to fitful sleep. Then there is the (ongoing) uncertainty about where we will end up living, which in our case requires two people to agree on the location, condition, ambience and price of another home. Thirty-seven house inspections later, we are just about there.

But as you would all know (Australian home owners move on average every seven years), the transitional period is quite stressful. We have moved our luggage from one place to another four times since vacating the premises on September 11. Naturally enough, you leave things behind. For example, I’m supposed to wear black leather shoes for our choir performances this weekend. So far, all I have found is a dowdy pair of brown loafers and a pair of old man slippers (the kind with a flap held in place by Velcro). She Who Had No Clue Where My Black Shoes Were said, “Why don’t you go to the Plaza tomorrow and buy a new pair?” Now there’s a thought.

These past few weeks we have been ‘couch surfing’, courtesy of benevolent friends and relatives, who in truth provide much more than a couch (and a spot for the dog). Still, strange beds, different locations and fluctuating bed times clash with the heightened stress of the displaced person. Not to mention this weird spring weather where you kick the doona off at 11pm and wake up cold at 4am.

For years I thought it was normal to wake at 2.10am with no expectation of falling asleep again. If I did, it was inconveniently about 35 minutes before the alarm told me it was time for work. This was not always the pattern. Sometimes, I could not get to sleep at all, other times I’d fall asleep the minute my head hit the pillow then wake again in 20 to 30 minutes, hyper-vigilant and twitching.

Over the years I discovered there are many different forms of insomnia and the ones outlined above are only some of them.

Medical research agrees that the first line of treatment for insomnia should be behavioural modification. Eat your evening meal at a sensible hour, don’t read, log on to the Internet or watch TV two hours before going to bed. Don’t drink tea or coffee after 2pm. Go to bed at the same time every night, roll on to your side and switch out the light.

The second line of treatment is medication, usually of the type prescribed for anxiety or depression. An article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine informs us that 40% of adults with insomnia have a co-existing psychiatric disorder.

Among these psychiatric disorders, depression is the most common, and insomnia is a diagnostic symptom for depressive and anxiety disorders,” writes Dr Thomas Roth, PhD.

As Dr Roth’s paper asserts, 30% of the general population suffer from chronic insomnia; women and older adults are most at risk. Primary sleep disorders including restless legs syndrome, snoring and sleep apnoea can also lead to insomnia.

The artistic side of the brain quite likes insomnia. Some of my best work, and maybe some of yours, has been created in the wee small hours.

But when you have to front up for work and use your brain and make decisions all day, three or four hours sleep just doesn’t cut it. The phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’ comes to mind. It means excessive work with no time for rest.

The phrase comes from a time when candles were expensive and burning them at both ends implied a wasteful way to achieve an obsession. As the American poet, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote: “My candle burns at both ends. It will not last the night, but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light.”

In the 1990s, when I was working long hours by day and staying up late writing songs, I sometimes had a dozen candles burning at once.  On Saturdays I would take my son to New Farm Park and later to my favourite writers’ retreat, a coffee shop in a massive old woolstore at Teneriffe, an inner Brisbane riverside suburb. The Australian Estate Woolstore had been converted to a furniture warehouse with three huge floors full of classy furniture. It was fun to roam around and check out the stock, bounce on a few beds, try a leather recliner or two and vow that one day, we’d own one of those. Son was 9 or 10 and happy to go off and explore while I’d sit in the coffee shop overlooking the river, blowing froth off my cappuccino and trying to capture the images of the day in a battered old journal.

One time son came back to tell me I had to check out this huge bed.

“It’s got a roof and curtains, Dad.”

The four-poster bed was a beauty for sure, and it had a price tag to match.

“We’d never get it through the front door,” I lied. “Besides, Mum and I are quite happy with the bed we have.”

He went back to building a fort with a pile of sofa cushions while I went back to my journal and jotted down the first lines of a new song “I went down to the wool store, to buy myself a bed; it might help with my insomnia, it was something that I read”.

The Australian Estates Woolstore was later converted to apartments, swept up in the gentrification process that changed Teneriffe from an age-worn industrial suburb to a residential precinct favoured by young urban professionals.

There are lots of coffee shops now in Teneriffe, but none had that sleepy tranquillity, imbued with the ambience of the wool store’s expansive wooden floors and big casement windows that let in the natural light.

Now known as Saratoga Apartments, the Australian Estates Woolstore in Macquarie Street was built in 1926.

Not that Teneriffe’s apartment dwellers would want to be reminded, but I recall the spectacular McTaggart’s Woolstore fire in January 1990. The fire in Skyring Street took hold quickly as the brick and timber building, its floors soaked with lanolin from years of storing bales of wool, exploded. The building was completely destroyed within an hour and the rubble was still smoking next day. That fire took old timers back to 1984 when the Dalgety’s Woolstore at Teneriffe met a similar fate. Those with an interest might like to track down a video called Back to the Brass Helmet which details many of the huge fires the Queensland Fire Service have been called upon to extinguish.

That’s the interesting thing about history – those who like to write down what happened, when, how and where, leave fascinating trails for those of us who care to follow. I went on to finish the song, prosaically called Four Poster Bed. It’s a tongue-in-cheek story about a fellow who spirits a girl away from another chap in a bed shop. It’s fictional, but I like to think it has somehow preserved the edgy, consumerist mood of the early 1990s.

If you had credit, and a degree of lust, you could buy anything.

Last week: Elanora Park is managed by Brisbane City Council, not Redland City Council

Hoarding Moving Stress

Four in 10 Australians Move Every Five Years

Does this look familiar?

You were warned that FOMM would be ruminating about the not-uncommon human need to periodically pack up and move on. We are not alone. Over 40% of Australians moved house at least once between one Census and the other and the ratio is higher still for younger people.

According to the 2016 Census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 43.4% of the overall population moved house between 2011 and 2016. Young people (20-29) were the most nomadic, with a third moving every year and two thirds moving within five years. These statistics are always rising, one Census after the other. Our imminent move (two weeks) will be recorded in the data collected for the 2021 Census (How did that come around so quickly?)

In a large country with six States and two Territories, it’s a fair bet the move is associated with work. I recall jamming around an outback campfire with a banjo-playing electrician who had left Rockhampton, where a contract had come to an end, hoping to get work in Darwin, where at the time there were many large construction projects.

No doubt that young fellow would belong to the cohort who rent houses. About a third of Australians rent houses or apartments, moving on average every three years. Some move because of a change of circumstance (work, a new baby, an opportunity to move to a better place), but many are forced to move because (a) the landlord is selling (b) they have been evicted for various reasons or (c) the rent went up and they need something cheaper.

Australia’s 1,100 self-storage sites do very well out of this constant moving and so do the movers who transport goods back and forth. Those forced to move at short notice have no option but to store their goods and chattels until they can find a place big enough to reclaim their stuff. A common story (from those moving from big family homes to two or three bedroom apartments), is that there will never be enough room for the piano and Mum’s antique bedroom suite. Those on a fixed income may also struggle to find an affordable home large enough to keep the possessions they have accumulated.

The rental market is controlled by people who are accumulating wealth by investing in real estate. Even without buying investment houses, many Australians have become well-off by renovating and selling their principal place of residence, on average every seven years (the period during which houses supposedly double in value).

Homeowners, too, have reasons aplenty for moving; a new job (in a new State), moving in with elderly parents to become care-givers and of course the moves brought on when one in two marriages end in divorce. Few formerly married couples manage to co-habit under the same roof ‘for the sake of the kids’, so someone has to move.  Moving adds to the stress, anxiety and sense of dislocation that comes with a marital split. It sucks, and what nobody tells you beforehand is how hard it is for a single person (the majority of divorcees are people in their 40s), to find new digs. You’re too old for a share house, a boarding house seems like the dark side of the street and there is no way you are ready to shack up with someone new, are you?

Whether your last move was five 10 or even 17 years ago, the stress and chaos of packing stays with you.

Our downstairs room is a bit like the refrain in Kelly Cork’s song: “It’s all in boxes now, ready to go.”  Even when you’re not a hoarder (we both like to keep things that might come in handy), moving after 17 years is a bit of a brain scrambler.

A reader who lives in north Queensland described moving after 30 years from the cane farm where she and her husband had raised a family. They moved to a new but smaller property in a nearby town.

“I know the time, effort and energy that go into packing after such a long time being in one place.  Vinnies was very happy with me when we moved!”

We also found this to be so, separating things into that which could be sold, given away or taken to the transfer station (2019 term for a rubbish dump). A young woman took our old canvas tent off our hands, saying her plan was to take the kids camping (to get their heads out of their devices). It was a bargain, but we figure there’s a lot of karma there.

Absolutely no-one wanted our very large entertainment unit with its small fixed space for a TV. We took it apart and drove to the aforementioned transfer station. Only later I thought “Gee, the Men’s Shed might have wanted the solid timber top.”

I had an asthma attack while sifting through old, dusty tax records.  In case you did not know, you have to keep personal tax files for five years; business files should be kept for seven years and 10 years for self-managed superannuation fund records.

So, a lot of shredding and burning later (shredded paper makes great packing material for fragile items), I pulled a huge plastic bin from under the desk labelled ‘Bob’s journalism files’. Damn, did I not go through this exercise once already? I previously scanned, printed and filed in folders the 150 or so columns I wrote for the Toowoomba Chronicle in the 1980s. The late Bert Pottinger, who wrote a weekly column into his mid-eighties, encouraged me to try my hand. Thanks for starting me on a path, Bert. It surprised me to learn that even then I referred to the other half as variations on ‘She Who Makes Her Own Yoghurt’. It’s not meant to be disrespectful, just an expansion of a catch phrase invented by John Mortimer, whose crusty old barrister Horace Rumpole was wont to refer to his wife Hilda as: ‘She who must be obeyed’.

We have complicated our tight packing deadline by performing at this week’s Maleny Music Festival (tomorrow at 11.45am), throwing a private house concert/party, driving to Brisbane for a ballet and then to the Neurum Creek Festival on September 13-15.

The majority of our cohort (people aged 70 and over), wish to ‘age in place’, particularly the 75% of older people who own their houses outright. This gives them options when it comes to downsizing to more manageable properties. In some circumstances, older people will need to sell their house to fund a move into retirement villages or aged care facilities. Sometimes the elderly and not-so elderly struck down by dementia are moved into the aforesaid ‘facilities’ without much say in the matter.

As so many people have said to us on hearing our moving-on story, it is better to do it now (at 70, fit and healthy), than have it forced upon you.

Some locals just don’t understand why we’d want to move away from the hinterland, where after 17 years we are still relative newcomers.

But as the famous Eccles said, when Neddie Seagoon asked why he was in the coal cellar: “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere”.

FOMM backpages:


Brexit Stress Technology

FOMM’s Technology Failure Stress Scale

This IT message (and others) can send some people’s stress levels off the scale.

After several weeks of persistent information IT problems, I’ve invented a Technology Failure Stress Scale that deals specifically with technology failure and the inability of many human beings to cope. Unlike the better-known Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which measures the health impact of major life events like death of a spouse and divorce, mine is unscientific and highly subjective. Well, if it’s OK for leaders of major western governments to be unscientific and subjective, why not me?
The Holmes and Rahe stress inventory is still widely used, despite being created in 1967 (it mentions a mortgage of $20,000). The R&H test allocates points to each stressor. You take the stress test and tally up your numbers. Anything over 300 makes you highly susceptible to developing an illness. Death of a spouse (100), divorce (73), marital separation (65), imprisonment (63) and death of a close family member (63) are the top five. I was always under the misapprehension that moving house was in the top 10, but it apparently rates only 20 points. Try telling that to the renters, furiously scrubbing and vacuuming so they can get their bond back.

GPs use the Social Readjustment Rating Scale invented by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe to assess patients presenting in a highly stressed state. GPs also use the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a more recent psychological test to assess anxiety and depression. The test asks the patient to perceive how they feel, ranging from not at all or hardly ever, to all the time, about their moods and reactions to situations. The latter is the test used to decide if you qualify for six rebated consultations over 12 months with a registered psychologist
The PSS has also been used by researchers trying to establish the links between technology and social media and psychophysiological well-being. If this subject interests you, try these links.

I was going to write about Brexit this week, a topic I have been assiduously avoiding since the silliness began in 2016. Then my laptop started misbehaving (again) after a clean install of Windows. My technology failure stress levels went off the scale.

On Saturday, when I went to retrieve my emails from an Outlook backup – it downloading 9,000+ emails (twice) into one folder. What happened to my carefully curated sub-folders? Moreover, new emails started arriving, in pairs. Time to call in a technology failure expert, who did his expert thing, then advised me to buy a new computer. Thanks to this friendly chap, my technology failure stress levels dropped from 275 (see test below), to around 75.

FOMM’s Technology Failure Stress Scale
1/ Blue screen of death, hard drive failure, complete loss of data due to hard drive failure, virus: 100 pts (deduct 50 points if you made a reliable back-up)
2/ Recovery but with poor prognosis/replacement recommended: 50
4/ Process of reinstalling programs and data: 45
5/ (Unbudgeted) cost of repair/replacement: 35
Operating system misbehaviour and user error
6/ Accidently deleting important files/emails or archives (or hitting send-all when that’s not what you meant to do): 60 (deduct 30 if you have backups)
7 Windows updates automatically, closing down when you are in the middle of editing your round-Australia video or watching the last 10 minutes of the final episode of Breaking Bad: 55
8/ Video/Music editing programs crash before you go file/save (see above): 65
9/ ITunes updates then you can’t find your music: 55 (some would rate this 100)
10/ Software manufacturers stop supporting something on which you have become dependent: 45
I’ll leave mobile phones, smart TVs, remote controls, Bluetooth and GPS devices for another time.
Rate your overall Technology Failure Stress (from a total of 550)
More than 300: your spouse will have an 80% chance of finding you irritating. Take the dog or yourself for a long walk. Unplug the computer at the wall if a storm is brewing.
200-299: your spouse will still be finding you irritating. Take the dog or yourself for a long walk. Eat chocolate.
100-199: This is a sign that you are sufficiently tech-savvy and adaptable but still prefer to leave it to the experts.
0-99: You either eschew computers or use the free ones at the library.

Technology Failure aside, what about Brexit?

As you’d gather, I get distracted when things get stressful and a bit beyond my ken, so it was initially hard to put together a coherent narrative on the topic of Brexit (short for Britain exiting the European Union).
Why should we care, you might ask? This is some far away turf war about trade and national identity. It may also be about Britain wanting to secure its borders as more refugees teem into Europe.
Basically, the politicians thought the Brits would say Yes to staying in the EU instead of No, we’re leaving. Between the 2016 referendum and now, the British parliament has been working on an agreement which will cut ties with the EU (and cost the UK about £37 billion), call it their Brexit fee).
In the ensuing years since the referendum, there has been considerable social discord (the vote was 52/48, after all), economic uncertainty and a tougher time for Britain’s poor, the perpetual victims of economic downturns.
The European Union was formed in 1972, forging together 28 countries with (in theory) a single currency, freedom of trade and movement between countries. The EU has its own parliament and all members have to pay to enjoy the benefits of economic unity. Over time, Britain became disenchanted with the return on its (annual) contribution of £13 billion (2017). The UK gets back about £4 billion a year as ‘public sector receipts’, so it can be seen that the UK pays more into the EU than it gets back. This does not take into account the harder to quantify benefits of jobs, trade and investment.

The Brexit debate has sharply defined what the Irish and the Scots had known all along – the United Kingdom is not all that united. The Scots voted to stay in the EU and so did Northern Ireland. Thus far, the debate has been vigorous between Leavers and Remainers. Of the Leavers, 94% believe Britain will be better off without the EU; 96% of Remainers think Britain will be worse off exiting the EU.

The Guardian’s monthly reports on UK economic indicators shows that business investment has declined for three consecutive quarters. The housing market is at its weakest level since 2012 and retail sales continue to be sluggish, with visible signs of business distress on UK high streets. There have been reports elsewhere of companies moving their headquarters from England to Asia (Dyson and Sony).

The UK government is this week voting on amendments to PM Theresa May’s 585-page Accord (which was voted down on January 15). The amended deal has to be approved and then accepted by the EU. If the EU rejects May’s plan, England will be left to deal with a fragmented kingdom, Brexit representing, as commentator Fintan O’Toole observed, ‘the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order’.

At divisive, stressful times like these, one could imagine Theresa May and her staff would be quite happy if Outlook crashed and they had an excuse not to look at their emails.

More reading: Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole’s perspicacious view of ‘Brextinct’ and the fissiparous four-nation state is an enlightening read.