Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Letters from an Insomniac (I)

So, it's 4 am and guess who can't sleep. (Shhh, don't tell Wilson, or he'll tell me to take the melatonin he just bought for me).

I've always been a "problem sleeper" - just ask my poor parents who were severely sleep-deprived until I finally started sleeping through the night, after I started attending kindergarten. The natural rhythm for my body is to fall asleep around 2 am, and wake up around 11 am. Sadly, the rest of the world got a different memo and consequently such a schedule is not super-compatible with normal human activities, such as daytime work hours and Sunday morning church services.

Thus, I find myself in the unenviable predicament of having to maintain a strict bedtime in order to have some semblance of a normal schedule. Once I allow myself to stay up later than, say, 1 am for more than two days in a row (or maybe in a week), it's pretty much all over. My body, sensing what seems to be a return to the (un)natural pattern it so desperately craves, immediately latches on to the late bedtime and refuses to let me fall asleep at a reasonable hour. This goes on for about a week, until I am finally able to establish a "normal" routine again. And woe betide me if I should have another late night!

The problem is, I am not nearly as disciplined as I should be about getting to bed by midnight (my target for a solid 9 hours of sleep per night). And frankly, if I've been delinquent about sticking to my highly inflexible bedtime, I deserve to have insomnia issues. But my random bouts of insomnia do not always correspond to poor sleep habits. And that is pretty annoying, to say the least.

Sometimes I know it's because I have things on my mind. Not necessarily important or weighty matters, mind you. It could be something as simple as the week's meal plans, or how I'm thinking of re-arranging the walk-in closet (thrilling, I know). It could be a book I read, movie I watched, or conversation I had. Basically, anything that happened while I was alive and conscious during the day. As you can imagine, this makes for a frustrating situation in which I lie in bed, tired and wanting to fall asleep, but unable to turn off my brain. I try to think of relaxing things, sing to myself (in my head, not out loud), repeat Scripture I've memorized, or focus on the feeling of relaxation/lying down/the softness of the sheets, etc. Sometimes I even think about getting up to tackle unpleasant cleaning tasks as a way of proving how tired I am (as if that was ever in question). These inner conversations usually begin well enough: Don't want to get up? The thought of mopping the floor makes you feel like closing your eyes and snuggling under the covers? Good. Guess you're tired after all, huh. Unfortunately, they often end with: So WHY WON'T YOU SLEEP?!?!

Let me tell you, there aren't too many things worse than a mounting frustration at your inability to fall asleep while you lie in your bed fully exhausted and yet wide awake.

Other times, I can't even pinpoint a cause of my insomnia. I'm not stressed out, not thinking about anything in particular, but for whatever reason sleep still eludes me. (This is what is happening now, in case you were wondering). The most annoying situation, however, is when I can't sleep because I'm overtired. I mean, come on, are you kidding me? I don't really know how to explain this, other than to say that my father has experienced the same phenomenon, and we are both fairly stumped as to why our bodies sometimes respond to extreme fatigue with the refusal to shut down properly. Isn't rest in a dark room on a comfortable bed exactly what they were craving? Haven't they heard about the benefits of delayed gratification?

(This has turned into quite the little essay on insomnia, which was not my original intent. What can I say? You can't really blame an occasional insomniac for their ramblings at 4 in the morning.)

Do you think Wilson is right - should I cave to the melatonin? I really have an aversion to taking medication, although I certainly will if the circumstances are right. On the flipside, I really have an affinity for falling asleep and waking up nine hours later, feeling refreshed.

It's just that I've always thought that these little bouts of sleeplessness are simply obstacles to get through, and nothing to get all worked up about. I mean yeah, it really sucks when you need to get up for work/an appointment/life in general and you know you're going to get only 4 -5 hours of sleep beforehand, if you're lucky. But what are you going to do? You just admit defeat, get up and engage in a tiring activity (reading and surfing the net are my favourites, because they tend to tire the eyes and can numb the brain too, depending on the content), and if that isn't effective after a couple hours, you admit total defeat and embrace the all-nighter by doing something productive. Or possibly curling up on the couch and watching five consecutive episodes of The Office. Whatever, I won't judge.

The point is, I've always assumed "natural" methods are sufficient to cope with my sleep issues. But now, after three occurrences in five days, I am wondering if my husband has a point.


  1. BLEH, I'm so sorry to hear you're not sleeping well lately (and that it's a common affliction for you). I hope you're able to get back into your earlier routine soon!

    I have heard that our bodies, because of our circadian clocks or whatever they're called, really do require routine, and going to bed late is enough to throw everything off (which . . . is what you said! But, erm, well, you can say that it has been substantiated by scientific studies, or whatnot ^_^).

    Thankfully lately my insomnia hasn't been too bad, but when I was younger, like you, I used to have a lot of trouble sleeping. Not being able to sleep FINALLY proved useful in university, since there was always an essay to work on or hundreds of pages to read . . . XD But. Really not so much fun.

    I definitely empathise with (a) being overtired and unable to fall asleep, and (b) being unable to shut off my brain.

    I find getting some fresh air helps; on the days I go for walks around the neighbourhood I tend to fall asleep more easily. I also have a theory that calcium before bed (the old glass of warm milk, or a calcium supplement) actually works; also, lavender (if you like the smell) is supposed to be calming.

    I've taken to reading in bed until I'm too tired to keep my eyes open. BUT, if it's a good book, and I keep reading past that feeling-tired stage, then insomnia sets in, and it becomes a case of being too tired to sleep. =[

    I really don't like when I have a snippet of a song stuck in my head, and it's, oh, 3 am, and the song won't stop and it won't let me get to sleep! So annoying!

    I've tried a lot of different cures/remedies over the years, and some things that have worked for other people haven't worked for me. So . . . keep trying, and hopefully you find something that works for you!

    If you're really tired through the day, and lack of sleep is interfering with your life, you could always try the melatonin and see what happens!

    Hope you sleep well soon, my dear!

  2. Thanks, Erin. It does make it a bit better knowing that others can "feel my pain," as it were. I have always pooh-poohed the glass of warm milk idea, but it's certainly worth a shot. I'm also going to be more vigilent about caffeine and cut myself off at 3 pm latest. I don't really drink a lot of coffee or soft drinks in the evening (or in general, actually), but I realized that last night I had some black milk tea (bubble tea) and I'm wondering if that was the culprit in my insomnia last night. So we've got: 1) No caffeine past 3 pm, 2) Earlier bedtime, 3) Glass of warm milk before bed, 4) Reading for 30-60 mins before bed to help "wind down" and bring on drowsiness, and 5) a darker room (we usually have a lot of light coming in from open curtains). Not bad for some completely natural rememdies, right?