I think it’s fair to say that anyone who’s ever cared for a baby goes through a pretty steep learning curve. The look on new parents’ faces is caused not just by exhaustion, but by general disorientation and a sense of being in bewilderingly foreign territory with an inadequate map. New mums or dads must therefore develop a set of survival skills for the parenthood jungle, and quickly. One of the key survival skills is, of course, coping with crying, and so all parents very soon establish a checklist of Possible Reasons to Account for Crying. Basic Reasons are initially gleaned from baby books, antenatal classes or other jungle survivors, but quite quickly parents will develop a more nuanced set of Reasons from experience. For each Reason, a parent must necessarily develop a corresponding Solution. Supposing, for example, the crying baby is hungry (Reason), this is fairly easily fixed (breastfeeding or reflux problems aside) by a feed (Solution). Supposing, however, the baby doesn’t seem hungry, or has just been fed, the parents then explore the next possible Reason: the nappy situation. Once diaper discomfort has been ruled out, they continue down the list, considering whether the baby may perhaps have wind, be too hot or not warm enough, or physically uncomfortable in some other way. Maybe all the baby wants is to be jiggled about for a bit so that you have to do all your tasks one-handed for a while. There is always the possibility that the baby might be bored (in which case, something must be provided at which he or she can stare, lips pursed and legs kicking) or, conversely, over-stimulated (in which case the baby will need removing from such excitements as dogs, washing machines and older siblings, and taking to a quiet room). Most parents however, reach a terrifying point one day when they have gone through their entire checklist, and nothing has worked. They have expended all their hard-won parental know-how, double-checked their baby care books and consulted Mumsnet, AND STILL THE BABY CRIES. It is no use sobbing, “What? I’ve tried everything! What do you want?”, because the baby cannot tell you. For those parents gifted with a colicky baby, AND STILL THE BABY CRIES then remains the default state for the first few months of the infant’s life.
Having a condition such as an anxiety disordes, depression, or bipolar mood disorder may predispose a person to an overactive brain, which can feel a lot like caring for a colicky baby. Sometimes, no matter what you do, whatever tricks or strategies you try, STILL THE BRAIN WHIRS. Never is this more so than at night. The things that “normal” people do to get their brains to go quietly to bed have little effect on the high-maintenance, overactive brain. By 5am this morning I have been trying to soothe my colicky brain for 6 hours. My main problem is that Brain wants me to listen to the same snatch of music, inside my head, over and over again. At first, I try to adopt an attitude of mindfulness. “OK, Brain,” I say, “I notice what you are doing. It’s interesting that you’re doing that. But I’m not going to become involved because it’s not real music, it’s just a type of thought state.” Brain, as if to challenge my definition of reality, carries on transmitting Loop Radio. Now I counter with cognitive techniques. I imagine a big, clearly-marked “stop” button, such as you might have found on an old-fashioned music centre. I watch myself depress it, hear a satisfying “click”, and visualise a tape stopping. There is a pause. I settle happily down, but I have barely closed my eyes before Loop Radio takes to the airwaves again. Sometimes, I reason, the path of least resistance is best. Maybe I can get the loop out of Brain’s system by listening to the actual recording. I find the track on my iPod, and listen right through to the end. I even sing a long a little, to show that I appreciate that it is a good song and Brain is not completely off the wall. When it ends, there is a blessed silence. Tentatively, I lie down. Just as I start to snuggle into the pillow, Brain’s pirate signal jams my neural frequencies with the same few bars of the same tedious song.
Maybe, I think, there’s something about my physical situation that’s making Brain so alert; the equivalent of an old-fashioned nappy pin sticking in it. I visit the bathroom, grab a drink, plump up my pillows and tuck the duvet around me to make things more confortable. When this doesn’t work, I decamp to the living room sofa, just in case there is something about the bedroom itself to which Brain could be objecting. I lie on my side. I lie on my back. I lie on my other side. I try sprinkling my pillow with lavender oil. Brain is appreciative, but instantly runs off down a thought path about the evidence base for aromatherapy which makes it more lively than ever.
Next I try a hypnotherapy sleep app. It’s worked for me in the past, and something soothing and familiar might calm Brain down just enough to do the trick. I concentrate on what I am being told to do, working down my body, relaxing my muscles as best I can, given that I am stretched out on a two-seater sofa. My whole right thigh suddenly starts to go into some sort of twitchy spasm, which I take to be Body expressing its annoyance that it’s not getting any sleep, thanks to Brain. The twitching continues, but I enjoy listening to the calming voice, and try to make myself as suggestible as possible. Now the voice is telling me that I am entering a deep, natural sleep, and I do feel calmer; but as soon as the relaxation music ends, Brain’s chatter starts to fill the void. Brain has an awful lot of suggestions for what it thinks we need to do tomorrow, and it is keen to share. Brain also turns out to be simply brimming with ideas for blog posts, stories and newsletter articles, and feels rather strongly that it would probably be best if we both got up and started working on these right away. Brain also has a list of friends I ought to text or email, bills I need to pay, and administrative tasks it believes I should carry out as soon as possible.
I’ve run out of ideas now. I have worked my way through my lists of Solutions, AND STILL BRAIN WHIRS. Eventually, all there is left is acceptance. I’m not going to get to sleep now, not least because it’s 7.30 I have somewhere to be at 10. I get up and into the bedroom, and begin to tell my partner about the merry dance Brain has been leading me. (It’s possible that I’m kind of animated about it.) “Go away!” my partner tells me. “I don’t have to be at work until later, I want to sleep.” And he turns over, with his well-behaved brain, and drifts back off.