‘I feel like an animal in a cage’: in bed with insomniac Britain

In the small hours, thousands of people lie in bed, eyes open, mind racing, desperately hoping to nod off. What are they thinking about? We spend a long, long night with the nation’s sleepless

Paul Chan has tried hot tea, hot baths, hot-water bottles, a cold breeze from an open window, mental maths, brainteasers, very slow breathing in bed and very brisk walks around his bedroom. Now, on a random night in October, the 52-year-old from Liverpool tries to get to sleep by imagining that he is James Bond. Why not? Chan is among that enormous proportion of the British public – one in three, according to an NHS estimate – who suffer from routine bouts of sleeplessness. He has just been to the cinema to see No Time to Die and as he closes his eyes for the night, he decides to start at the beginning, mentally recreating the movie in as much detail as he can manage. Scene one. A frozen lake in Norway …

A little way north, in Durham, Lucy Adlington is alert, awake, and stuck. The 36-year-old silversmith cannot fall asleep but is hesitant to clamber out of bed for fear of waking the rest of her household. Somewhere between 3am and 4am, she picks up her smartphone and, speaking softly, begins to dictate a voice message. What does it feel like, being awake, alone, out of options, in the smallest and quietest hours of the night? “Like being an animal in a cage,” Adlington says, murmuring into her phone.

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