Meet twenty-seven-year-old Thea Mackenzie. She would smile but that would take up too much of her energy – and energy is precious. You see, Thea is exhausted. A lifetime of insomnia has brought her to her knees. An hour of sleep each night is starting to take its toll.
Her grey, listless days revolve around finding ways to cope with a cold sponge for a brain and sandpaper balls for eyes… and her nights? The evidence of her wide-awake nights is etched into the spiderwebs of her eyes.
Her mind does not race at night, because that would suggest it would eventually tire itself out. No, her mind fizzes like nuclear fusion. Something with an infinite capacity to keep fizzing, no matter how late, or early, it gets.
Exhaustion has narrowed her life.
She wakes each day as if dragging herself from a deep grave. Mornings are finely tuned things; they are not a time for decision-making so she lays out her clothes and breakfast the night before, knowing that her head will be pounding from the adrenaline kicking at her sleepy brain cells. It is that adrenaline that then gets her through the day in her office job where she spends her time moving numbers from one spreadsheet to another in a grey open-plan box which smells of microwave-ready meals, and has carpet the consistency of Velcro and an air conditioning system with a poor grasp of the seasons.
Thea doesn’t really have friends. They take energy too, you see. Friends would expect things like a quick drink after work and meet-ups on the weekend; they would expect her to remember the names of their boyfriends and husbands and children. They would want to know about hers in return. But after work is already taken up by her body crashing from the adrenaline high it has been coasting on all day, and weekends are a blur of panic about the week ahead, interspersed with hours of zombie-like lethargy where she tries to force herself to move from the sofa. And remembering things? Thea can barely remember her name most days.
There is one friend – her mother, Vivian.
Vivian is forthright, funny and irrepressible with a love for a particular silk scarf that you have to get very close to see has tiny little vaginas printed on it. She has spent nearly thirty fervent, bright-eyed years protesting, marching, arguing and educating on anything and everything that needed it. A lot of things did. Together with a collective of other women she created The Menopausal Army (“Probably best to call us post-menopausal now, darling!”). It has had many names over the years but always the same goal: change.
The women worry about many things: the overuse of plastic, the effects of social media on young people, injustices in far-flung places, bees, abortion laws, the closure of libraries and the opening of too many fast-food restaurants. They turn that worry into plotting and planning. They run web chatrooms and design placards on newspaper on the living room floor. Thea has a neat hand for lettering and that living room, the one cluttered with books, candles, paint pots and bits of cardboard, is where she feels most at home.
So, Thea has tried it all. Sleep is a demanding god who requires silk pillowcases and expensive room sprays. It requires hypnotherapy and the soundtrack of a gentle river flowing through a forest. She is strict about her tiny house. It has to have the right lighting and temperature. It has to be quiet and clean and peaceful because that is what every article about sleep has impressed upon her. You have to create the right environment for it to come, blinking into sight like a shy, rare animal.
None of it has worked.
When she crashes her car, she realises the painful truth: her insomnia has got to the stage now where it could hurt others and not just herself. As she sits on the wet pavement and the other drivers talk over her head, a notification from one of her apps flashes up on her phone. At first, she thinks it is the universe’s idea of a cruel joke, but then, as she sits there amongst the twisted metal and shattered glass, she comes to think of it more as salvation:
Morpheus. Dream your way to a better you – one sleep at a time.