Joseph O'Donoghue is a patient treated at the Woolcock Clinic for insomnia by our psychologist Dianne Richards. His sessions with Dianne inspired him to write about his experience. Please read his story below.
For the past ten years or so, I’ve been a horrible sleeper. Often waking up numerous times throughout the night, I finally bit the bullet recently and organised an appointment with a sleep doctor.
Surprisingly, rather than being strung up to monitors and reported on - the doctor simply sat me down and provided me with a fascinating education on the natural patterns of sleep. Thankfully, she reassured me, my problems were easily correctable. Apparently, I wasn’t a naturally bad sleeper at all - but rather had just developed some poor sleeping habits along the way.
The solution, I was told, was simple. Learn to relax for a few hours before bedtime. But more powerfully, whenever possible, get out of bed at the same time each day and a spend little bit of time in the morning light.
For the morning sunlight, it seems, is one of the best natural facilitators of that ‘happy hormone’, serotonin. By exposing our eyes to the dawn - this body-clock recalibrating chemical helps our brains to wash away the sleep-supporting melatonin, and makes us feel more optimistic and more awake.
So, with an ambition to correct all of my disastrous sleeping habits - I bought a very loud alarm clock (sans snooze button) and committed myself to embracing some more regular morning light.
The problem was though that this new proposed behaviour was utterly at odds with my moral code. Having moved back from overseas last year, one of the first things I noticed about Sydney was it’s uncouth obsession for early starts. I was jaded by Sydney’s passion for the dawn. I loved a good sleep in, couldn’t understand why everyone got up so damn early and often found myself scoffing about it to friends.
After all, I learnt overseas, sophisticated Europe seemed to be perfectly happy with a later start to the day. And after all too, weren’t they meant to be the cultured and more balanced ones?
As I observed the frenetic Sydney morning, I couldn’t help but feel that I was surrounded by a city full of neurotic “hard bods”, motivating themselves into the morning light just to squeeze in a bit more body sculpting before the working day ahead. It was simply not my style.
However - after just a few days into my morning ‘prescription’ - it all suddenly clicked.
A light bulb switched on upstairs. All of a sudden, I understood Sydney's fascination with the early starts and I became irrevocably addicted to it. The infant morning sunlight dancing upon the water, the friendly smiles of the ‘dawners’ and the noticeable increase in serotonin - quickly swept me off my feet. After many years away, I was once again seduced.
As a coastal city that directly faces East, it seems no matter where you are in Sydney - the morning sunlight has a very special way of poking its eyes over the near horizon and making our urban landscape seem magical.
I couldn’t tell you what single ingredient of the cocktail got me hooked, but I fear that it may have been all of it. There is a peacefulness and quiet in the Sydney morning that you can’t experience at any other time. When the weather’s good, the sun illuminates native colours that tightrope walk between and the subtle and the bold. And whatever mood you awake in, the dawn is always celebrated by a symphony of happy lorrakeets, cockatoos and kookaburras. All of your senses are awakened and stimulated. It’s nothing less than a gift.
The European quality of life is often attributed to a better balance of socialising and the actual ‘living of life’, during the working week. Where the Europeans long lunch, local pub or late dinner - I had always assumed that Sydney people bottled up their weekday life, only to let it pour out everywhere on the weekends.
However, I’ve come to realise that our much needed weekday ‘stretch out’ may indeed be our charismatic mornings. Perhaps it's just that we balance things out a little in reverse. Perhaps it's just that we balance things in a way that better suits us and our city.
And just as Sydney is beautiful in the mornings, it is also a whole lot friendlier. The dawn brings with it a local charm that seems to quietly dissipate as the angle of the sun rises.
Dog walkers chat as their barking mutts wrestle. Beach swimmers towel dry in the sand and talk sea temperature. Surfers sit on boards, wait for waves, and watch the rising sun together. The hard bods congregate, compete and sculpt in the open spaces. Friends or couples sip rich coffee and gossip under the “clackity clack” backdrop of the coffee machine as the baristas call out customers’ names.
I think my favourite thing, though, are the friendly little morning “hellos”. The polite nods, the acknowledgement with eyes and the shy warm smiles. And the earlier the hour, the more affinity you feel in the passing greeting. The more enthusiastic the “morning!” is exclaimed with. It as if the unsaid translation of this passing salute is actually meant to be: “Oh! you’re out here early like me? Isn’t it wonderful.”
And the more I involved myself in the Sydney morning, the more I began to realise that the sunlight, serotonin and morning sounds have dripped deep into the Sydney psyche. The morning owns a chunk of our unique culture. From an early age, we develop a deep and intrinsic relationship with it. It gets into our bloodstream and forms part of what it means to grow up here. It injects sensorial memories into every local’s ‘suitcase-of-the-subconscious’, which they happily carry with them wherever they go.
Whenever I arrive back at Kingsford Smith early in the morning, it is this home-coming time that swells me with the most resonance. Driving home from the airport just after the sun is up, when Sydney’s eyes are only just opening - I feel my whole body fill with excitement at the reality of really being back home.
So - has the prescription of sunlight been the silver-bullet sleep soother, promised? I still toss and turn, but I have noticed a vast improvement - which I’m happier about.
The thing I’m most content with, though, is my rediscovery of Sydney mornings.
They not only fill my day with a serotonin-filled calm. They have also reinvigorated my love for my beautiful home town. They’ve made me realise that Sydney actually does have it’s own special way to live, and that the mornings here are nothing less than a gift. A gift whose ingredients I have not encountered anywhere else. A gift that is celebrated best by being embraced, and a gift that only a fool would scoff at.