This morning, like most others, having spent more than an hour shouting at and shaking her, Paula Stewart’s partner threw a glass of water in her face.
Was she upset or frightened by his actions? Not in the least. In fact, businesswoman Paula, 38, had pleaded with Mark to do exactly this because, without such extreme intervention, she is incapable of getting out of bed.
Paula, who co-runs a company providing trained animals for television and film — who neither drinks alcohol nor takes medication — is such an extreme heavy sleeper that she doesn’t even stir when her four alarms sound in the morning, likewise when the TV blasts into life and all her bedroom lights come on, courtesy of smart technology.
Lynette Morse, 38, from Glasgow, has missed foreign holidays and family funerals — as well as sleeping through an earthquake. She says she has tried everything in her power to be able to get out of bed in the mornings
‘It’s a total curse,’ says Paula, from Liverpool. ‘I am entirely reliant on my partner to physically wake me, otherwise I would, quite literally, sleep all day.
‘Before we got together, five years ago, I missed whole days at work because I just didn’t wake up. I’d arrange meetings in the office with clients and my business partner would have to step in because I’d be completely comatose and no amount of ringing, or even knocking on my door, would rouse me.’
In an age in which so many are troubled by insomnia, and worry about getting too little sleep, those who, like Paula, effortlessly slumber deeply and for long periods, may seem like the lucky ones.
However, this is far from true. So all-consuming is her sleep that Paula, understandably, lives in fear of her life being put at risk — should there be a fire, flood or break in — while she is totally out for the count.
Her sleep issues are so extreme, they’re one of the reasons Paula has decided she doesn’t want children.
Lynette, who runs a web-based business from home, said that she didn’t want children, partly because of her ‘sleep problem’ which she says would make motherhood ‘very challenging indeed’
‘If I can’t even get myself out of bed in the morning, I’m not ready for the responsibilities of motherhood,’ she says. ‘I feel anxious falling asleep at night, knowing that I’ll be effectively dead to the world until someone physically shakes me awake. How could I be responsible for a child in those circumstances?’
Her worst nightmare almost became reality while she was a student in California, in 2001, and woke late one morning to find her halls of residence completely deserted.
Looking through the window she saw utter devastation all around — felled trees, overturned cars, roofs blown off buildings — and, dashing outside, discovered a tornado had struck in the early hours. Fellow students had responded to an alarm and evacuated to a place of safety, while Paula slept through it.
‘It was terrifying,’ she says.
It makes a great dinner party yarn, but the implications of unusually heavy sleeping are serious. While relatively unusual in adults, a study last year revealed that three-quarters of children would not wake to a smoke alarm.
The research by the University of Dundee, in collaboration with Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, involved 644 children and concluded that youngsters respond better to different tones — a lower frequency sound with a voice recording — than standard alarms.
Mother-of-two Liz Dowse, 38, from Chelmsford, Essex, sets 15 alarms on her mobile phone, which she keeps right beside her bed, then sleeps through each one in turn. She has been told by one doctor that she has ‘severe fatigue syndrome’
While parents need to be aware of the risks this poses, the vast majority will, in adulthood, become more responsive to sounds designed to wake them. But a few — such as Paula — won’t.
Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, a specialist neuro-psychiatrist and clinical director at the London Sleep Centre, says Paula is far from alone in suffering from ‘sleep inertia — a condition in which the brain’s drive for sleep overwhelms the drive for wakefulness’.
‘There could be a number of causes, from an underlying disorder, such as sleep apnoea, or problems with sleep quality so that the brain feels it needs to stay asleep to get a sufficient amount,’ says Dr Ebrahim.
‘Otherwise, it might be down to a circadian rhythm disorder, which puts those affected into a deep sleep phase — which usually happens in the first two to three hours of the night — at the wrong part of the sleep cycle.’
Paula did seek help from her GP a couple of years ago, after sleeping through a day’s work when Mark was not around to wake her, and after blood tests came back normal, was given a clean bill of health.
Since then, she’s tried everything from going to bed early, to exercising in the evening, meditating, using a sun lamp and even leaving the curtains open. Nothing works.
She finds it hard to accept the severe fatigue syndrome syndrome because once up and about, she is very active, working as a fitness coach, mentoring women in their homes, via the internet, all over the world
Most evenings, she turns in at around 10pm and has to be physically dragged from sleep ten hours later, at 8am, often after music producer Mark, 41, has spent more than an hour trying to wake her.
Paula has had problems waking for as long as she can remember. Her mother says that, even as a baby and toddler, she could ‘sleep round the clock’ and it was always a huge problem getting her up for school in the mornings.
Although her loved ones try to be understanding, her nocturnal habits have been a source of great tension over the years.
Six years ago, Paula had enjoyed a night out with her sister, Petra, who was staying with her, and a group of friends. Towards the end of the evening, Paula — who hadn’t been drinking — was ready to go home, while Petra wanted to stay a little later. So Paula caught a taxi home, fully expecting to still be awake by the time her sister returned, so she could let her in.
When Petra got back, however, Paula was already fast asleep and, despite banging on the door, until a neighbour threatened to ring the police, and calling her mobile 50 times, Petra could not rouse her.
‘There were no hotels nearby, so my poor sister ended up spending the night in a photobooth at a nearby train station,’ says Paula, still shamefaced at the memory. ‘It was January and by the time I opened the door to her the following day she was like a drowned rat and frozen to the bone.
‘She was so angry she slapped me across the face and didn’t speak to me for weeks. In fact, it’s still a bone of contention between us as she can’t understand how anyone could sleep through all that.’
Paula Stewart, 38, is ‘entirely reliant on my partner to physically wake me, otherwise I would, quite literally, sleep all day’. As a student, she managed to sleep through an alarm and evacuation of her residence
Paula has also left her business partner, Layla, in the lurch by sleeping the day away, instead of turning up for meetings she has arranged at their offices.
‘Layla has always been understanding, up to a point,’ says Paula. ‘But it’s so embarrassing having to admit that the reason I’ve let people down is because I can’t do that most basic thing that others seem to find so easy and wake up in the mornings.’