Why Toyah Willcox refuses to take sleeping pills despite suffering from insomnia for 36 years

From the age of 14, Toyah Willcox has suffered from chronic insomnia.

Most nights she has just four hours' sleep, much of it broken, and she has become used to starting her day at 4am, having given up on sleep in despair. 

Over the years she's resorted to a whole range of remedies, and at one stage became addicted to sleeping pills. 

"Exhaustion, stress and being unable to fall asleep became a part of who I am," she says, 'but it was like having a secret life, one that the people around me would not understand. It can make you feel very lonely." 

Toyah is speaking for the first time about her battle with insomnia as part of a special edition of ITV's Tonight With Trevor McDonald. The programme investigates the growing number of people seeking help for sleep problems and uncovers an unregulated internet trade in sleeping tablets and sedatives. Drugs, including the sedative temazepam (linked to the death of actor Heath Ledger), can be easily purchased - many are highly addictive, as Toyah discovered through bitter experience. 

Her battle with insomnia started when she was growing up in Birmingham. 

"I was in the middle of my O-levels and finding it very stressful, not least because I am dyslexic. 

"Permanent anxiety about achieving good results kept me awake, so I downed flu remedies to try to go to sleep. 

"My mum and sister also struggle to sleep so there could be a genetic link. 

"I reached the point of sleeping only a couple of hours at night, then feeling exhausted and stressed during the day." 

She left school at 17, working in theatre and playing live gigs. 

"I built a lifestyle around the fact that I was awake at night," she says. 

"Going on stage could be at any time, from 7.30pm to 2am. There wasn't time to sleep. 

"I have a lot of natural energy that kept me going, even when the insomnia left me physically shattered." 

Toyah adds: "In those days, doctors had no qualms about handing out pills, especially the private doctors I saw. 

"When I was 25 I was prescribed temazepam to help me sleep. It worked immediately. 

"For the first time in years, I was sleeping a full eight hours. 

"Unfortunately I became dependent and over time the pills were less effective. 

"After two years I decided I didn't want to be controlled by the pills. 

"I was performing my songs on Top Of The Pops, my acting career was incredibly successful and I wanted to continue taking control of my life. 

"This included giving up alcohol and switching to a vegetarian diet. 

"I didn't want to do anything to compromise my immune system or alter my mood in any way, whether with food, drink or medication." 

She decided to stop taking the sleeping pills literally overnight. 

"I had no idea how hard it would be. The worst aspect was the boredom, with your body heavy with fatigue but your mind still buzzing away. 

"You are not really awake enough to concentrate on reading, and in the early hours, particularly then before the advent of the internet and a more widespread 24-hour culture, there was so little to do. 

"I gritted my teeth, got on with my job and was incredibly relieved when I found myself able to shut my eyes and sleep, if only for a few hours, 14 days after I took my last sleeping pill. 

After that, never again." After her alarming experience with sleeping pills, Toyah was shocked to see how easy it was to buy such drugs on the internet. 

For Toyah, the problems did not end with giving up the sleeping pills because the insomnia remained. 

"I hadn't known what a decent night's sleep felt like since I was 14." 

Marriage in 1986 to guitarist Robert Fripp, now 61, brought a new set of sleep issues. 

"My insomnia meant I was pacing the house, with him trying to persuade me to go to bed at a reasonable time. 

"But when I did go to bed there was Robert's terrible snoring. 

"Bless him, he's tried everything, including an operation on his nose, but he still snores like an earthquake and wakes both of us up." 

Over the past 36 years, Toyah has tried many ways to induce sleep, including lavender oil massages and listening to "wave" sounds. 

"Nothing has made any difference," she admits. 

"I count four hours as a good night's sleep. 

"I rarely go to sleep before 1am, and I'm often awake again by 4am. 

"The best quality sleep I have is between 8am and 10am, and if I have that I usually feel refreshed," she adds. To see if there was another solution, Toyah, who is 50 this year, investigated a range of sleep remedies for the Tonight programme. 

These included sleep pods being trialled at a Manchester call centre. 

The pods, which look like a cross between an egg-shaped chair and a day bed, enclose the sleeper and block out light and sound. 

She tried one and found it did induce a 20-minute power nap. 

"I was incredibly sceptical but it worked." 

But she is resigned to the fact she is "programmed" not to sleep. 

Dr John Shneerson, director of the Sleep Centre at Papworth Hospital, Cambridgeshire, says those with long-term sleep problems can find their insomnia is intractable. 

"The longer a person has been living with sleep deprivation, the longer it will take to find ways to treat it," he says. 

"It was Robert who recognised that I have a phobia about going to sleep," says Toyah. 

"I fight the signs of sleep by avoiding going to bed. 

"It's true, I see sleep a waste of time. I rarely want to go to bed because I find it boring. 

"I am naturally up and busy and that's how I am happiest. 

But the problem with insomnia is that too many of your waking hours are spent feeling as if you have jet lag." 

Unlike many insomniacs, her health doesn't appear to have been affected. 

Intriguingly, for Toyah, through the TV programme she discovered a trial drug designed to keep people awake indefinitely, apparently without side-effects. 

"If such a pill was ever available, I'd take it like a shot." 

Meanwhile she is keen to concentrate on the positive side of spending so much time awake. 

"I have at least four more hours every day in which to achieve my aims. The internet has been a godsend. 

"I've built up a multi-million pound property empire overseas, traded stocks and shares and built up my financial knowledge because I'm awake in the small hours. 

"No-one would want to have their mind busy at 4am and their body exhausted, but I think there's a case for making the best of it." 

•TONIGHT With Trevor McDonald: ITV1, Friday, 8pm.

Daily Mail
8th April 2008