By James Somper
A man who has been an insomniac for nearly 50 years believes the condition has actually been a BLESSING – because it has allowed him to live a secret second life.
Neil Epstein, 54, sleeps an average of 20 minutes a night and can frequently go without any sleep at all for as much as 48 hours at a time.
But the married dad-of-four, from New Barnet, North London, believes his waking hours have given him an extra two years of consciousness each decade which most people will never have.
In this time, he’s been able to learn how to play the piano, write poetry and short stories, make his own art and even learn French.
Retail worker Neil said: “I rarely sleep more than 20 minutes at a time.
“If I’m lucky I’ll get an hours sleep a night and at least one night a week I go without sleep entirely. Sometimes it can be 48 hours at a time.
“I’d say on average I get about 10 hours sleep a week and I can be awake for 36 hours.
“But that’s probably given me an extra two years of consciousness every decade.
“For this reason, my insomnia has actually been a positive thing in lots of ways – I’ve never looked at it as a negative.
“It’s given me many opportunities, whereas most people don’t have the time.
“I’m always there for people when they need to call me at 3am, and it’s allowed me to write my own poetry and music.
“So if anyone ever says to me ‘oh dear, how sad’ I say no, it’s an advantage and it’s been a blessing.”
Neil first started to experience insomnia aged six, but wasn’t formally diagnosed until he was twelve.
Despite the stressful diagnosis, as a teenager he started to notice the positive benefits of his condition.
As a young father, he would frequently take the ‘night shift’ and look after his young children, James 13, Sophie 16, Charlotte, 23, and Ben, 24 leaving his wife Julia, 52, to sleep peacefully.
Neil said that despite having had the condition for most of his life, he has always been private about it and said that it took him months to tell his now wife that he had it at all.
Now, despite the couple having to sleep in separate bedrooms so Neil doesn’t disturb her during his waking hours, he insisted it doesn’t have a negative impact on their relationship.
He said: “My mother noticed it when I was about six-years old, she thought it was just a phase I was just going through.
“After a year it was more than that and around the age of seven I realised that something was wrong. Eventually, I was diagnosed.
“Growing up wasn’t easy. There wasn’t lot a of support for insomnia, I was very short tempered and there were some times where I would bang my head against the wall to try and knock myself out.
“My mum used to fret all the time about it and she asked the doctor for sleeping tablets to see if I could get a week’s sleep.
“For that week it worked but I was a complete zombie. I don’t really remember it and it took me 10 days to get back to feeling normal.
“At parties I was always the last person to leave which was always an advantage so I always had more energy than most. Despite all the frustration I was very, very happy.
“I remember being in a nightclub and dancing all night before starting work at 6am and going straight in and I felt as right as rain.
“I always had a good time because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting home to get sleep. I was always the designated the driver on long drives too.
“Julia and I have just made it work and it’s never really been an issue for us apart from me waking her up.
“When the kids were young it was really beneficial because I always did the nightshift and looked after them while she slept, it was perfect.
“One of the advantages was that I could always be there to pick her up and take her to work early in the morning.
“It’s been a positive thing because it meant that I could always be there for her.”
Neil has tried various therapies and treatments to stop his insomnia – such as acupuncture, yoga and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Doctors even tried to reset his body clock using medication, but nothing worked.
He now occasionally self-medicates with a small dose of sleeping pills, which gives him an extra hour of sleep a day.
But he said if he never slept properly again he’d be perfectly happy as he has given up on finding a cure for the condition.
And he believes apart from feeling tired from time to time, he suffers from no adverse health as a result of his insomnia.
He said: “I’m just carrying on, this is my life and the way that I exist and I’ve always got a smile on my face.
“I don’t mind the lack of sleep, it’s just something I tolerate very well after all these years.”