This is a sleep book by a woman, for women. (Take ‘women’ to mean ‘people with proportionally more estrogen, progesterone, etc.’) Shelby Harris is a psychologist and sleep expert, and also a mom of young kids. She gets all the social, parental, and technological pressures that impact our sleep. The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia may actually help where nothing else did.
I read a lot of insomnia books because I have a parasomnia disorder, and I’m always looking for new tips. Not every insomnia book mentions more serious problems like mine, and it did come up, but I will give the caveat that what worked for my night terrors isn’t really addressed here in explicit detail.
The basic idea behind this book is that changing any one factor will not solve sleep problems by itself. That is 100% true. The premise is to use tracking methods and very specific behavioral techniques to improve the ratio of time spent in bed to actual time asleep.
This stuff works. I know because many of the things I did to resolve my sleep issues show up in here.
I kept meticulous records of my sleep - with more detail than the sleep diary in the book - and I am sure that if I hadn’t done this, I never would have figured out the root cause.
I became very careful with the timing of when I ate and hydrated. Start early and cut off three hours before bed. (If you get night terrors, or your kid does, please don’t eat anything right before bedtime!)
I ruthlessly eliminated naps and forced myself to go out in bright sunlight and stay awake if I needed to.
I took up running, dropped my extra weight, and got fit.
I cut out soda, anything with high fructose corn syrup, and basically all junk food. Then I increased my vegetable consumption fourfold.
One of the most important points in the book is to distinguish between sleepiness and fatigue. This would have been really helpful for me to know 15-20 years ago. “Tired all the time” doesn’t always mean insomnia or a sleep issue; it may be fatigue, and fatigue may be a sign of something else.
I encourage anyone with sleep issues - which is apparently about 2/3 of all women - to read The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. Take its recommendations seriously, do all the steps, and keep records of your results. If you respect the process, you can free yourself of the problem.
Even as a psychologist and a sleep expert, I’m not immune to a poor night’s sleep now and then. I just know how to prevent it from becoming a regular occurrence at this point in my life.
One of the goals of insomnia treatment is to have you think less about your sleep overall—just as you probably were not too focused on it in the past, before your sleep problems began.
During our WDS weekend, we learned a bit more about chronotypes and how they affect our energy level. This information changed how we look at our sleep schedules and how we structure our days, especially now that we are in isolation for the foreseeable future.
The first thing we did was take a quiz: http://www.thepowerofwhenquiz.com/.
Before this, I would have said that I’m a night owl and my husband is a lark. It didn’t occur to me that there would be more than two types of sleepers. I always figured that most people don’t get enough sleep for situational reasons, such as long commutes or intervening opportunities like the internet.
It took just a couple of minutes to find out that my hubby and our friend, like the majority of people, are Bears, while I’m a Dolphin.
This basically means that they have consistent energy levels throughout the day and, if they didn’t get enough sleep one night, they’ll just go to sleep earlier the next.
Being a Dolphin - the rare 10% - basically means any little thing will mess with my sleep, and as a result I feel tired most of the time.
This all felt true enough. What was surprising, and what I don’t particularly agree with, is that these sleep animals are supposed to go to bed and wake up at particular times. They gave Bears 11 pm to 7 am, and Dolphins like me midnight to 6 am.
If I only slept six hours a night, I would be a walking disaster. I know because I’ve had to do it. The biggest issue I have always had with sleep is that I can’t necessarily fall asleep just because I’m tired. If I have a set schedule that involves being somewhere early in the morning most days of the week, it can take months to adjust.
I just started a new job, and since we work at home, I can roll out of bed at 7:30 and still be early for 8 am meetings. The first couple of weeks were exhausting. Now, in the third month, I can sometimes wake up naturally before my alarm goes off. There have been days, though, when I could barely make it and crawled off to take a nap immediately after clocking out.
Sleep is always the #1 factor in my mood and energy level. It also seems to have a huge effect on my immune system; when I’ve been sleeping poorly I seem to get every cold and flu that comes through.
Being a Dolphin married to a Bear is lucky for me and doesn’t seem to matter all that much to him. He sleeps so soundly that, over the years, it seems to have entrained me to sleep better too. Sometimes he even sleeps through my night terrors. One night I woke up screaming and he just reached over and patted me a few times and went back to sleep.
We’ve had two issues where my significant sleep problems have required his involvement.
One, the case of the loud upstairs neighbors. I asked him to intervene with the property manager a couple of times when I felt I wasn’t being heard. I asked him to help me figure out something for noise cancellation, an engineering solution perhaps? Finally we just relocated, which we wouldn’t have done for at least a few more years if my sleep problems hadn’t gotten completely out of control.
Sometimes the alarm would go off in the morning and I would burst into tears because I hadn’t slept all night.
The second issue was more personal. Just as we would be winding down for the night, my hubby would read something in the news that got him agitated, and he would want to talk to me about it. It was like tossing a ball. He would throw it and I would catch it. He would then peacefully drop off to sleep and I would like awake until 2 am.
I brought it up. I begged. I pleaded. I set a reminder on our shared list that went off every night at 9 pm. This was the “nothing but puppies, kittens, and rainbows” alarm.
Honestly it took about five years for this pattern to finally sink in.
It’s not that we can’t talk about current events, or have passionate discussions and disagreement about various philosophical points. It’s just that I have to hit pause at 9:00 if I want to be able to drop off to sleep.
I have no problem setting this boundary with other people if we happen to be up that late. Everyone I know is guaranteed to be worn out from hearing about my parasomnia disorder, so it’s better for everyone if they agree to my demands quickly.
I have a contrarian opinion about stress and anxiety. I understand that this opinion is not mainstream, but the more I read and the longer I live, the more I think I’m right and everyone else has things upside down.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that “stress” causes almost all illness, and that factors of mood and attitude drive disease.
Okay, but why would “stress” branch out and cause a hundred thousand completely different types of illness?
Doesn’t it make more sense that illness arises in the physical body, and that the person then starts to feel stress *as a result*? That stress is a natural, universal reaction to maybe even a sub-clinical stage of any of a hundred thousand physical causes?
This is why I think my parasomnia problem is neurochemical. I bet better and more widespread brain scanning would reveal more patterns like this. It makes perfect sense to me that the 10% of “Dolphins” who have trouble sleeping have more in common than some kind of personality trait. Part of why I can say this is that my Bear husband has at least as much stress in his life as I do, and he seems to sleep just fine.
Assessments like these animal chronotypes are a good idea for helping people to be considerate and accommodating of each other’s needs. This is even more important when the people involved share a roof or, especially, a bed. Let’s all be kind to each other and try to help each other get enough rest every night.
Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
I snapped awake. It was still dark outside. 4:11 AM. I had been asleep for four hours.
Why does this happen?
It’s a mystery why a tired person who isn’t sleeping well will still wake up in the middle of the night, wake up too early, or struggle to fall asleep. I know it’s a mystery because I’ve been reading everything I can find on the topic for twenty years.
Another mystery is what I would have done with my life by now if I hadn’t had so many disrupted nights.
I had plans for the day. Doesn’t everyone? I lay awake until 6:30 AM, turning off my alarm, since I wouldn’t be needing it. I was finally feeling sleepy again just as I had planned to be waking up and getting ready.
Decision point. Do I:
Get up and struggle through a long day on four hours of sleep;
Fall back to Plan B, see if I can sleep another two hours, and rearrange my schedule;
I went to Plan B. Again, I snapped awake before the alarm. I was so groggy and I felt so terrible that the will to launch simply snuffed itself out.
The worst part about this is that I structure my own schedule. I have no real reason for struggling with sleep, no caretaking responsibilities, no duty to unlock a door or turn the lights on. My income does not depend on a requirement that I get out of bed at a specific time. This was, of course, fallout from my parasomnia disorder.
Why some people voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep is beyond me. Staying up late to play games, surf the internet, or binge-watch anything, only to get up early the next day and be exhausted, is a pattern I don’t really understand. You mean you would be able to sleep, you just don’t feel like it? What must that be like?
The last couple of years that I worked a traditional day job, I had some very rough days. If I only slept for two or three hours, I would still have to get up and get dressed and commute and drag myself through my workday. I used to go into the ladies’ room every 90 minutes or so to splash cold water on myself or slap myself in the face a couple of times. I used to pinch my upper thigh between my fingernails until the pain jolted me briefly into alertness.
There were times when I barely made thirty hours of sleep for the week.
It was the same in college, when at least I could take naps between classes. I trained myself to sleep in 45-minute increments, folded onto one sofa cushion in the student lounge.
During that era, most of my work occurred outside the time dimension. I could read my assignments and write papers at any time of day or night. While I was a Dean’s List student, this was somewhat of a disaster, because it shattered my circadian rhythms.
It was probably inevitable that I would cut the cord of the traditional day job schedule as soon as I was able. I’m worthless when sleep deprived. Can’t concentrate, lose objects, get physically lost, speak slowly, read the same paragraph over and over. Probably there are high-functioning alcoholics and addicts who get more done at work than I did after a week of poor sleep.
What I didn’t expect was that I would have some of the same problems when I had nobody to report to but myself.
Over the years, I’ve figured out a lot of inputs that affect my sleep and allow me to get enough rest 80-90% of the time. I haven’t figured out how to deal with external noise past a certain decibel level. I’m struggling right now because the apartment beneath ours is being remodeled, and there are saws, drills, hammers, and who knows what else going on ten or eleven hours a day, six or seven days a week. Naps are off the menu. Until when? How would I know? How long does it take to completely overhaul a 650-square-foot apartment?
This is a difficult world for parasomnia. If I knew of a quiet place, I would already be living there, but the countryside isn’t much better. My sleep has been disrupted by anything and everything including garbage trucks, loud motorcycles, helicopters, slamming doors, domestic arguments, barking dogs, ice cream trucks, roosters, other people’s phones, crying children, jackhammers, drunken singing, and even misdelivered packages. Some of these happen between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, because why would the world ever quit being loud?
What I’m trying to learn to do is to fit in an acceptable level of productivity around all of it, somehow. I have to accept that there will never be anywhere in the world, or any time in the day, when I can go off somewhere and never experience disruption. It’s built into the system. If I check into a hotel room, people will persist in talking and laughing loudly in the hallway outside my room every single hour of the day and night. If I move somewhere, the adjacent space will almost immediately undergo renovations.
As I write this, a car alarm is going off in the parking lot next door.
I don’t even own a car, much less a car alarm.
I’ve tried white noise generators and high-end noise canceling headphones and fans and double-glazed windows. I’ve tried every sleeping pill on the market, both prescription and OTC. I’ve tried massage and hot baths and essential oils and meditation. I’ve spoken with doctors and even a psychiatrist. I’m an edge case. I’ll never stop trying things, because I’m curious and because I’ll never give up hope that I can beat this dumb problem, one way or another.
In the meantime, most of the stuff I do that happens on a schedule happens in the afternoon.
Do you ever feel like, New Year, another one?? Right now I’m looking at the turn of the year with equal parts relief and dread, glad we made it through some heavy weather but feeling like the next year will be more of the same. Some excellent things and some terrible things happened, sometimes at the same time, and in fact isn’t every year like that?
Sometimes life gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Example, our dog was given “six weeks to live” in November 2018, and he’s still here, but his liver tumor got bigger and he also has a mass in his lung. Another example, I had to get oral surgery, but those two teeth were saved. A friend of mine in a similar situation has to wait six toothless months before she can get an implant, so I guess I feel “lucky”? Further example, I had a cyst removed after a very scary and weird medical issue, when for a few hours I feared I actually might tip over and die. Surgery is not cute or fun but it is usually better than the alternative.
Crabby person: I spent a month on antibiotics, thought I might die, spent weeks dealing with medical, dental, and veterinary stuff alone because my husband was out of town, and had to get stitches twice!
Optimist: I survived with just a small scar, they managed to save both my teeth, insurance paid for almost all of it, and I got my stitches out before the New Year!
This is part of why I try so hard to focus on highlights and achievements at the end of the year. Otherwise it would be very, very easy to overlook them amid the chaos of daily life, that or fail to fit in any highlights at all. Here are a few.
Our dog Spike survived his predicted 2018 demise, a sweet bonus year
Won an election and became a Division Director in Toastmasters
Went to World Domination Summit
Visited London and Edinburgh for the first time
Sat in one of the cafes where Harry Potter originated
Moved to a new apartment that is actually quiet!
Went to the Canary Islands for our tenth wedding anniversary
Oh, BTW, we had a tenth wedding anniversary, 13 years together
Became a Distinguished Toastmaster
Noelle started saying ‘Okay’ (when she wants to go to bed)
Personal: My big personal goal for the year was to submit a book proposal to a publisher. If I had known what a total train wreck this year was going to be, I would have held off on declaring this and instead just said “Get through 2019 somehow mostly intact.” Nevertheless this goal is in progress. I finally feel like I can take myself seriously as a working writer.
Career: My career goal for 2019 was to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. I didn’t even know what that was when I first made my 2016 resolution to conquer my fear of public speaking. This has been one of the most emotionally challenging things I ever did, and I am really proud of myself. Not only did I get that DTM, something not even 1% of Toastmasters do, but I won an election as well. The last time I gave an impromptu speech, a couple weeks ago, someone told me that I “have a commanding presence up there.” Heh. Seriously, it’s hard to imagine someone being worse at something, and feeling more dread and dislike for it, and then having a greater transformation. If *I* could do *this* then I feel like anyone could do anything. Just push through the first six months.
Physical: My physical goal was to focus on hip openers, a type of stretching exercise. I kept reminding myself to get down on the floor and figure this out, and now it’s the New Year and I still haven’t done it. Overall I feel like my body is turning into a bruised fruit. I failed at this goal. I dropped out of my martial arts gym. I also gained weight, which feels exhausting and terrible and which I am hating beyond description. This year I feel like the only physical thing I did well was to not die.
Home: My home goal was to set up an outdoor writing area. That was at our old apartment, and it was great. We crushed this by relocating to a new place, where not only do I have an outdoor writing area, but it even has an ocean view. We’re finally in a place that doesn’t have carpet, we have a dishwasher and a bedroom door again, and it’s so quiet that we sometimes take two naps a day. As sometimes happens, the results exceeded the original goal.
Couples: Our couples goal was to do meal prep. This helped us get into really cooking again, and our freezer is full of homemade soup. My husband even made jam for the first time in a few years. We’re back in a proper kitchen and remembering how much we prefer our own cooking.
Stop goal: My “stop” goal was to “stop being sick and tired.” Last year I was really struggling with getting the common cold over and over and over again, and I basically lost a year of sleep thanks to my selfish rude upstairs neighbors. I did some research and experimentation, talked with my doctor, and found out that hardcore zinc supplements really do make all the difference for the immune system. Super Bio Veg for the win. Also we moved and I’ve been able to get about 25% more sleep.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade was to get a new desktop computer, which I finally did, once I realized that the system I wanted cost less than half of what I thought it would. Something I have learned is that I should not say I “can’t afford” something until I know, objectively, how much it actually costs.
Do the Obvious: My “do the obvious” was to schedule time blocks so I could get more done. This failed utterly and spectacularly. From June through today there has not been a single normal week, between my dental stuff, travel, moving, my husband’s business trips, my nasty medical surprise that ate November and December, and our poor sick doggy. I honestly don’t think there will ever be a time in my life when I can predict a strict schedule weeks or months in advance. I’m shifting my attitude toward something more flexible and forgiving.
Metrics: I had the idea to add metrics to my annual goal-setting, and this was generally a success. I started out trying to track a bunch of stuff (mostly HIIT exercises) that fell out of my routine due to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Tracking metrics did help me to complete my DTM, focus on SleepQuest, and read more than the year before. Wherever I track what I’m doing I tend to get better results, because it doesn’t take long for patterns to stand out.
Quest: My quest for the year was SleepQuest 2019. I’m calling this a success! I was not able to find a single thing that helped me sleep through the heavy footsteps and early-morning vacuuming/rearranging furniture of our upstairs neighbors. Well, other than a moving van, that is. We moved and now I can sleep whenever I want. I may have lost the first three quarters of the year but at least that phase of our life is over.
Wish: My wish was to be signed by a literary agent. To my great astonishment, I am kinda sorta “in talks” with a couple of people. Maybe this will turn into a thing.
Personal: Book proposal - IN PROGRESS
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster - SUCCESS!
Physical: Hip openers - FAIL
Home: Outdoor writing area - SUCCESS
Couples: Meal prep - SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being sick and tired - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: New desktop computer - SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks - FAIL
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking - SUCCESS
Quest: Sleep Project - SUCCESS
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent. - IN PROGRESS
I wasn’t the one who brought it up. It’s true that I’m on a sleep quest this year, but it’s my own private thing. The topic of human hibernation came up in the context of weight loss. Someone was talking about how nice it would be to just go into a coma for six months and wake up at your goal weight. Then everyone got excited about the idea of sleeping for a year.
I mentioned Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and of course everyone wanted to read it, because for women the idea of sleeping for a year is the ultimate fantasy.
We were laughing pretty hard when a latecomer arrived, and we explained that we were talking about sleeping for a year. “Oh!” she said, “there’s a novel about that,” and we laughed even harder. “See? I didn’t make it up.”
We figured out the details: Go to sleep for a year. While you’re knocked out, have all your dental work done, get waxed, schedule a three-hour balayage session, design a full-body tattoo, whatever other boring or painful treatments you might want. Time it to miss all the election cycle news. (Maybe wake up just in time to vote).
Seriously, though. Assuming it were possible, what would it be like to sleep the year away?
Note that everyone in the discussion was a single woman, except for me, and, like everyone else, I don’t have kids. My stepdaughter is turning 25 and she’s been living on her own for years. I can easily understand why any parent with kids at home would be tired enough to want to sleep for a year, but it would be really hard to miss a year of their lives!
Being able to sleep for a year indicates that there are no four-alarm fires that you personally need to handle. Presumably even a surgeon or an EMT has days off when other people are on duty. Most of us aren’t literally responsible for life-or-death situations, we just cultivate our stress levels as if we are.
Does that feel true? Are our exhaustion, stress, and burnout levels really so chronically high that we might even be more tired than emergency room people?
First we have to imagine ourselves in a context in which none of our stress is helpful to society or to ourselves. We have to imagine that, yes, the world can go on without us if we roll over and fluff our pillows.
Then we have to imagine that waking up fully rested and restored would in fact deliver a better version of ourselves. That we could handle our daily routine again in good cheer, knowing we finally did not feel tired.
I know what I would do, if I did it. Assuming my husband was called away on some special mission to Mars and we couldn’t even communicate while he was gone, that I could sleep for a year and not hurt anyone’s feelings, I think I know what I would do.
I’d spend a day getting ready, cleaning out my fridge and putting all my bills on auto-pay. (Maybe I’d see if someone would stow my slumbering body on a little cot in their garage so I didn’t have to pay rent). Sleep for a year, no household chores or errands or cooking or laundry, right?
I’d get rid of all my clothes, assuming they wouldn’t fit the same when I woke up, and who would want that? Maybe keep one baggy sundress to wear to the store when I woke up to replenish my wardrobe.
I’d get rid of all my books, assuming that I’d be no more likely to read them a year from now than I have been so far. It’s not like there aren’t plenty more books out there for when I wake up.
I’d chuck any unread mail, knowing it wouldn’t be my problem a year from now. I don’t owe anyone any money. As long as someone else is taking my pets to the vet, and I’ve got my coma-appointments scheduled for dental work, et cetera, what is possibly coming in through snail mail that will concern me?
What the heck is actually on my to-do list? Does any of it truly need to get done? By me?
Hmm, what else is there?
I guess I’d have to tell people I wasn’t taking calls. Put a disclaimer in an auto-respond email message and change my voicemail. Hi, I’m sleeping until 2021, please don’t leave a message, try me again after I come out of hibernation.
What if this were a natural human biological process, like it is for bears and other animals? What if we all did it at different times? Nobody would be surprised or care that someone was busy pupating or whatever. “I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m emerging from my chrysalis.”
Imagine waking up. Imagine having simply gone to bed for a year, no loose ends and nothing to worry about. What would happen next?
This is a serious question. What would you do tomorrow if you felt fully rested, you had no incomplete tasks, and you understood that you had a clean slate and you could do whatever you wanted?
The truth is that we can basically do this for real any time we like. We are not indentured servants. We can always change jobs, move, consolidate our debts, and/or transform our bodies. We can cut off toxic, draining relationships and go on without them. We can do it all, and we don’t actually need to put ourselves in a coma to do it.
The funniest thing about the idea of sleeping for a year is that, partway into it, you’d start feeling rested enough to no longer feel an urgent need to sleep for a year. How long would that take? Eleven months? One month? Three nights?
It’s a good experiment. Set a bedtime alarm and go to bed at 9:00 pm for a few days. Try it out and see how it feels. Clear your schedule and nap all weekend. Maybe you won’t be tired any more, or maybe you’ll want to keep going for the gold medal and sleep for a year after all.
I will never not be tired. That was a realization I had, or at least a passing thought that feels true while dealing with jet lag. Then I had an interesting conversation with one of our favorite baristas.
He related that he had been talking to my husband earlier about what their generation’s version of smoking is. Cigarettes had been on our mind, since very few Californians smoke tobacco and they are rather more common in Britain. It didn’t surprise me that the topic had come up.
(It’s also fairly common for us to have these sorts of extended relay conversations by means of the tea counter).
The topic of warfare in antiquity had come up in my Classics program. We were wondering what it must be like to run into battle with nothing but sandals, shield, and spear, knowing you might die any minute. Did we have anything that scary in modern life? The answer everyone came up with was driving on the freeway. Almost every day we might see cars piled up, and everyone knows someone who was killed in a traffic collision, but we shrug and keep doing it. I didn’t have a license yet and this conversation put me in no great hurry to learn to drive; indeed I quit and I don’t think I’ve been behind the wheel in at least two years.
What this is saying is that our social norms can change, they can and they do. Sometimes they change quite suddenly and other times it creeps up on us slowly, almost unnoticeably.
What they decided is that our generation’s version of smoking is: not sleeping.
“Our generation” in this case meant Millennials. My hubby and I are both Generation X, from opposite ends of the age bracket. Our tattooed, pierced, beanie-wearing bearded barista made this observation, and it instantly snapped something into place for me.
It didn’t use to be this way.
I honestly don’t remember everyone going around talking about how tired they are all the time back in the Eighties or Nineties.
When did it start? When did it change?
It used to be “how are you?” “Fine, how are you?”
Then it was “how are you?” “Busy!”
Then “Crazy busy!”
Now it’s perpetually “tired.”
I shared that people weren’t talking about how tired they were all the time, now that he mentioned it. An observation like this from a young man who wakes up at 3:00 AM to serve coffee all day might be somewhat suspect, but then consider that our neighborhood asks this of him. Nobody is asking bookstore clerks to wake up at 3 AM to sell books, am I right?
I said I thought it probably changed with the advent of the internet.
It was cable TV that had everyone gradually quit hanging out in each other’s living rooms, I’m pretty sure of that. In the Seventies and Eighties it was pretty common, even if we were just talking or playing cards. Even our less-favorite neighbors would still drop by and vice versa, maybe just to watch Knight Rider.
Back in those days, you had to watch stuff at a specific time. Videos were expensive to rent, let alone buy, and getting a movie and pizza was a big enough deal for people to put their shoes on and actually leave their apartment.
Then we all got cable.
It was a few years after that before the “Information Superhighway” and the “World Wide Web” started to take off. Years after that before we all got smartphones.
I remember all of this point by point, when I look back, because I grew up with a rotary phone and a little black and white television with an antenna on top. I remember that when we met, my ex-husband had a pager. I remember how incredibly excited I was to have a new flip phone with a clock on it.
It crept up on us.
When I went to get my tea today, I was feeling really sorry for myself about how tired I have been and how hard it’s been to get a decent night’s sleep.
Then I had this conversation with a Millennial who says his wife only sleeps five hours a night, and he needs “at least six.”
I feel like a total wreck on six hours. I’m a nine-hour person. Our barista’s wife is routinely sleeping a little over half what I consider the “correct” amount.
It was spontaneously mentioned that this poor sleepless gal spends an hour in bed on her phone before going to sleep.
“In my day,” she creaked querulously, “‘on the phone’ meant talking to someone.”
Now we’re scrolling, scrolling, endlessly scrolling. Looking at what?
As far as our quantity and quality of sleep is concerned, it doesn’t matter.
It is probably true that lack of sleep is the new smoking. It’s also pretty indisputable that if we’re lying there in the dark, scrolling on our phones, then the phones have something to do with it. It is certainly true that if everyone is doing it, it feels “normal” even when it also feels terrible.
It feels terrible and it might be killing us, in a way we won’t realize for decades.
Almost everyone smoked back in the Seventies and Eighties. Everyone had at least one ashtray, sometimes several. You could buy cigarettes from vending machines in restaurants and at gas stations. It was rare to go to someone’s house or ride in their car without at least one person smoking a cigarette the whole time. Then it hit the media that there were people out there smoking out of a hole in their throat. It started to be less and less common, until now smoking means you do it next to a dumpster in the rain.
Eventually, just like with smoking, it will start to be more obvious how devastating a health impact comes from never getting enough sleep. Constant sleep deprivation will stop making any kind of sense. It will gradually start to become unfashionable to be tired all the time, when it’s so obvious that something can be done about it.
Back in the day, there was room for boredom, for staring at the ceiling, for hanging out and doing nothing, and maybe that’s why we slept more. Maybe we won’t go back to that, but surely there’s something more interesting than being Tired, So Tired every day.
Maybe it will only happen when we replace it with something like spacesuit chafing or the health effects of faster-than-light travel.
I was just thinking how long it had been since I participated in the 24-Hour Readathon, when I had a surprise occasion to be up for 24 hours. This should have occurred to me sooner, or in other words it should not have come as a surprise at all, because it was built into our trip to the UK. Would I have used the time differently?
More importantly, is a 24-hour sprint a useful tool for other situations?
Whether being awake for 24 hours feels interesting, fun, or terrible depends entirely on the reason and your attitude going in.
After 35 years of chronic insomnia and parasomnia issues, I’m trying to decondition myself from the thoughts that I AM TIRED and I’M BAD AT SLEEPING. What if occasionally being tired was not a problem, but rather a neutral, useful, or interesting experience?
The readathon was something that I used to find thrilling, and something that my now-husband and his grade-school-aged daughter looked on with bemusement. I would spend weeks deciding what to read and planning my snacks, my outfit, where I would sit, etc. Then my record was crushed by an adult who read a big stack of YA and kids’ books. Grr! I bowed out after reading all of The Recognitions in 24 hours - finishing just before the clock was up - and retiring on a high note.
It’s different when you’re in your early thirties. You’re still used to waking up rung-out after late nights having fun, going to concerts or parties or simply staying up playing cards until all hours. A day of physical exhaustion may be a regular part of your week.
All-nighters in college are a mark of grit, and turning in a paper before the deadline or doing well on a test after a cram session are the rewards. Everyone is doing it and it has its bragging rights. If you’ve done it once, then you know you have the capacity to do it again.
Lying awake and not sleeping due to mysterious insomnia problems feels bad. It can approach the level of an existential crisis. WHY? Sleep Y U hate me? Yet it’s the same 24 hours that anyone else has, and not every sleepless person is having the same emotions or the same thoughts.
What if we approach sleeplessness with curiosity?
I might do it in solidarity with someone. Say if my niece or one of my nephews was up studying, although they undoubtedly have study partners for that. If a friend was running a relay race, I might go out and support. The same sleeplessness I can experience on a hot pillowcase at home could feel like an act of friendship or compassion or service.
On rare occasions, when I’ve been writing at night or my sleep schedule has been bonkers, I’ve done what I call a “reset.” Stay up, go out into natural daylight, walk all over town, eat an early dinner, and force myself to remain awake until 9:00 PM, when I am then able to fall fast asleep. It’s possible then to sleep for as much as 12 hours, if you can, and be back on a more-or-less normal schedule.
In this sense, being awake for 24 hours can be a useful tool.
What happened in this most recent case is that I went to bed a little early in Edinburgh, knowing we had to get up and leave for the airport. I woke up an hour before the alarm. What followed was twenty hours of moving through three airports, two sets of security, customs, and a rideshare, bookended by getting ready and bag-wrangling. Much of the time vanished while shuffling through mild chaos or eating meals on a tiny plastic shingle. Close to fifteen hours, though, involved sitting quietly still in a confined space and trying not to bother the eight other people sitting within three feet.
Through experience I know when it’s better to stay awake to fight jet lag. I understand that the payoff is a quick and relatively painless adjustment, rather than up to three weeks of brain miasma. There was a ten-minute period when I caved, but after putting my head down on my lap tray I was delivered from temptation by sheer discomfort.
What did I do with the “bonus time” of being in jet lag limbo?
I caught up on my travel journal, which I’ve never successfully done before. I took notes about our trip and added items to our travel checklist while they were fresh in my mind. I discovered that I was unable to work offline on email, which was Plan A. Having no keyboard, I didn’t plan to do any extensive writing. I read a non-fiction book. I planned out an online workshop. Almost the entire trip, I read through my perpetually out-of-control news queue, which now feels totally manageable.
There are so many things that we never feel we have “enough time” to do. Culturally, we all tend to be exhausted and over-scheduled. Thus it says a lot when we’re trapped in a situation when there are very few options for activities. What do you do when you can’t sleep, can’t exercise, can’t call a friend, can’t check social media, can’t clean your house or run errands?
Now I have my own personal image of what it looks and feels like to actually read all the articles I have bookmarked. When I inevitably start getting all crazy and saving dozens more, I can ask myself, when do I think I am going to have fifteen hours to read all this?
Am I afraid I’m going to run out?
When we came home, our apartment was clean, the way I left it. There were clean sheets on the bed. Our only problems would be washing the two loads of laundry we brought home from our trip and stocking our now-empty fridge with groceries. Another person might use a 24-hour reset experiment to clear out closets and do chores, and manifest the same all-caught-up, nothing-left-to-do feeling that I have now.
The real question is, how long can it last before we mess it all up again? What do we do with the very next 24 hours, and the next?
Comparing methods of dealing with jet lag is my gift to the world. I’m convinced that sleep is mystical and that what works for one person may not work for someone else. I’m somewhat less convinced that somewhere out there is the perfect method for me. Why quit trying, though?
What follows is a rundown of three methods of defraying the mental cost of jet lag.
The first time we came to Europe, we flew to Iceland to live in a tent. We didn’t sleep at all on the flight, thanks to a young family, the father of whom sat by himself on one side of the aisle refusing to help his wife deal with their children on the other, both of whom occupied themselves by continually kicking our seats.
Keep this in mind if you are jet lagged and trying desperately to stay awake. Simply find a place with seat-kicking children and they will gladly assist.
On the Iceland trip, we set up our tent in the morning and “took a nap,” which used almost our entire first day. This method is not recommended for adjusting to a new time zone seven hours away.
On our second trip, meeting in Hamburg, I decided to try pre-adjusting by going to bed half an hour earlier every night for two weeks. I relied on melatonin at the time, and it’s hard to tell how much of a factor that was. The night before I left, I had night terrors and woke up standing in my bathroom. I barely slept on the plane and was so tired I stood in the EU line at customs because I thought it stood for “Estados Unidos.” Then I couldn’t remember how to operate a turnstile. Went to bed and snapped awake at 2:00 AM for three hours.
But then, by the second night I was adjusted to local time.
That is the main thing to keep in mind about jet lag. It’s generally terrible on the first day, but if you eat meals at the local time and make yourself get up in the local morning, it basically goes away.
What happens if you try to stay on your home schedule for sleep and meals? I have no idea. I’ve never tried.
My motivation in travel is to see as much as I can see, and see everything I can’t experience at home. I want to look at nature in daylight and I want to visit attractions while they are open. Most things that are open at night, like theaters and clubs and bars and shopping centers, are basically the same as what we have at home, so it doesn’t pay to sleep through it.
On this trip, I followed my husband’s method. A frequent business traveler, jet lag is a persistent problem he can’t afford to have. He takes a Benadryl at local bedtime. Personally I don’t do well on Benadryl, so I tried Unisom.
Can I say, I think we’ve got it??
I took a Unisom at 6 PM my time on the plane and sort of slept lightly for six hours. We landed at noon local time. I didn’t feel all that tired or dopey and I was even able to navigate a turnstile.
These are the past travel mistakes that I did not make:
Did not leave my coat in the overhead bin and have to run back for it
Did not get yelled at by customs officials
Did not tell anyone the wrong airline and have them wait for me in the wrong terminal
Did not get on the wrong transportation heading the wrong direction
We were able to find our way through the airport, go through customs, find the Underground station, board a train, and make it all the way to our station without mishap. Then we got out on the wrong level and found ourselves out back by the service doors, and got redirected by some station employees.
“Are you lost?”
“If you’re talking to us, you’re lost. There’s no one else out here but us.”
We made it to the hotel and managed to resist the siren call of the mattress. We went out and walked around in the natural afternoon daylight until dinnertime. My husband, who had only slept four hours, was out cold before the clock struck eight. I made it another hour.
We both woke up at 9 AM local time, having slept at least twelve hours each. Feels like success.
That’s my new jet lag method. No more spending two weeks trying to adjust in advance. No more napping in the middle of the day. And if anyone else allows their children to kick our seats on the plane, we’re going to make them trade seats with us.
It’s one of my coaching clients, and she has a little secret. It’s not much of a secret as far as I’m concerned, because so many people do the same thing. What makes a secret a secret, though, is the shame. That’s why they call it a ‘secret’ and not a ‘surprise.’
Guess what I’m doing?? When you find out you’re going to be SO EXCITED!!!
Nope, not that kind. The guilty kind.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, gets out of bed, and binge-eats.
Okay, not everyone does that, but I can tell you why it’s so similar to what so many people do.
She, like many people, often skips breakfast. If she does eat anything in the morning, it’s usually a coffee and pastry or, like, an energy bar.
A snack instead of a proper lunch.
Nothing until dinnertime, 6-8 hours after the last time she ate.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
It’s incredibly common for people to eat some kind of snack, usually dessert, very late at night. Usually right before bed. I personally cannot do this because it triggers my night terrors. No amount or flavor of ice cream is worth screaming in my sleep.
Other people, though, are understandably going to be hungry again 3-4 hours after dinner, and they’re going to eat. Most people also crave sweets after a meal.
So yeah. Night eating. *shrug* Most people do it. Why be ashamed about it?
I get the shame thing, I really do. When I have night terrors, I always start crying as soon as I snap awake. I can’t imagine anything more embarrassing than running around the house in my underwear, screaming, because I had some stupid dream about a spider on the ceiling. It makes me feel like a child, like I can’t control myself. Hate it.
It’s the body telling the brain what to do.
Exactly like the craving to eat late at night.
My client wants to stop, she says. She feels ashamed and guilty and she’s not enjoying the effects on her health. (Diabetes, sleep apnea, a 100-pound weight gain).
I suggest that she might change her mealtimes and come up with things to do that will keep her in bed when she wakes up at night. Like her favorite playlist, a bottle of aromatherapy fragrance, maybe a podcast episode. I wake up in the middle of the night a lot, too, and it’s pretty boring to just lie there for 90 minutes.
My plan, of course, doesn’t work.
The problem with persistent problems is that they’re always the result of a complex web of issues. Changing only one thing usually isn’t enough to disrupt the pattern. It can be very tricky to figure out what is the root cause.
There’s another problem with persistent problems. That is that we’re in love with them.
There’s always some part of the web of issues that is our very most favorite, adorable thing.
It’s usually part of our very identity, or the one thing we’d want to hold onto if we ever had to give up everything else. Our heart’s desire and our true delight.
The thing about night eating is that it’s done ALONE. It’s a favored refuge of people who feel that they serve others all day. Workaholics and people pleasers. There is nothing that feels as good as TOTAL PRIVACY while indulging in something for yourself alone.
Hey, I agree with that, and I do it too! Showering, writing in my journal, birdwatching... The difference between me and my troubled clients is that I have no shame in indulging myself. I do plenty for other people, but I don’t owe anyone anything, and I have no problem setting boundaries and making sure I have time to myself. Otherwise, I could never deal with the emotional demands that I do.
I also don’t have body image issues, for my own complicated reasons, and I eat whatever I want. If I want cake for breakfast then I’ll eat it, and I’d actually enjoy it much more if I felt like someone was glaring at me and judging me. Ha, this is for you, *big bite*.
The simplest way for my client to deal with her night eating really would be to change her eating schedule. Start with a big hot breakfast. Take an hour off every day and eat a proper sit-down lunch, no errands, no “catching up” on work. Have a satisfying afternoon snack sometime between 3-5, or at least eat something during the commute home. Eat a good dinner.
The goal here is to eat 70-75% of your energy requirements for the day BEFORE DINNER, so that the nice dinner is a chance to put a cap on the day.
As opposed to being incredibly hungry almost all day long, rushing around, “no time” to take real breaks, and feeling starved after twelve busy waking hours.
But doing that would interfere with [everyone’s] image of the diligent, hardworking and ultra-responsible professional busy person.
How do I know how valuable I am unless I feel like I’m sacrificing for my work (my staff, my clients, my customers) all day every day?
Being hungry all day, as a pattern, is a form of self-punishment. It’s a job for a trained therapist to figure out why someone would feel that way, would want to do that. We’d never treat others as badly as we treat ourselves, and there’s something deep under that, but I sure don’t know what it is.
There are other ways for my client to set herself up to quit night eating. She could sign up for a meal delivery plan and eat only what gets delivered.
She could ask her assistant to make sure she eats breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and even have her order it for her each day. It could be scheduled as part of their check-in meetings.
She could put locks on her fridge, freezer, and cupboards, and give her husband the key. More positively, they could quit stocking food in their home, and they could dine out together at a salad buffet or whatever.
She could tell her doctor about it and ask for help. A change in medication, maybe? A doctor would see this as a straightforward health issue, not a shameful secret.
As a practical matter, eating at night is a way of annoying yourself. Crumbs in the bed: uncomfortable! Not sleeping the whole night through: exhausting! Being hungry all day long at work, every week of the year: predictable, boring, and unproductive! Exploding at other people when you’re hangry: mean, rude, and unfair to them!
There are no “wins” here except for the pure hedonism of eating alone, late at night.
As an emotional matter, what’s the deal with night eating? If you want to indulge, just do it in public and, in the unlikely event that anyone hassles you, wink at them and take a nice big grinning bite. The real issue here is probably working out why you care what other people think, rather than what you yourself think.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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