Sunday, September 22, 2013

Troubled Sleep

What's Supposed to Happen

It has come to my attention through various recent news stories about the mass consumption of sleep aids and my own informal studies among friends and family that no one sleeps well anymore. As with so many other things wrong with us, we may just be more likely to admit sleep deprivation than we used to, and seek help for it, or just seek sympathy through the many social media channels that remove the shame factor from all sorts of confessions and complaints. But the fact remains that, conversationally speaking, whether online or off, a day doesn’t go by that I am not made aware of someone suffering the ill effects of having spent the previous night staring at the ceiling.
Are we all really that overstimulated and overanxious that we can’t shut our overworked brains off at night, or just more forthcoming about it? Now that I can be entirely honest in the comfortable albeit miserable company of my fellow bad sleepers, I admit that good sleeping is a mere fraction of my total lifetime sleep experience, and not just because bad sleeping tends to weigh more heavily on and loom larger in memory. I know this because when I fall asleep quickly and easily and wake up in the morning eight hours later with a refreshed body and mind my first waking thought is “what the hell just happened??” But in reality, what happened was absolutely nothing, which is what’s supposed to happen. Nights like that, I don’t even remember dreaming. 

 Eyes Wide Shut

Ah dreaming. With the exception of artificial interference like a late afternoon cup of coffee or the kind of large multi-course holiday meals my mother used to make which left us all lying in bed after midnight feeling like a pot bellied stove stuffed with three days’ worth of logs to burn, my sleep issues fall into two categories, plus an especially pernicious hybrid of the two, which is to say that what keeps me awake is either my conscious thoughts run wild, or my subconscious conjurings run even wilder, or on really bad nights all essential barriers between the two broken down, leading to vivid dreams that feel real and muddled reality that feels dreamlike and eventually getting out of bed so I can figure out definitively which state I am indeed occupying. 

Which is sometimes exactly what I do within the most insidious of these dreams. I have sometimes been left in such a lingering state of uncertainty, I would not be surprised to discover I am actually in a dream while writing this, or that my dream life is my real life. But that is, in more ways than one, neither here nor there. Both my dream life and my real life have each had their share of the wonderful and the horrible, the dull and the brilliant, and each holds memories and possibilities that are ultimately mine to create, so it doesn’t really matter which is which. They are like two cities I split my time between and can both call home. Maybe the reason I am okay with troubled sleep is that if it originates from the same subconscious responsible for such a rich dream life, it’s a price I am more than willing to pay.


Dreams aside, having just spent eight hours in a state of self-generated unrest gives you a weird perspective on the daytime outside world and its people. First of all, you’re just plain tired. Second of all, your body and mind have not had the opportunity to repair or resolve whatever yesterday did to you, so you feel as if everything you take on is doubled, like your day is twice as long and burdensome as everybody else’s because at least they got a break halfway through, which sets you apart, and not in a good way. That is assuming five out of ten people you deal with did not also just have a bad sleep. If you hang out in my kind of circles, that number goes up to nine. My friends are the type whose brains are working overtime all the time, day and night, and feeling weird is pretty much business as usual, well-slept or not. If we all got a good night sleep on the same night, the world would end. Thoughts like that are common among people who see 3am on the clock as often as they see 3pm.

But maybe it’s like high school, where everyone is trying to be cool and thinks they are the only one who feels uncool, and it turns out 25 years later at the reunion that nearly everyone considered himself a misfit. Is anyone a perfect fit? Is anyone sleeping well? Or are some of us just better at faking it – or blaming it on someone else, the kids, the cat, the neighbors, the neighborhood, the snoring spouse - than others? My theory is that just as in high school where everyone was walking around trying to hide feeling uncool, we are all walking around trying to hide being failures at something so natural and simple a child can do it. 

 The Nocturnal World
Not that I slept any better as a child. I think I sleep better now because my standards have dropped and there is less of a struggle against or harsh judgment of my irregular patterns. Four hours of motionless unconsciousness is a triumph. If I manage to pull two of those in one night with a break of any duration, there is a good chance the next day will be experienced in a state close to what I consider normal, that is to say, anything better than feeling like someone just pulled me from my grave or dropped me from an alien planet. 

Nowadays, as part of my general campaign to give myself a colossal break, my approach to sleep has changed. I tell myself that I would much rather have thoughts that can keep me awake at night than thoughts I can nod off in the middle of, like a bad movie. There are some amazing aspects to the nocturnal world that sleepers will never experience, and face it, a lot of what happens by day you really don’t need to be all that alert for. I no longer believe in chasing after the perfect sleep, any more than I believe in trying to squeeze myself into some perfect one size fits all success in other areas of life. Rest for the mind and body is essential, but no one ever said we all need to get it in the same amounts, on the same schedule or in the same manner. Naps have never really worked for me – I’m either going for as good and long a sleep as I can or going without. Naps to me feel just as bad as waking up in the middle of the night after only an hour asleep. It’s just the middle of the day instead, which feels even more of a rude and disorienting awakening.


What does work for me is meditation for the mind and relaxation techniques for the body.  I’ve had sleepless nights during which I had the good sense and focus to use these methods and ended up feeling more rested and refreshed than I would have following a traditional eight hour sleep. Of course the sleepless nighttime mind doesn’t always know what’s best for it or feel like doing it.  The wakeful daytime mind is not much better, as I know for a fact that my sleeping improves on a parallel course with better exercise and eating habits, which won’t necessarily keep me from skipping my workout and eating something that has no resemblance to anything found in nature. 

But at least now I know what to expect. I know not to increase my own uneasiness by worrying about or resisting wakefulness, however inconvenient and unfair and uncool it may seem. When I wake up at 3am, or when I am pretty sure by the sound of the gears grinding in my brain that it will take until 3am to fall asleep, I’ll give up the quest for the perfect sleep and read a book, or check Facebook to see who else is not sleeping. And some nights I’ll just lie in bed releasing the tension from each of my muscles in turn, then clear my mind of whatever I’m thinking and tell myself a story that, if I am lucky, will turn into a beautiful dream, and if I am very lucky, will really happen.  


  1. Oh I hear you. Loudly. And have largely given up. I sleep when I can, and let my mind go free (like I could stop it) when I can't.
    Just the same I know why so many cultures have used sleep deprivation as a torture. It is. And after a really bad night everything is much harder. And some glaring errors are made.
    My partner is frequently asleep before his head hits the pillow. And can stay asleep (usually) through some astonishing things. Twice I have had to wake him to tell him that a cat has just piddled on his pillow. And awarded myself brownie points because I was not laughing. Much.
    And I too tell myself stories. And continue them on successive nights. Are they real? They are then and there.

    1. Hey EC! Yes, I agree about torture. I have your basic bad sleeping issues, but I have also had bouts with pure insomnia. I think once on the third night of absolutely no sleep at all I felt pretty much insane. I would have done or said anything to make it stop. Fortunately it did. Thanks for your comment, thanks for being another nocturnal storyteller! And good for you for not laughing (much) about the cat incident. There are some who would not have awakened him at all!