Dr Smiter’s Handy-Dandy Insomnia Cure
Eight or nine years ago I went through what is euphemistically termed a “bad patch” in my life, full of stress, angst, sturm und drang, and general emotional malaise. Unsurprisingly, one of the side effects was a relentless, crushing insomnia unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
I was living and working in Germany at the time and although German physicians, unlike their North American counterparts, are not known for throwing pharmaceuticals at people, I was given a prescription for sleeping pills.
To a point, they did the trick, knocking me more or less unconscious and buying me maybe six hours of uneasy sleep each night. However, their ugly side effects included a debilitating woolly feeling in my brain that no amount of coffee would kill, a mouth that tasted like I’d been licking a rusty drain, and an overall discomfort at needing to pop pills for something that the majority of people seemed to do more or less naturally.
There was also the risk of addiction — these pills and others like them are doled out in small batches, forcing you to return to your doctor every four weeks for an “assessment” and a round of begging. In my case, this was not a risk — I lack the receptors for narcotic addiction, thankfully. But still, I rarely take anything stronger than a multivitamin if I can help it, and deeply disliked swilling these little tablets on a nightly basis.
Back in Canada, however, my GP happily fixed me up with more of the same (cheaper and quicker than counselling, I guess), and on it went.
Until for whatever reason, I just grew tired of it one day and trooped off to the library to read about what I feared was going to become a lifelong cycle of insomnia and pharmaceutical dependence.
Randomly, I pulled three books on sleep and insomnia from the shelves, checked them out, and headed home for a bit of research.
To my surprise, all of them said basically the same things, none them rocket science — namely that, barring valid medical problems (apnea, thyroid problems, chronic pain etc), there’s almost no reason why humans shouldn’t be able to arrange a decent night’s shut-eye for themselves.
All of the books presented the same basic checklist of things to do in aid of that:
- making sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool
- sticking to a regular sleep schedule
- avoiding naps
- avoiding physical activity, large meals, and stress close to bedtime
- limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption before bedtime
Being the good student I am (and being highly motivated to stop buying Porsches for pharmaceutical companies’ CEOs), I did all this and it helped quite a bit. But I still found myself occasionally waking in the middle of the night and switching on the light to read myself back to sleep.
Until one day I read a sobering Harvard study (The Nurses’ Study, if you’re interested) that pointed to a hugely increased risk of breast cancer (among other things) among women who did not get a full night’s worth of darkness (i.e., the absence of light). This seems to be linked to the production of a hormone called melatonin, which your body begins to produce when the sun goes down and which shuts off when the sun comes up — or when a light comes on again.
“Crap,” I thought miserably. “NOW what am I gonna do?” Aside from learning braille so as to be able to read in the dark, I was stumped.
Until… I was sorting through some old junk and spied the portable CD player (a.k.a. CD Walkman) I’d long since thrown over in favour of my little MP3 player.
Cackling happily, I dashed off to my local library and spent a happy half hour fossicking through their CD audiobook collection, looking for suitable reading/listening material. I stopped at the drugstore for a new set of batteries, dusted off the CD player, and when bedtime came, I inserted a CD into the slot, ploinked the earpieces into my ears, pressed “Play” … and knew no more.
As I said, this was eight or nine years ago now and with few exceptions (a late-night coffee or my cat having a Festival of Yowling) I sleep through the night. I wake up occasionally in the wee hours, but I simply press “Play” and within 30 seconds I am out cold again.
I am not making this up — audiobooks are typically between six and 15 CDs long, meaning that many hours, and it takes me over a month to get through most of the things I check out of the library.
Besides the fiction CDs, I also checked out a couple of the library’s relaxation CDs and, as luck would have it, one of them was a quirky little sleep-oriented CD called Letting Go of Stress by a guy called Emmett Miller, MD. Normally stuff like this just irritates me (the soft, earnest voices, the spacey music, the ocean sounds that always make me need to pee) but for whatever reason, this thing worked like a charm too. It has 4 tracks and to this day I have only heard 3.
Anyway, my theory is this: we humans are busy, thinking, stress-y people. We multitask. Our minds go a thousand miles an hour, especially in the middle of the night, when we are prone to mulling over things that we did wrong yesterday, or years ago. (My friend Ann and I refer to this as the “Two a.m.’s”, that awful time of night where you think, “God, I really should NOT have called her a self-absorbed hypochondriac drama queen and then hit her with that chair leg…”.)
In other words, your brain is like a toddler that’s had way too much candy and soda and cartoons and simply does not want to calm down and go the %*^&!! to sleep.
You can try to calm your “toddler brain” with drugs (and I’m sure many parents have considered a dollop or two of Valium in little Ashley’s sippy cup…), but that teaches your brain nothing other than “I cannot go to sleep without medication.” (Or “milk tastes weird”, if you’re Ashley.)
You can try to ignore its antics, put on a stern face, and order your toddler brain to go to sleep, dammit, because Daddy has a big meeting at 8 a.m. and so help me god if you are not in that bed sound asleep by the count of one… two… THREE-DO-NOT-MAKE-ME-COME-UP-THERE-YOUNG-LADY… which is, of course, useless, and ultimately leads to funny-tasting milk for Ashley and a Scotch and soda with an Ativan chaser for Daddy.
Or… you can distract the toddler brain with a story. So now instead of your left brain (the bit that does all the anal-retentive organizing, figuring, mulling, and stewing) having control, your right brain (the creative, musing, imagining bit) is suddenly engaged, listening, following the story, creating pretty pictures and….
… lights out. Zzzzzzzz………
So go ahead. Dig out your old CD Walkman, charge up your batteries, pay a visit to your library’s audiobook section, and give it a whirl. Fiction, non-fiction — doesn’t matter. Your choice.
Try it for a couple of weeks and let me know how it goes.
If my plan works, the pharma guys will have to get someone else to buy their Porsches.
Miscellaneous other useful bits:
- I recommend CD players rather than an iPhone or MP3 simply because to fast-forward or rewind those devices, you have to light up the screen, enter your password etc. which defeats the purpose. CD players have buttons you can feel with your fingers, easily navigated in the dark.
- That said, spend a few minutes getting used to how your CD player works and feels, and operating the buttons in the dark. Sounds silly and you’ll feel like a tosser sitting in your closet fondling your little machine, but you’ll thank me for it later.
- If you don’t have a CD Walkman at hand, try Craigslist or places like Best Buy. The staff will look at you like you’re from outer space, but just tell them you’re an Ironic Hipster looking for retro stuff, man. Like, whatever.
- Keep the next CD in the series handy on your night table in case you reach the end of one and need to get the next. Nothing sucks more than having to get out of bed and rummage around in the dark for Chapter Three.
- Do follow the tips I listed above for getting a good night’s sleep — my CD tip works, but not if you’re trying to sleep in a hot noisy room after a huge meal and an epic fight with your neighbour.
- To those I would add, get some exercise every day. Sitting on your bum for the whole day (commute, work, commute), then sitting on your bum all evening in front of the telly, is lethal in any number of ways. Get out for a walk and some fresh air and sunshine, at the very least, and you will sleep much, much better.
- For what it’s worth, it’s probably a good idea to have a checkup with your GP and make sure there’s nothing else amiss physically — apnea or thyroid difficulties, for example.
- And for ongoing life issues that really are keeping you awake and causing you difficulty, it’s probably worth a few sessions with a therapist or at least a visit to the self-help section of your library or bookstore. I doubt anyone can sleep through divorce or bankruptcy.