What do you do when you can’t sleep? Count sheep? Watch TV? Worry as you desperately try to will yourself into slumber?
It’s a universal problem that we must traverse all by ourselves. After all, what’s more private and personal than going to sleep?
I have a near phobia of sleep deprivation, stemming from my upbringing by a man who love, love, loves his sleep. My dad was the king of unapologetically — in fact, almost defiantly — excusing himself from a conversation to go to bed. He often slept 10-12 hours, well over the average amount of sleep. If he didn’t sleep well, he’d complain, looking for sympathy about his mere eight hours of sleep.
Dad projected his sleep needs to others. He’d evaluate appearance based on fatigue, worriedly stating, “You look like you need some rest.” Just hearing about a busy day exhausted him. “You better get to bed early after a day like that.”
My friends laughed at his quirky farewells, which often included, “Be sure to get some rest!”
Dad was spot-on about the importance of sleep. The link between sleep deprivation and physical and mental health are well documented. Recent research points to sleep as the opportunity for the RNA in our bodies to repair itself, and doctors are prescribing machines to help patients manage sleep apnea. I recently attended a dinner with friends, and every single one of our husbands, in fact, had machines for sleep apnea.
My own husband was diagnosed with very mild sleep apnea last year. So mild that it barely qualified as a diagnosis, but insurance approved an APAP machine for him due to a second medical condition, and the role sleep plays in regulating one’s heartbeat. I’ve nicknamed the device his iron lung.
At night, he straps it onto his face, then settles as the machine hums, his breathing rhythmic, at a tempo about a third quicker than my own comfortable breathing rate for rest. His iron lung sometimes takes on a different tone, similar to a tea kettle about to whistle. Once or twice a week, he does stop breathing, and the machine blows, and blows, until he gasps, then falls back into his regular pattern. He reports no difference, but I am keenly aware of a change. I now have his iron lung to keep me awake all night.
My ability to easily catch some z’s now ruined, I rely heavily on an arsenal of techniques I’ve devised to try to lull myself to sleep. They are:
▪ The sleep hole. I close my eyes, and wait for the squiggly, visual noise that I see on the backs of my eyelids to concentrate toward the middle of my vision. I then drift into that visual noise, a tunnel of sorts, that I call my “sleep hole.” Once unexpected visions appear, such as a rabbit with a hoe, or my second-grade teacher wearing a top hat, I know that I’m just about to sleep.
▪ The computer screen. Some nights, my thoughts simply will not stop whirling, and I worry and stew and plan and review. When my mind is too busy to allow me to drift off, I shut off each of the thoughts by envisioning programs open on my computer. For each topic, I imagine hitting “file > save” then “file > close.” Eventually I’ve quieted my mind enough.
And when all else fails, I fall back on the ancient practice of first and second sleep. Centuries ago, people slept in two shifts. When the sun went down, they’d hit the sack for “first sleep” for several hours, then wake up for a few hours, then enjoy “second sleep” a few more hours. Perhaps this is how our bodies are actually programmed, and modern conveniences have forced us into an unnatural pattern. The concept that it’s actually OK to wake up and be unable to sleep for a while is liberating, eliminating the worry of not sleeping, which can be the biggest enemy of getting enough sleep.
Now, go get some rest.
Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park and can be reached at email@example.com