It is 4am in an unfamiliar house. I am lying in bed, listening to an episode of Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett’s Parenting Hell podcast, even though I don’t have children. It is playing so quietly that I have to strain my ears to hear it, in the hope that the effort will send me to sleep. I haven’t slept a wink so far tonight, or the night before. I get up to go to the toilet and find the handle to the bedroom door is jammed and I can’t get out of the room. I spend a good five minutes wrestling with it to no avail. I am beyond tired; I am deranged with exhaustion and frustration that my own anxious mind is keeping me from sleep. I hit breaking point and flop down onto the floor, sobbing like a baby.
I had moved into the flat two days before. It’s a lovely old Victorian ground-floor flat that my boyfriend and I were lucky to snag at the end of last year in what was clearly a quiet week on the rental market. The flat that we were leaving was the kind of awful that you only get at the bottom of the hellscape that is London’s private rented sector: covered in mould and essentially on a building site—the property-developer landlord had even installed a portaloo opposite our bedroom window. I should have been full of excitement to escape. And I was, until I realised that a previously arranged trip to Bolivia on the part of my boyfriend would mean that I would spend the first two weeks in the new flat alone.
I am so afraid of sleeping alone that it borders on a phobia. Imaginary intruders, many of whom have marched straight into my head from any mildly perilous TV show or film I’ve seen, are lining up, waiting to knock on my windows or break down my door the second I’m left on my own. I have spent the last 15 or so years trying to avoid their phantom break-ins. When my parents went away for two weeks after I moved back from university, I went up to my sister’s house in Sheffield and lingered in her spare room for as long as she would have me.
But on this occasion avoidance wasn’t an option—I had to find a way to cope with my phobia. I considered begging one of my long-suffering friends to come over and live with me for two weeks, but, although historically I’ve been a high-maintenance friend, even I knew this was too outrageous an ask. Sarah, you are a 27-year-old independent woman, I told myself. You have to be able to do this. I experimented with positive psychology, pepping myself up for the challenge. I tried a mindfulness meditation app. I took all the usual advice—avoid scary movies, stressful TV or true crime podcasts. I even delayed watching the final few episodes of The Traitors on the BBC in case the sight of the hooded figures haunted me as I closed my eyes.
None of it worked. I still ended up sobbing on the floor. But it turned out that, rather than being evidence of my failure, this spike in anxiety was a turning point after which I began to acquire what is—for most people—a basic, adult life skill. With exposure, my fear began to slowly burn itself out. I got a few hours’ sleep the next night, and a few more the one after that. I got used to the sounds of my new house, the gurgle of the pipes and the reassuring creak of the floorboards as my lovely new neighbours padded around upstairs.
It was on my fifth night of sleeping alone, a Thursday, that I knew I’d made it as an adult, when I was awoken by a loud bang outside at 6am. Instead of freezing up with fear, I calmly realised that I’d forgotten that Friday was my new bin day and was glad for the opportunity to nip outside and put mine out.