Remember those Saturdays as a teenager when it was so wonderful to sleep in after a hard week at school? There were times when I didn’t lift my head until noon or even one in the afternoon. Back then I had no trouble sleeping. I didn’t need a good mattress or ambient sound to fall asleep. If there was a flat surface I was good to go. It wasn’t until I became a mom that my slumber habits began to change. Those feedings in the middle of the night roused me just enough that I was able to find my way to the crib and then to a rocking chair that my mother-in-law had given me. I’d sit there in the dark listening to music and nursing my baby girl sometimes wondering if I was dreaming, sleep walking or actually in the process of taking care of my child. I often believe that my children actually began sleeping through the night at some point because I was so sleep deprived that one night I simply did not hear their cries and so their habit of waiting until morning to demand food was born.
Somehow my life as a mom slowly but surely changed my daily rituals in all regards. I slept with one eye open and a heightened sense of hearing that alerted me to any sound or movement that occurred in the dark of night. For years I went to bed late and woke up early but I was still able to enjoy a heavy sleep that gave me enough REMs to function during the waking hours. Then when I was about forty years old my internal clock began to change drastically. For reasons that no one has been able to explain I became an insomniac. There were nights when I would lie awake, tossing and turning and watching the numbers on the clock as they glowed defiantly at me. The passing hours mocked me and increased my anxiety because I knew that I could not halt their progress and soon enough I would have to rise to prepare for my job. I became like the walking dead at times, existing on virtually no sleep for days until I eventually crashed into a state of utter exhaustion.
Over the years my insomnia only became worse and worse. I tried so many homespun remedies. Some of them worked for a time but always I would revert to the sleepless nights in spite of my best efforts. I tried exercising, eating a healthy diet, avoiding caffeine, listening to relaxing music, taking sleep aids. It was all to little or no avail. I simply grew accustomed to existing with far less rest than doctors recommend. I empathized with others who shared my problem and learned that it is a trait that runs deep within my extended family. I commiserated with friends who also suffer from this ailment and we offered one another tips that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Somehow I managed to pass through two decades in a chronically tired state and still appear to be energetic. Ultimately I retired and surprisingly found the relief for which I had long been searching.
Nowadays if I can’t sleep at a certain time of night I have the luxury of being able to rise from my bed and quietly occupy my mind with writing, reading, searching the Internet or watching late night television. I don’t have places to go or appointments to keep in the mornings so if I defer my bed time for awhile it makes little difference. I let my body tell me when it it best to settle in for a repose and it works like a charm. It may be two or three in the morning before my mind relaxes enough to succumb to dreams. Then I sleep like the proverbial baby, Since I am able to stay in bed until any hour that I choose I am never worried that I will soon be interrupted by an alarm. Sleep is perhaps the most glorious gift that I have received in a very long time.
I felt a strange affinity with Michael Jackson because he apparently was unable to slumber without assistance. I felt his pain. It made me quite sad that the simple act of dreaming was all but impossible for him without resorting to extreme measures that ultimately took his life. His was such a creative mind and I suspect that he was never able to turn off the thoughts that constantly ran through his brain. I know that when I was teaching I often mentally rehearsed my lessons or worried about particular students. I was haunted by situations that made life for my kids less than perfect and I was determined to set things right. Thus the wheels of my thinking processes whirred all night long. I suspect that for Michael Jackson nighttime was similar. When the noises of the world grew quiet the chattering in his head only increased.
I know young people who are still decades away from being able to retire. Telling them that they will finally be able to sleep better when they stop working is hardly a solution. I think that it is worth investing some time to find a way to relax. My daughter tells me that her Sleep Number bed has been like a miracle. It cost her an arm and a leg but she insists that it is well worth the investment. I would suggest also installing room darkening shades in the sleep area and avoiding food and drink after a certain hour of the night although for some a nice glass of red wine is often enough to bring the Sandman. Exercise is great but don’t do it too close to bedtime. Find some activity that really makes you calm. A warm bath with candles and low lights can put you into a more restful state of mind. Experiment and keep a sleep diary so that you can determine which kind of situations appear to lead to more comfortable nights.
I wish that the world were more flexible in its operation. The vast majority of people do quite nicely on a schedule determined by the sun. They rise early each morning without even setting an alarm. They fall blissfully to sleep in the early evening. They cannot conceive of people like me who march to a completely different drummer. They insist that all of us get to work just after sunrise and follow a rigid routine. I, on the other hand, have always felt that things should be more flexible. I find nothing wrong with the idea of allowing children to choose their school hours from a menu. Those who prefer starting later would simply stay later. I’m certain that there would be teachers who also enjoy a start time more in keeping with their internal clocks. My brother has worked on the projects of his job in the middle of the night for years, only arriving early for meetings or special presentations. He does his best programing and computing when the rest of society is soundly tucked in bed. Because nobody is dependent on his presence at a certain time he is able to create the hours that work best for him. I suspect that there are many occupations that are conducive to a bit more creativity in setting hours.
We all need sleep. It is as much a part of healthful living as diet and physical activity. We have to maintain balance and harmony. Our bodies and our minds need regular rest time to regenerate. Our decision making and our temperaments are always better after a sleep filled night. For those of you who endure chronic insomnia I wish you the best. I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. Luckily I made it to the promised land. It is such a wonderful feeling to be able to sleep once again.