How I finally got to sleep

I thought I would get back into blog-writing with a bit of an update on something I have blogged about over the last few years. The fact that I slept for 13 hours from Saturday night to Sunday morning reminded me that I hadn't talked about my insomnia in a long time. And while I will never feel like I am safe from it's return, I have found a way to almost eliminate it. Yay.

I experienced a little chicken/egg conundrum with the insomnia. Was I not sleeping because I was having a bad time or was I having a bad time because I was not sleeping? The answer, I found, was yes. I know that now because I feel like I am in the clear. Well, I kind of decided to be in the clear and did what I needed to do to get here but that is a different post for a different blog. It didn't really matter if the insomnia was the illness or the symptom. At some point you have to take control and do something about it regardless. You know why? Because it sucks. And it will eat your life.It took a big healthy bite out of mine and it's hard for me to look back and not blame it for things that happened. Chicken or egg? Who cares?

During my almost 8 (?) months of insomnia, I got a lot of advice on what to do. The deep sleepers recommend something like warm milk (oh really? Why hadn't *I* thought of that?) and many of the fellow insomniacs would tell me about the little pill that did the trick for them. The idea of a sleeping pill never really appealed to me. I am too much of a control freak to want to take something that is possibly addicting. I had a bunch of pills left over from that weird neck injury and just didn't want to go there. To me, it would be trading one problem for another. That wouldn't feel like a step forward. I know that people were trying to help.

What I was willing to medicate was what is commonly referred to as "monkey mind". You know when you are flying and you are about to land and you hear the engine power down so you know you are essentially on the ground before you actually touch down? My brain thinks that is a lovely idea but just can't do it. The whirring continues regardless of whether there is anything of interest to focus on. What I was able to do was eliminate one of the many factors that makes it hard for me to go to sleep. That was a small, but important, part of the battle.

Remember that long list of remedies that people posted in the comments on a previous insomnia post? That big long list? That list represents a bunch of different reasons why some people can't go to sleep. Some of the things I tried worked not much at all; melatonin, ocean sounds. But what I was finally able to do was to connect the dots. My epiphany came when I started to think about how I feel like a happy-shiny freak on sunny days. I almost annoy myself on those days. So I started to pursue some light related (both weather specific and circadian) strategies. I'd try something and if it worked a little, I'd keep it and add on more things. Over time, what I was doing is replicating natural, normal light and dark cycles. Who knew I was so simple? I would have made for a good pioneer except for all the complaining about my bad manicure and having to wear ugly shoes.

Turns out that all this stuff I was trying had a name: light therapy. And along with the monkey mind medication (for you fans of alliteration or simians...I mean fans of simians), I had a winning formula. I do wonder if I am still catching up on my sleep. They say that when you have insomnia, you run a "sleep deficit" that you must pay back. Given that I went through 8 months of it (not getting to sleep, not sleeping deeply and waking up continuously throughout the night), it's conceivable that I am still chipping away at it. But I feel great. I have to tell you that it is sunny out right now, so I may be extra shiny today.

This is what I do to make myself sleep like a normal human: first thing in the morning, get in front of the light box (telling my body "time to wake up and be happy"). Then as late afternoon arrives, my light timers come on at home. I put a dimmer on all of the lights so it actually feels like it's getting later in the day. I really try to be careful about how much TV I watch because the blue light is what can keep you awake. I try to do most of my watching on the weekends, but I am not always so successful. I cut down on the reading in bed. Crazy, I know, but reading requires light. No bright lights, not even in the bathroom. Limited computer time, etcetera. Then, sleep in a room with blackout curtains. Those are my Fakey McLight cycles. Totally works too.

There's some other random/basic stuff like not exercising too late in the day and limiting caffeine. But that is it. It's turned out to be pretty simple. Another thing that I think really helped me is building confidence as a sleeper. I know this sounds ridiculous. But going to bed with the expectation of sleep versus the dread of another bad night totally makes a difference. And I think that what it is allowing me to do right now is put the insomnia in a box and hide it away, because it's not part of my life anymore. I am able to look back at how life "was" and see the difference in how it "is", in many respects. And I am so relieved. Not just for the lack of suckage but because things are good. Phew.

This ends our series of blog posts on insomnia...I hope.

Comments (11)

  1. Joe Enos says:

    Congratulations on kicking the insomnia and making things right again.  I can’t imagine going through that for more than a couple of days.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Thanks Joe!

  3. AJB says:

    I don’t know if this might be useful to you, since I don’t know how much time you spend on your computer at night, but a friend of mine just wrote it, and you might want to try it out:

    A free little tool, it automatically adjusts the color and brightness of your monitor over the course of the day, so that it’s brighter during the day and warmer at night.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    AJB – very cool! Thanks for sharing the link. I’ll have to check it out and see if it turns down the blue light or just the light in general (I suppose it has the same effect either way…I guess I want to know how it works :))

  5. Paul says:

    I totally believe in light rhythms, but doing all the stuff you do would keep me awake wondering whether I’d forgotten to do something.  Lucky that I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime (except for those times when being awake is useful, like driving, or doing a sales presentation).

    We North Americans make ourselves sick with crazy Protestant work ethics that demand getting up two hours or more before the sun, after staying up too late to party or get our work done, and forcing ourselves into sleep deprivation patterns that aren’t so different from your insomnia.  Wouldn’t it just be better to admit that we are just like other animals, and get up with the sun and retire with the sunset?

    You sound happy, relieved, and nicer to be around. Not a bad combo.  Maybe your boss will notice and give you a raise too.

  6. Kate says:

    Congratulations on figuring out that light therapy is your tool that works.

    As a working mother, I indulge in the occassional dose of Nyquil or Benedryl to get me over the edge, but I have also found that reading a chapter of a compelling book before I go to sleep helps my mind get off the ever unfinished "to do list" of life.

    Still, I cna understand how a little light bath in the depth of a dark and cold winter would help me too!

  7. mrscrooge says:

    Nice going Hamilton! I’d been having the best sleep of my life recently after taking a break from alcohol. I can’t give up coffee though (strange how thats much harder – and I used to go out pretty much every nite!) but I’ve never felt physically better. Oh and the sleep mask definitely helps me get that extra hour of deep sleep!

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul, it’s easier than you would think. I dont really have to do much of anything other than turn the light box on.

    I must have missed out on the Protestant work ethic thing. I just work to get my job done, sleep when I am tired and wake when I am rested (when U am not having trouble with the insomnia). Guess that makes me not a Protestant (oh well…I wasn’t one anyway).

    Kate, yeah, your thing might be the need to wind down physically. A compelling book would do the opposite for me. Humans are strange creatures!

    mrscrooge – I am thinking of giving up the alcohol too. I have cut way back due to the insomnia, but I think that cutting it out altogether might be a good plan. It’s part of my transition ritual between work and rest and I’m not sure I need it anymore.

  9. Wine-oh says:

    Im all about the blackout shades. They make a huge difference. My brother calls my bedroom the sensory deporvation chamber. My apt has windows on 3 sides and the sun is really bright as it reflects off other buildings. So sunrise and sunset and my apt lights up like a christmas tree. I have semi blackouts in the rest of the apt. I too also keep lights dim and resolution on the computer on the lowest setting. I do have the tv on too much, but mostly for noise. (I am in between jobs and home alot right now). When I sleep elsewhere (my folks house, hotels), my sleep is not as well rested as the room is not pitch black.

  10. --Lisa says:

    Do you use a dawn simulator alarm?  I am trying to decide if they really work.  I think it should but I’m leery of the $150 for an alarm clock with a lightbulb on it, you know?

    Yes, I was up until 2:30 am last night. <sigh>

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    Lisa – I haven’t tried one yet. I feel the same as you. I wonder. I haven’t heard from anyone that has tried one and had it wirk so until I do, I think I will remain skeptical.

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