THE ENDLESS QUEST FOR A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
I used to joke that I could be jolted bolt upright awake by the sound of a meter man writing out a parking ticket, on the street ten floors below my apartment bedroom window. But the joke soon got old, as did I, and as did my desperation for a good night’s sleep.
There was probably a time when I was able to sleep. It would have been during my childhood years, I suppose. I had a good home, kind parents who never raised their voices, and we lived in a sleepy cow town where nothing ever happened and the only sound at night, besides crickets, was the soothing far-away whistle of a cross-country train—a sound I still love and yearn for today.
Sleep first became a problem when I got to law school. I was convinced that I would NEVER be able to sleep the night before an exam and would, as a result, FAIL THE EXAM, never graduate law school, never ‘amount to anything’ and die alone, penniless and homeless. I started on Valium—all that was available for sleep, back in the day—and stayed on it for years and years and years—way after its effectiveness dropped to almost zero. It was a psychotic nightmare to get unhooked from ‘mother’s little helper:’ many nights of gruesome physical reactions, a feeling that I was being electrocuted, and an alarming sensation that VERY BAD PEOPLE were there, around my bed, ready to attack and hurt me.
Miraculously weaned off the sleep aids for a few years, I got married, got a job, got a different job, got divorced, got married again, had a couple of kids, and—WAIT. Back up. Did you say “kids”? Ah, yes. Being jolted awake by a scream for a bottle, stumbling around to get one, take it to the baby, fall back into bed to be jolted awake by screams for another bottle, or from another baby, just as I was drifting into deep REM sleep (the kind your brain really needs).
Fast forward a few more sleepless decades, and my husband bought me The Sleep Book, by Ariana Huffington. I was overjoyed! She was not only a fellow sufferer but a famous one at that! She was sure to have it all figured out! Eagerly, I started to read. But I stopped at page ten, put down the book and never picked it up again. Why? Because of the following sentence: ‘I have never taken a sleeping pill.’ WHAT?! You, who claim to have broken your jaw because your head crashed to your desk because you were so exhausted! Come on! Seriously? You never, ever, begged your doctor for ‘a little something’ to help you sleep? Give me a break.
How can anyone write about insomnia without knowing, firsthand, the fuzzy confusion induced by the soft, blue Xanax; the hard, bitter pills of Lunesta and Ambien—both of which rocket you into some sort of sleep-like state with raggedly, hard-edged dreams, and a feeling of being sleep-walking all night, or maybe actually doing it?
Melatonin came along a while back and looked like the answer to an insomniac’s prayers: a harmless, inexpensive, natural substance that tricks your brain into thinking it is night, never mind that it actually IS night. USELESS. Doesn’t work; not even close. Maybe it even keeps me awake more wit it than without it. Hard to say, that’s how disappointingly useless it is.
How about Rozerem with its nutty marketing slogan: ‘Your dreams want you back.’ Remember those TV ads featuring Abe Lincoln, a talking beaver and possibly captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? More like ‘your nightmares want you back.’ I tried this only once, and the nightmares were so hellishly terrifying that I threw out the rest of my expensive prescription.
The latest one on the market, Belsomra, I tried by way of a promotional sample pack. The prescription costs $10 a pill, and I did not feel like investing that much in something that probably would not work. I got the same result as Rozerem: vivid, electrifying and ghastly nightmares so disturbing that I couldn’t wait for the drug to wear off and to stumble through yet another groggy, irritable day.
But enough about what doesn’t work. Here is what I have found works, but be warned, it’s a very tough protocol. It’s also not original: all of these rules have been thought of and written about before. But here they are, all in one place and tried and tested by a bleary-eyed warrior and survivor of decades of (mostly) sleepless nights.
No alcohol. I mean zero. I mean not even a cocktail after work or glass of wine or a beer with dinner. When I quit drinking alcohol altogether my sleep started to slowly crawl back. I am now convinced that alcohol is the greatest disturber of sleep especially in adults and even more so as we age, and much, much worse when paired with, say, an Ambien chaser or a shot of Xanax.
Turn off all devices. And keep them far away (like in another room) so you can’t grab them in the middle of night, to check your e-mail or see if someone has sent you a text. Don’t check your e-mail or texts before you go to bed either. I have tossed and turned many a night after reading some unpleasant work-related e-mail coming at me from another time zone, when least expected.
Don’t leave the TV on. Even better, banish it from your bedroom. Even with the sound off or on low, the vivid, blue light, flashing images will distract and rattle your brain all night. I don’t allow anything that emits light in the room at all, and I even cover up the clock, so I can’t obsessively check the time all night long and panic about how late it is and how HELLISH THE NEXT DAY WILL BE IF I DON’T GET TO SLEEP RIGHT NOW!
Sleep in a cold room. But keep your feet and the rest of you warm and toasty. I blast the AC on all night in summer, and sleep without the heat on, or set the thermostat to 68 degrees, max, in winter. I pile on the blankets, wear flannel pajamas and cozy bed socks. Nobody sees me anyway. See the next point.
Sleep alone. Like number one (no alcohol) this can be really a tough challenge if you are married or in a relationship with someone who loves to cuddle and is offended by the idea that you NEED to sleep alone. THIS IS NOT PERSONAL. IT IS A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL. And they need to understand that and still love you for it. If you possibly can (and I know it is a true luxury) have your own bedroom that you can set up exactly as you like, and need, it to be. You won’t be accidentally kicked in the night, have the covers pulled off you, be awakened when someone else gets up to go to the bathroom, or starts to snore. (Nose pinchers, nasal passage openers, mouthguards and electric pillows do nothing to stop the lifelong snorer, so don’t waste your money.) The Royals famously sleep in separate rooms, as do most people who have the luxury of two bedrooms—at least so I suspect. If it’s good enough for the Royals, it’s good enough for me. Cuddle together or do whatever else you need or want to do, for an hour or so in the evening, then retreat to your own peaceful, cool and quiet rooms to catch your badly-needed ZZZs.
If you can’t have your own room, sleep in the living room, out on the sun porch, even in the bathtub if you have to. Just kidding on that last one. It won’t work because it would be too small and too hard to be comfortable (and might also bring on coffin/buried-alive nightmares); climbing out of it to use the toilet would be an acrobatic stunt sure to get your muscles and brain firing on all pistons; you might fall, and your significant other might need to use the bathroom too. You can’t add insult to injury by insisting that he or she use a chamber pot. Probably a bridge too far.
Read something mind-numbingly boring, or very pleasant, in PRINT FORM. Do not read anything on any of your devices, that’s number one. No blue light allowed. In the former category, I’m a fan of really dull bulletins and magazines from the State Bar. For the latter, I recommend pleasant, pretty things like gardening, cooking or decorating magazines. But be wary of those that might inspire you to think, as in: Hey, that idea could really work for the guest bedroom! DO NOT, under any circumstances, read any book about politics, heath concerns (including the AARP magazine), realistic thrillers, horrible true-life stories, or anything else that might possibly be exciting, scary or thought-provoking, including, and most importantly, any book or article about sleep! Sleep is what your evil mind wants you to think and worry about, so that you never get any, but you are the boss here, not your mind. Kill that thought before it hatches.
NOTHING THAT CALLS YOU TO ACTION, IS YOUR GOAL HERE. (Not even tips on stain removal are allowed.)
Keep a scratch pad and pen beside your bed. Do not keep these in a bedside table drawer, since pulling it open and digging these things out will arouse you too much. If you really do (accidentally) think of something important that you fear you’ll forget, scratch it down, but do not turn on the light to do it. I have gotten very good at writing down stuff in the dark. In the morning, it’s barely legible, but it’s legible enough that I can make out and remember what that important thought was. Scribbling it down even in some kind of messy short-hand, enables me to put it out of my mind and get back to the next point, which is by far the most important.
Practice mind control. My mind is evil. Yours probably is too. It likes to bring up unpleasant subjects when it’s dark outside and just as I’m getting ready for bed. Death is the most popular one; followed by how my parents died and what I should or could have done better for them as they aged. Are both of my adult children really okay? Work issues are always a reliable fallback: a complaint from a client or customer, say, or something I forgot to do that I might get sued over. Money? There’s always that. Can I afford to retire, ever? How much will I owe the IRS this year? CLIMATE CHANGE. WORLD WAR THREE. THE NEXT ELECTION. MASS SHOOTINGS. If none of these reliable old favorites make you toss and turn, surely there is something a friend or relative did or said that hurt or annoyed you—a real or perceived slight that can make your thoughts whirl on and keep your adrenaline pumping. You need to stamp these out, crush them! Shut your mind up, any way you can, even if you have to be extremely rude and use bad language to do it. And if you get up and have to go to the bathroom, do not, I repeat do not, think about anything, especially WHAT IF I CAN’T GET BACK TO SLEEP NOW?? HOW HORRIBLE WILL TOMORROW BE???