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Chasing rest in vain: the anatomy of sleepless nights

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The Kansas Reflector hosts opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of broadening the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Dana Wormald is the editor-in-chief of New Hampshire Bulletin.

There is a lot to fear these days – and these nights.

I’m going to refrain from exploring this claim in detail, because if you’re like me, you go through the list every night when you should be sleeping. But in fairness to current events, my inability to sleep seems to be only partially caused by the fraying of the world. Over the past decade, I’ve never let relative good times get in the way of a good 2:30 a.m. anxiety shake.

I remember when sleep wasn’t something you did but it happened to you. One minute you’re under the covers at 8:30 p.m. with a flashlight reading a comic, and the next thing you know, your mom is standing over you in the morning light shouting something at About being late for school. Stunned, you crawl out of bed desperately trying to figure out the witchcraft that turned 10 hours into 10 seconds.

Thirty years later, the sorcerer changes his tactics: endless nights chasing sleep in vain.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a hobby of trying to figure out why my brain sometimes seems determined to destroy me. So when episodes of insomnia became the norm in early middle age, I tried to find the causes and potential solutions. This led me to something called “sleep hygiene,” or a series of best practices to help you avoid lying in bed with your eyes wide open. If you’ve ever Google searched for “insomnia,” you are probably familiar with the principles of sleep hygiene:

  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.
  • Give yourself half an hour to relax quietly every night, which means no phone or TV.
  • If you toss and turn for about 20 minutes, get out of bed and read, knit, or do some other calming activity that doesn’t involve electronics.

However, it’s not just the nighttime routine that matters. Sleep hygienists stress the importance of getting out every day and getting exercise. They will also tell you to get rid of cigarettes and cut down or eliminate alcohol. Plus, no afternoon and evening caffeine, and no late dinners. A bed, they say, is for sleep and sex – so don’t turn it into a home office.

But the most difficult rule to follow is to get up for a calming activity if you are awake for 20 minutes. We live in a “lovely” house (or “small and old” in non-Zillow parlance), so when one of us gets out of bed, everyone’s sleep is interrupted. The stairs and floor don’t squeak as much as they scream, and there’s no option to silently close any of the doors. Additionally, Juno the Cat’s favorite nighttime activity is tripping people.

Some rules are easier to follow than others. I don’t smoke, so score a point for that. And I have never been very comfortable working on a laptop in bed. Reluctantly, I can give up the after-dinner beer and the 3pm cup of coffee, but two working parents and two teenagers mean most dinners are ‘late dinners’. And let’s just say I’m not good at going out and exercising on weekdays.

But the most difficult rule to follow is to get up for a calming activity if you are awake for 20 minutes. We live in a “lovely” house (or “small and old” in non-Zillow parlance), so when one of us gets out of bed, everyone’s sleep is interrupted. The stairs and floor don’t squeak as much as they scream, and there’s no option to silently close any of the doors. Additionally, Juno the Cat’s favorite nighttime activity is tripping people.

And then there is this: isn’t life regulated enough without the rules of sleep hygiene?

When I first started dealing with sleepless nights, I assumed that insomnia was the price of being a responsible adult. I told myself that I had slept well as a child because I was taken care of and there was nothing to worry about. But I know this is not true. I’m not so far away from being a kid that I’ve forgotten what it is like to worry about a math test or the embarrassing thing that happened at school. It’s exactly the same as worrying about a mortgage payment and the embarrassing thing that happened at work.

What was different, unsurprisingly, was my sleep hygiene.

I had to go to bed at the same time every night because my parents didn’t give me a choice, and I always spent at least half an hour relaxing because it’s the only option when you are told to ‘go to bed before you get tired. I didn’t drink beer when I was 10, so that part was easy, and I wasn’t getting as much caffeine as I wanted: milk at dinner, water before bed. But maybe the biggest difference was the time I spent outdoors playing baseball, football, basketball, or a sport the neighborhood kids and I made up out of sheer boredom.

One game involved using a Wiffle Ball bat to hit one of those volleyball-sized vinyl balls that you could buy in the grocery store for 99 cents. We called it “goofball” and the rules were similar to baseball and softball, but much better. The game would start right after homework and last until sunset, with just a short break for dinner.

I remember feeling completely exhausted when the bat and ball were put back in the garage bin. I remember that half an hour of TV was all I had time before I was forced to bed against my will. I remember whispering to myself that I would stay awake all night long when I had a place of my own and was no longer under my parents’ control. I remember fighting against sleep to prove to them and myself that my arbitrary bedtime was just too early.

And then I don’t remember anything until the morning.

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