Sleep, it don’t come easy

My parents were problem sleepers. That is my diagnosis, not any medical opinion that I’m aware of.

When I was a child, my father drove a truck for what was then called the Country Roads Board, so he worked all over the place, and would sometimes have to drive to a location 2 hours away, for a 7am start. Because of this, he was uptight about getting his sleep, and would go to bed each night at about 9.30pm. God help any child who made a noise after that time and caused him to wake up!

On more than one occasion we’d realise, too late, that we’d got a bit carried away and were “in for it.” Sure enough, we’d hear the dreaded rattle of the bedroom door being angrily pushed open, and the clomp of our father striding furiously down the hall, to give whoever was responsible a “clip over the ear,” and a barked command that they shut up.

Mum, on the other hand, didn’t work in paid employment, but was a housewife with 6 kids. She would stay up late reading, but then sleep in and often have to be woken by kids wanting lunches for school. She took medication for mental illness that probably made her sleepy, and might also have been depressed, so sleep probably seemed a welcome respite from the dreariness of endless household chores for 7 other people. It wasn’t unusual for her to go back to bed after the kids were gone to school, or to have a nap in the afternoon, and still be in bed asleep, with the curtains drawn and the room blacked out, when we would arrive home from school.

Consequently I have an ambivalent relationship with sleep. That is, like my mum, I love sleep and like to get a lot of it. I can easily sleep 10 hours given the chance. However, like my dad, sleep doesn’t come as easily to me as it seems to to other people. I take a while to get to sleep, and once asleep, I’m a light sleeper, and can be woken at the slightest noise. I find it impossible to sleep at all if I know there is going to be continued interruption to my sleep. (Eg, a cat that meows at regular intervals from 5am onwards!) If my mind is too activated, I can’t sleep for hours, or even for the whole night.

Insomnia again

There have been periods where I’ve had chronic insomnia. One of those was after having a baby. This was directly related to loss of having any control over my own time, day or night. Interrupted sleep may sound trivial, but when you have a newborn baby, every moment counts as far as sleeping is concerned. At that time, before I’d even had a baby, it was usual for me to take an hour, sometimes more, to go to sleep at night, and that included after being woken up during the night. So of course, with a baby, I stress out that I needed to go to sleep immediately, because I’d probably be woken up again in an hour or two. Naturally, this made me so tense that I couldn’t sleep at all! Often I’d go to bed exhausted at about 9pm, sleep for 2-3 hours, be woken by the baby around 1am, and then be awake for the rest of the night, even while she slept.

So finally, I made a gigantic effort to get over having insomnia. I developed lots of tactics to use, and I think this is important: you need to feel empowered, and that you have lots of ways to deal with insomnia. That way, if one tactic is not successful, instead of feeling defeated, you simply try another tactic the next night. Nothing will “work” 100% of the time since it all comes down to your own alertness and state of mind. What’s important is trusting that some of them will definitely help, some of the time. This alleviates that stressful, defeated feeling that comes with insomnia, where you feel that you are facing a long period of being severely sleep deprived, night after night. Instead you see one or two nights of not sleeping as a one-off thing that inevitably happens here and there, and is nothing to get overwhelmed by. Crucially, getting this perspective will help you to be more relaxed about not sleeping, which of course, will then make it a lot more likely that you will sleep!

So: Tactics – here are some of mine.

Count backwards slowly from 100. An oldie, and admittedly boring, but hey – that’s what’s needed in this scenario! It helps!

Try to think of words beginning with “P” . That one is my own invention. Don’t ask me why. P seems like a nice, quiet, relaxing letter. When he heard this, my brother commented that trying to think of words would keep him awake, which seems logical, however I’m sure this has worked for me.

I had a cassette (!) called Sleep Better Without Drugs, by Dr. David Morawetz, that I would listen to on my walkman. His relaxation exercises (“10….you’re feeling warm, comfortable and relaxed…..9….” etc) are all spoken in a perfectly intoned, monotonous, sleep inducing voice – I recommend it. If you don’t actually drop off to sleep, you will definitely relax. And I’m sure it is now available on CD!

Get up and make a cup of tea. Although it’s hard to give up the hope that you might be “just about to go to sleep!”, it is really good to do this, as it breaks the cycle of just lying there feeling frustrated. I found once I was up, with a warm cup of tea in my hand and a book (or the tv on), I felt a certain kind of cosiness in accepting that I had the house to myself while everyone else slept.

Valerian helps (available at health food shops or supermarkets) but I tried not to use it every night, just now and then. The main reason is, as above – so that no one “tool” becomes the one I rely on, because then when it inevitably “doesn’t work” one night or two, then fear that nothing will ever help will rise up and of course then become a self-fulfulling prophecy.

Lavender oil is therapeutic and calming – try burning some in your room before going to bed, and having some on a hanky under your pillow.

A final tip that I took up at that time was a simple one – keep a diary of when you don’t sleep and how you felt the next day. I don’t know why this helped, but I think it’s because it also helps to put it into perspective. I started to see that the nights I didn’t sleep were interspersed with nights when I did sleep. Gradually, it was clear that the nights of not sleeping were becoming less frequent and were outweighed by nights I did sleep – at least 3-4 each week. I also noticed, since I had to record it, that after not sleeping I managed to function ok and, importantly, even feel ok.  I realised that if I got 4 hours straight, I actually felt quite good for most of the next day! (That was relatively a long period of unbroken sleep at that time!0 Silly as that may sound, those things are important to realise when you are stressing out about not sleeping. It’s another tactic that lessens the threat that insomnia has over you. You think “what’s the worst that can happen….I’ll feel tired!”


Eventually after quite a few months, I managed to win the war against chronic insomnia, and since that time I’ve learned to be more relaxed about sleeping! I hardly ever need to use those tactics anymore, and if I do start thinking of words that begin with “P” the next thing I know it’s morning! Of course, like most people I’ll still have trouble sleeping if I’m stressed out about something. Alternatively, (and I’m not sure if this is as common!) if my mind is too stimulated it seems to get really wired and I can’t shut it off and go to sleep. But on those nights, I now just accept that I’m going to be awake for hours, and that I’ll be a bit tired tomorrow. It can be quite relaxing to just accept that and daydream, or read. Overall, I’m much better at sleeping than I used to be.

I have to admit though, that only occasionally have I ever actually used the time to get up and write something, but I think it’s worth doing. Writing at night when it is dark outside and the world is relatively quiet and still and everyone else is asleep – it’s ideal! It’s reflective time. And you can always start by brainstorming ideas about insomnia!

PS, this post was inspired by a Plinky prompt, “What do you do when you can’t sleep?” but sometimes when I publish the post on Plinky the “sharing” option doesn’t work!

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew

     /  June 12, 2011




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