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


  1. I think you should buy a four poster bed for your new home!

  2. Haha, it would have to be dismantled and reasemmbled.

  3. Thanks for sharing yr insomnia experience Bob. I can empathise. It makes me feel less alone.

    I’m at present over 3 months into a destructive bout insomnia. Like you, mine was precipitated by a move. One made for unpleasant reasons.

    But unlike you, I am indeed going to buy a 4-poster. I’ve been looking around the 2nd- hand market online for a wooden one, waiting for the right price. There is a surprising profusion of them available.

    ( As a folkie aside: there’s also a popular Scottish folk tune named for this venerable item of furniture. You might remember it from the old bush band heydays. Lots of people played it then, it had been popularised by Fairport Convention. Hardly known now though amongst Aussie folkies, alas.

    It’s a surprisingly boisterous tune. Obviously it’s not inspired by sleeping. More likely by the other common use for a bed !! )

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