Friday, 4 November 2016

'Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise' - Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

There are a myriad of classically-derived technical names focused on fear linked to the absence of light; achluophobia, nyctophobia (from Greek νυξ, "night"), scotophobia (from σκότος – "darkness"), or lygophobia (from λυγή – "twilight").

This innate human fear triggered by the loss of light, sight and visual information is compounded by films, literature, music through the ages. Bad things tend to happen at night; the paranormal reigns, monsters come out, ghosts haunt, vampires bite, and criminal activity, violent or not, takes refuge in the cover of darkness. It’s no wonder that children are often scared of the dark.

Whilst in hospital I too experienced a form of nyctophobia. Less like fear and more like dread. As the sun set, the visitors left and bedtime rituals like the medication round commenced I had a quote from Game of Thrones playing over and over in my mind, ‘For the night is dark and full of terrors.' Often swiftly followed by those famous lyrics from Les Miserables ‘But the tigers come at night, With their voices soft as thunder, they tear your hope apart.’ Both examples of how the media has influenced my perception of nighttime.

But in my case, it wasn't about the darkness. It was about the isolation that night brought. A sense of impending dread about those long hours alone, shielded from others visually in my cubicle of fabric, yet connected to everyone, and to the pain of others on the ward at an auditory level. 

Night also means less distractions and reduced clinical attention. If you wake in pain and call for medication and help it takes longer at night, or maybe it just seems to. In-built british reserve prevents most people crying out and making a fuss, what you hear are muffled whimpers and animalistic groans. 

I used to dread waking in pain, and then the fuss of getting pain relief, waiting for it to kick in and then the challenge of getting back to sleep again. Most nights I was up for a few hours between 1-4am, desperately trying not to tune into the pain of others, to stop fixating on the increasingly irritating beeping of a machine, and trying everything - audio books, meditation and music to lull myself back to sleep.

I'm not the only one who felt like this, daytime conversations revealed that my ward inhabitants often shared this view. But when you are all 'curtained off' you have no idea who else might be awake and available to alleviate your own suffering.

My one huge consultation was the knowledge the sun was always sure to rise and that by 7am the lights would be on again and the night would officially be over.

Sunrise is a magical thing. Some days it is spectacular, sometimes more muted and mundane. It can be enhanced by magnificent views and vistas over forests, oceans, cities, it can punctuated by clouds, or clear as day. A full spectrum of red, amber and gold, or pure, simple, white light. Glorious in so many ways.

I have always loved a good sunrise...and a good sunset come to that...(ideally with a sundowner in hand). In fact I have actively awaited sunrises from the top of mountains like Kilimanjaro, over monuments including Ankor Wat, Macchu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, over sand dunes in Namibia and savannah in Kenya. I truly love that subtle shift from darkness to light as over a period of a few minutes, rays of sunshine begin to steal over the horizon before the bright disc, that rounded belly of the sun itself leaps heavenward. Then its all over. Day has begun.

At certain times in my life the dawn has come too soon. I've been desperate for more sleep, for another hour in bed before the day begins. But not so now. I have never been so grateful to welcome the dawn as during those few days in hospital post surgery.

Sunrise from St George's, Tooting
In the same way that throughout history night and darkness are positioned as symbolic of evil and dread, so the sun and the dawn are portentous of hope and new life. Many cultures include the sun in their prayers and rituals; the Aztecs, Egyptians, Mayans, Celts, Buddhists, Norse and many others all have Sun Gods. Through the yogic traditions I have myself formerly practiced sun salutations to honour the new day and the source of life. 

Each day in Tooting from my window bay (yes - lucky me), I was fortunate enough to catch the sunrise over south London. Not necessarily the most aesthetically beautiful dawns, but full of personal meaning and power. For me they signified that night was over and hope could stir anew.

At this time of year we are often blessed with magnificent sunrises, their splendour amplified by autumnal colours, the chill and fog in the air. Wherever you are in the world, consider getting up a few minutes earlier to greet the sun, I promise it'll make you feel a lot better about life and about your day ahead.

Sunrise from my room in Shropshire

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