One woman’s epic attempt to quiet her mind and get just one good night of sleep.
April 1, 2011: My brain is not in cahoots with my body. This knowledge has come to me late in life. I naively thought they’d work together, since each semi-depends upon the other for the overall happiness of the creature known as Laura. The body needs to sleep, but the brain is all too willing—indeed, it diabolically wishes—to thwart that which it needs. How silly of me to think they would want peace!
April 9: Things I have tried to combat insomnia: acupuncture, acupressure, cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription drugs, natural drugs, meditation, other drugs, more therapy, reading boring books, staying up late, going to bed early, giving up coffee, giving up alcohol, drinking tea, drinking disgusting tea, drinking milk, exercising in the morning, turning down the temperature, begging my brain, ignoring my brain. I spend the majority of my day trying to foster sleep. No luck: So far my brain has outsmarted all attempts to get what it supposedly needs.
April 10: After 10 years of resisting, I finally decide to visit a sleep specialist. I walk in with my notebook of medical papers and research and announce, “Whatever you do, do not tell me about ‘good sleep hygiene habits’ because that is like telling a person with a migraine to take a baby aspirin, and I may kill you if you do that.” The specialist nods graciously.
He ends up saying exactly what I expected: I don’t have apnea or restless leg syndrome; I have traditional chronic insomnia. We banter around phrases such as “arousal threshold” and “homeostatic mechanisms” and discuss various “sleep restriction programs.” He suggests I try hypnotic sleep medications. I’m an all-natural gal, and I avoid most medications. But I realize there’s something to be said for “quality of life” and “not being grumpy to important and good people, such as your children and husband.” This pharmaceutical, the specialist assures me, works like a dream. I take the prescription and leave.
May 30: True insomniacs—people diagnosed with psychophysiological insomnia—either can’t get to sleep or can’t stay asleep for no apparent reason. They lie down and their brains whir. Indeed, daydreaming is part of my problem. I seem to have a deep-seated need to watch myself (as the star, of course) in thousands of different scenarios. Last night, instead of sleeping, I daydreamed about winning a Pulitzer for my essay about insomnia.
June 1: Early summer in Colorado brings a beautiful night sky. Luckily, I have two. My bedroom ceiling glows with white stars that “come out” when I turn off my lamp and gaze up from my pillow. My house’s previous owner painted them on, invisible by day and glittering at night. With painstaking detail, this person got the constellations, from the points and streaks of light to the spaces between them, just right. The phosphorescent flecks dim after a while as the paint stops re-emitting the light it’s absorbed.
I turn my attention to the real stars hovering over the small skylight in my bedroom. An airplane or satellite sometimes crosses my rectangle view, but mostly it is the stars, and since I live in the Rocky Mountain foothills, they’re “country bright.” They don’t fade, and I appreciate their intensity, their company, their fiery energy burning with my own. Because I have a long night ahead of me.
June 7: I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote, “Our daydreams tell us the extent to which we are not living.” Clarity is what I crave. If I’m not alive, what the heck is my brain doing up there? Enough already! I’m living as best I can!
June 8: Honest to God, I wish my brain and I could get a divorce.
June 19: My 19th wedding anniversary. My husband has been putting up with my insomnia for 10 of those years. That’s OK. I’ve been putting up with his ability to fall asleep in three seconds for 19 years. We find each other so wildly irritating in this regard that we can probably get through anything together.
August 12: Sleep research tells us that chronic insomnia has an “instigating event.” I’ve been pondering that for 10 years. My daughter is 10. Perhaps there were hormonal changes during my pregnancy with her; perhaps the graveyard feeding shifts just threw me into a permanent loop. But tonight I have an epiphany: That was also the year that a family member started showing signs of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Perhaps my brain won’t fall asleep because it needs to stay on the alert. It must “watch” itself to make sure it doesn’t “lose” itself. So I say to my brain, “Brain, are you worried you have schizophrenia? You don’t. Please let yourself sleep. Let yourself go.” It doesn’t work.
September 19: For the first time in years, I fall asleep without much trouble, without drugs, without a lot of hubbub. I just conk out. The reason? I have the flu. I’m vomiting every two hours, but I sleep in between the pukes. What a relief!
October 30: Autumn begins its fade into winter, which is always the hardest season, even when I’ve added melatonin to my diet. Again, I ask my brain for a divorce. “Hello Brain,” I say. “You sure are busy up there. You can take whatever you want—all the money, the CDs, the pets. Just sign the papers. Please, I am begging you. I don’t like you anymore.” The predominant theory of sleep is that the brain demands it. So why won’t mine?
November 2: My therapist encourages me to make better friends with my brain, suggests that maybe couples counseling is preferable to divorce. I’m dubious. Last year, she encouraged me to end a “toxic friendship.” I did, and I felt much better afterward. What’s the difference?
My therapist also urges me to quit catastrophizing the lack of sleep. It’s not really so bad, is it, to be tired? She’s wrong. It really is bad; the sloggy hell of exhaustion is horrible. “I am not catastrophizing,” I tell her. “I am simply being observant.”
She changes tactics: She wants me to think about my sleep problems as manageable, even solvable. “Okeydoke,” I tell her. “But that seems to run counter to all evidence.” Perhaps she and I should get a divorce instead.
December 24: Well, no one wants to sleep tonight anyway. We agnostic humanists still have Santa Claus to keep an eye out for.
March 12, 2012: I may have passed on this particular genetic trait to my daughter, who also is becoming anxious because she can’t fall asleep. It makes me so very sorry. There is a highly genetic component to many forms of sleep disorders, but I haven’t told her this because I’m hoping she can trick her brain into believing that she’s not predisposed. There is even a rare disease called “fatal familial insomnia” in which people can’t sleep at all, and then they die. According to National Geographic, “the syndrome usually strikes when the sufferer is in his or her 50s, ordinarily lasts about a year, and, as the name indicates, always ends in death.” Oh, Brain. Suffering is serious stuff, and you’re culpable.
April 1: At last, a cure. Actually, that’s just a bad April Fools’ joke. One year has passed. Hopefully there’s still a vault of time ahead of me—not just long, sleepless nights, but life itself. Which means, I suppose, there’s still time to achieve peace. “Hello, Brain,” I say. “Would you like to work on a peace accord?”
No answer. All I can do is keep trying.