On my symptoms post I wrote,
Another symptom is insomnia. When I was healthy, insomnia meant “not getting enough exercise that day” or maybe “thinking about too many things”. Now insomnia means that my body simply has forgotten how to cross the threshold from awake to asleep. It doesn’t matter how many or how few my thoughts are. It doesn’t matter how much or how little I’ve done in a day. Sleep is elusive. It comes on its own terms, when it comes.
I’ve been thinking about illness concepts that are misunderstood, trying to come up with what would be most useful to write about. My insomnia is a concept I have tried explaining many times, to many people, in many different ways. I’ll admit to being frustrated that no matter how many different attempts I make, it remains misunderstood. I guess there will always be concepts that are too strange or baffling, to the point that you just have to “experience it for yourself” in order to understand it. The taste of salt is the example most often used for this idea. How do you describe “salty” to someone who has never before tasted salt? Childbirth is the other oft-used example, but childbirth has both the advantage and disadvantage as a metaphor here because it is different every time and different mothers experience it differently.
Here are the thoughts everyone thinks when I say “I had insomnia last night”:
- You must have been thinking of too many things. Your head was full of thoughts or worry. If your mind was clear, you could have slept.
- You did not get enough exercise. You spent too much time sitting or lying around. If you had gotten more exercise, you could have slept.
- You slept in too late. If you get up too late, of course you can’t get to sleep at night. If you had gotten up earlier, you could have gotten to sleep earlier.
All of these make perfect sense if your health is normal. When I was a child, I had a hard time sleeping if I was worried about something at school or afraid of objects around my room I saw taking new shapes in the dark. I love physical activity, so that was never a problem for me. But on the days I slept in, I definitely had troubles going to bed “on time.” I just wasn’t tired, so of course I wasn’t going to get to sleep!
But sleep is different now. Let me share with you a few anecdotes so you can see what I mean.
1. You must have been thinking too much to sleep.
There comes a time at the end of a typical exhausted girl’s day when she is just too tired to think. Now imagine this exhausted girl getting ready for bed, settling into her nice warm, comfy covers, and waiting to drift off. And waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
Eventually she notices she’s not asleep yet. She has no idea of the passage of time, only that she’s still awake. Not the kind of “half-awake, half-asleep” awake, the kind where your brain fools you into thinking you have gotten no sleep whatsoever when in fact you’ve been drifting in and out for a while. I am talking about the kind of awake-waiting-for-sleep that happens when you first slip into bed.
She knows she has two choices. Either she can get frustrated at her body and the situation or she can choose to enjoy the moment. She knows from past experience that getting frustrated only makes things worse, so she chooses the latter. She rolls over in bed, letting amused curiosity be her guide as she checks the clock. Yes, indeed, she has been lying here awake for two hours so far and more is yet to come. She snuggles into her pillow, enjoying the luscious feel of her cozy bed and thanks God that she’s at least someplace comfortable.
Snuggle, wait, snuggle, wait.
Eventually sleep claims her. All is well and will be well if she can regain the sleep she’s lost.
Sometimes you can’t get to sleep, even if there are only very occasional ripples of thoughts in your head.
Food for thought #2:
There’s a difference between tangled, worried, repetitive thoughts–or thoughts your body is afraid of letting go of in order to drift into sleep–and good thoughts.
I am not saying that I never have the sticky kinds of thoughts, but I am saying that I know how to deal with them. I will give more advice on that further down, but I want to point out an interesting phenomenon to you here. Throughout my life, some of my best nights for falling blissfully to sleep have been those nights where I’ve toyed lightly with a new project idea. Most recently, I came up with a new embroidery project while waiting for sleep to take me, and that was restful and lovely. Twisting and turning ideas around in my head, discarding and shuffling through possibilities. As a child, sometimes I would concoct stories for myself to fall asleep to, or plot out the next part in a story I was writing, and then get up and write it down the next day. I would also give myself complicated math problems to solve. (I know, strange child.)
In other words, contrary to popular saying, complex thoughts themselves are not anathema to sleep.
2. You did not get enough exercise.
The idea here is that “your body isn’t physically tired enough to sleep.”
Every day I do at least 20 minutes of me-exhausting exercise. That means I go until I get tired and worn out and dizzy. I go to my limits, such as they are. (Do you go to your limits in any given day?)
Then every Tuesday I also go to an hour-and-something long yoga class, to work on strength and stamina. In my class, my legs and arms shake and quiver. I get dizzy. Sometimes I get nauseous and feel like fainting or throwing up. I go and I do it anyway. It’s even yoga on its gentlest setting, but you can’t get better without at least occasionally going to your boundaries and seeing what’s there. You have limits, but those limits are also meant to be explored and tested.
If insomnia were about not enough exercise in a day, then Tuesdays at least I shouldn’t have insomnia. But Tuesdays my insomnia ends up being much worse.
I know that doesn’t make any sense in your mind, but that’s just the way it is. No matter how exhausted I am at yoga, afterwords my adrenaline system says “hi!” and then I’m wired the rest of the night.
Insomnia, in my case, is most often linked to doing “too much” not just the stereotypical “not enough.”
3. You slept in too late.
Let me tell you about my day yesterday.
Yesterday, as I write this, I awoke from a vivid nightmare around 10 am. Being wide awake, I decided to get up, even though it’d taken me to 2-3 AM to fall asleep the night before. That’s 8 hours of sleep for a sick girl who needs 10 in order to feel well, plus whatever baggage from the day previous. My adrenaline system decided to kick in and make me jittery and nauseous due to not enough sleep. I drank relaxing tea, soothed myself with deep breathing and firm-grip regulated my thoughts out of the panic the adrenaline flooding my system kept insisting was a good idea. Otherwise, due to the enormous fires South of us, the air quality was really bad yesterday, so I decided not to take my afternoon walk. I knew I still needed my daily exercise, so I had an impromptu dance party while everyone was gone and danced around the house as I cleaned and did other household tasks. (This takes a lot more energy out of me than my normal walking does, for those of you out there who don’t often dance.)
I also wrote for a while yesterday, worked on my interactive fiction game and made some good progress. I also spent much of the afternoon working on a handwritten letter. Both of these activities are brain-intensive and exhausting mentally. Because my laptop is in the shop, I have to remain sitting up straight for every task I want to do, which means I can’t lie down and relax in bed with my laptop as I usually do. So my day was also more of a strain on me physically than usual.
In other words, I got more exercise, more activity, and did more with my brain and body yesterday than I generally do. I also was awake longer throughout the morning. I didn’t sleep in till noon as I have been lately, trying to catch up on rest I’ve missed while family has been their on their vacation. My adrenaline system also wasn’t very happy with me for it.
By 10 PM I was exhausted. All I wanted was to go to bed and get some sleep. I couldn’t focus on any of the books I tried to read. I tried getting Grandpa to bed so that Grandma and I could go to sleep, (she’d had dental surgery that afternoon and was still druggy and tired). He put up a fuss until 10:30. I made it into bed a little before 11 PM.
Now, normally I try not to go to bed early, because no matter how exhausted I am physically and mentally, it never means that I can get to sleep earlier. It just doesn’t. It has not happened, not once. But sometimes I try it to see if this will be the time it works out. You have to have hope sometimes, you know? You have to give you body the space and permission to break its trend. Normally I go to bed around 12:30 and fall asleep around 2:00. Yesterday, I went to bed at 11:00, despite being exhausted in all senses of the word, and fell asleep by 2:30.
Now, if all the conditions were ripe for sleep, why couldn’t I sleep? It was not because I got up too late. It was not because I wasn’t tired or that my thoughts were unruly or I didn’t get enough exercise.
For the first two hours, I was mind-numblingly tired and yet sleep did not come. But because I wasn’t asleep yet but had been still getting rest, my body decided it had rested enough around Midnight. My mind started waking up and started thinking somewhat coherently again. In order to distract my thoughts from going in circles, I turned on an audiobook.
(See? There goes the “too many thoughts” excuse. Advice: If you have too many thoughts, either write them down so your brain stops trying to clutch at them so you won’t forget what they are, or turn over control of your brain to someone else’s voice and story, or simply tell yourself it’s okay to relax your grip on consciousness and believe yourself when you say so.)
The problem was that since my adrenaline system was still making me jittery and I was wide awake, a voice telling me a story I already knew wasn’t enough distraction. So I got out my tablet and watched TV episodes of a series I like until I was tired again. I kept my knees up so that my adrenaline-jitters had something to do, some energy to expend and channel into. (Lying flat on your back makes adrenaline panic worse not better.) I think I watched two episodes until I was tired enough to try the whole Sleep idea again. That was 2 AM. It still took me a little bit, but I did get to sleep.
This Sunday (and every Sunday) I get up at 8 AM to go to Church by 9. No matter how little sleep I’ve had the night before. This Sunday I’d been able to fall asleep by around 2, so I had 6 hours of sleep. Last Sunday I couldn’t get to sleep till 4 AM, so I had 4 hours of sleep. (As an aside, because I had 6 hours of sleep instead of 4, people came up to me and told me how great I looked so I must be better.)
If my insomnia was about how much sleep I’ve already had or how late I have slept in, then Sunday nights I should never have insomnia.
I am sad to say I always do.
But Sunday is just one day! you say. What if you made getting up early a habit, set your alarm? If my insomnia was about how late I’ve slept in, then forcing myself to wake up early every morning should mean an end to insomnia.
Tried that experiment, and no, that’s not how it works.