I spend several days at a time without enough sleep. At first, normal activities become annoying… A few days later, things become strange. Loud noises become louder and more startling, familiar sounds become unfamiliar, and life reinvents itself as a surrealist dream. – Henry Rollins
Dear Sleep Hygiene Expert,
Please excuse my tone of voice, but it’s 2am, I’m wide-awake and quite frankly I’m pissed off. I don’t know if it’s taboo for a counsellor to confess to difficulty with sleeping, but if anyone should understand it’s you, so here I am.
It was news the first time I read about sleep hygiene: advice such as not looking at screens, not consuming sugar, making sure my room is dark and a comfortable temperature, doing exercise at THIS time and not THAT time, meditation, drinking herbal teas, buying a good pillow, getting up at the same time every day etc.
What might be news to you is that none of this sleep hygiene shit works.
See, I have had trouble sleeping since forever. I actually can’t remember a time when I would blissfully head off to bed at a reasonable time, unable to keep my eyes open, and easily fall into a deep and restful slumber.
When I was not even 10 years old, I begged my parents into letting me have a later bedtime that most kids my age would have. To be fair, if they hadn’t let me stay awake just that bit longer, I would have learned in one of the millions of books I devoured to sneak a flashlight into my room and read under the covers anyway.
I was always the last one awake at the slumber party or the Guides camp or the school trip away. Bleary eyed teachers and volunteer parents losing their patience in the wee hours, stomping in to tell me and whoever else I’d convinced to stay up to go to sleep RIGHT NOW or Else.
I moved out of home and in with friends at 19 and lived in many group houses over the years of university and travel. Those early 20’s years lacking in sleep were more ‘normal’ because everyone was doing it. Working odd jobs, studying into the night, partying a lot, figuring life out. Generally sleep issues are attributed to lifestyle at that age, but for some of us it was like finally having allies in the weird habits of the perennially sleep deprived.
But now I’m in my late 30’s and here’s what I can tell you Sleep Hygiene Expert. Sleep still evades me on the semi-regular, and I have tried all your ideas.
That getting up at the same time thing? I gave it a couple of months a few years back. It didn’t seem that much of a stretch to include early-rising weekends for someone who has worked full-time for years.
But it was torturous.
In no way did having a pattern help me sleep any better on the nights when sleep just wasn’t on the cards, and I couldn’t even enjoy a catch-up on the weekend. I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a new mum, but I imagine a little kinship there: the catch-up sleeps are CRUCIAL to your survival. And without the new baby vibes to warm my heart, why the hell would I keep putting myself through that when a sleep-in is sometimes the only thing the troubled sleeper can look forward to?
I know that my ability to sleep is somehow affected heavily by hormones. I have PCOS and it’s fairly common for anxiety and poor sleep to have a good relationship with PCOS when you’re riding the wild hormone bus, so there’s something about that.
And mate, when you’ve spent your day listening to and helping five different women who have survived an abusive childhood, intimate partner violence, rape by a stranger or all of the above, I challenge you to hit the hay without a thought on your mind. If you ARE those women, I can’t imagine the Sleep Hygiene Expert has much helpful advice for you either.
There are certain things that do work at certain times: like writing all my thoughts out in a journal, 4262 breathing exercises, consuming a very small amount of carbs just before bed, getting a bunch of exercise, listening to a visualisation, reading something a little boring, writing a to-do list for the next day, doing the Paul McKenna hypnotherapy CD (yep).
But then, just as easily these things don’t work. Even if I practice them. Even if I don’t give up. Even if I try my very hardest for such a long time that I end up revolving my whole life routine around the moving feast of a sleep hygiene pattern that is (a) boring (b) has zero guarantees (c) leaves the door wide-open for a personal Failure story to march on in when it doesn’t work.
Sleep Hygiene Expert, I wonder if you really truly know what it feels like to not be able to sleep (for more than the odd night)?
It’s a little bit like the diet and nutrition expert who has never struggled with weight. As Lindy West says, do they honestly think that fat people don’t know we’re fat? That we know nothing about nutrition and what we’re ‘supposed’ to do?
Fat people on average know more than naturally slim people about weight loss, a balanced diet and exercise. I’m willing to bet that us sleep-challenged, insomniacs and night owls are the same: “Hey Guys, shout out if you know nothing about sleep hygiene!”… crickets… thought so.
Do you have a clue what it really feels like to be looking at the clock (even though you KNOW you’re not supposed to) at 2…3…4am counting the moments until that bloody alarm is going off? You’re beating yourself up for not doing the right things in the lead up to sleep all day, and you’re doing all the tricks but tonight they just aren’t working and you’re lying there. Tossing and turning. You start playing over the day before, or the day ahead, or the day from 12 years ago when you wish you’d told that horrible boss you had for one month on a temp job in Bristol how sad and petty her life was over and over. And not just once after a bad day, but reasonably often.
No Sleep becomes a bit of a Familiar Sleepless Friend (let’s call her Yawning Owl) after such a long relationship.
On the worst nights, everything seems completely unmanageable. You lie awake worrying unnecessarily about the Absolutely Straightforward Thing you have to do tomorrow. You’re visited by a million Worst Case Scenarios on any number of subjects. You can’t shut the pictures out of your head, and knowing it won’t be quite so bad in the morning is all you can tell yourself when you’re filled with despair. Which, surprisingly, can be helpful: This Too Shall Pass.
Tonight it’s a Friday in April 2017 and I can’t sleep. That’s it. I can speculate for hours on why. I’m out of town and my partner isn’t here. I’m a little warm… but not really. I watched TV a bit late… but not too late. I drove 7 hours to get here and listened to too many podcasts. I ate some junk food, but I didn’t overdo it.
My eyelids are drooping and my eyes are stinging. There is nothing wrong but sleep is just not here tonight.
Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned Sleep Hygiene Expert: Sleep Interruption is just part of my life.
It’s why I don’t feel anxious tonight, just mildly annoyed. Because I’ve gotten through many days on little to no sleep, and while it’s not at all pleasant to drag myself out of bed and have to face a big day, I’ve always survived.
Quite often when I awaken after a late-night visit from Yawning Owl, I give myself a little pep talk: ‘Look Nicole, just get up and get started, do one thing, and then you can go home or grab a nap, I give you permission’.
You know what? I have hardly ever taken myself up on the offer. It turns out that being tired isn’t really the worst thing in the world (especially when you’re kind of an expert in it).
Sometimes I actually get a hugely amazing amount of awesome stuff done: 2nd and 3rd and 4th winds blow in and rise me well above the low tide that ebbed in the morning.
Other times I’m just there as best as I can be, and that’s enough.
Very rarely there are other times, when Yawning Owl has been a bit too busy. I start to go a little haywire and I do need to stop. I have to listen to my body, cancel the day as planned, and take care of it.
Sleep Hygiene Expert, if you ever find yourself on a 4 day no-sleep rollercoaster, here’s my expert advice: Whatever that does to you, it’s never good and you need to take care of yourself in a way that works for you. Do it. You’re no good to anyone if you’re an anxious blubbering sleepless pile of wild-eyed crazytown.
The good thing about being awake alone at night is that lots of good ideas come to you (amidst the uninvited rumination on that terrible jerk you dated in 2003 and what you’d say to him if you ran into him now). Writers and artists and musicians and mathematicians and scientists come up with all sorts of stuff in the wee hours.
Hey, I just wrote the bones of a blog post that might help a few people! While I’m on the good stuff, I also attribute my love of reading to a childhood lacking in enough sleep (as well as a mum who read to me from the day I was born). How can reading a lot be a bad thing?
If I spend my whole life thinking there’s something wrong with me because of Yawning Owl then I’ll spend my whole life trying to fix it. Instead I’ve just decided at this point, after years of trying to treat her away, maybe she’s with me for the long haul.
I accept that a combination of circumstances, biology, and choices make me a proud Occasional Non-Sleeper. And I am enough.
That doesn’t mean I won’t sagely keep an awareness of your advice Sleep Hygiene Expert: It’s good stuff. But I’m not going to revolve my entire life around having the right pillow and doing all the right everything, only to feel like a Big Failure when it doesn’t work.
Or even worse: not be able to enjoy a holiday because I can’t recreate the perfect atmosphere in a rickety bed with a mosquito net thrown over it on a beautiful island in Indonesia.
If a good nights sleep ever comes easily to me night after night after night then I’m not gonna lie: I’ll be pretty stoked. But truthfully, I have absolutely no concept of what that would feel like, and you can’t really miss what you never knew.
In writing this letter to you, I guess I’m not so pissed off after all Sleep Hygiene Expert. But I’m choosing to give you less power, and choosing to give the old ‘You’re not so bad after all’ to my faithful Yawning Owl instead.
And guess what? Tomorrow there’s a thunderstorm due in… I might sleep until 12pm, and I won’t feel bad about it for even one minute.
But right now I’m going to switch off the light and count sheep down from 200.
Sometimes the classics are the best ideas of all.
It’s May 2021 and I now sleep much better than I have in my entire life. Is this due to sleep hygiene? HELL NO!
It’s due to a book called ‘8 Steps to Reverse Your PCOS‘ by Dr Fiona Mcculloch, a world-leading naturopath who has and specialises in PCOS. The book offers a very thorough biological, medical and naturopathic examination of and treatments for PCOS. It is not attached to any branded products.
I did not take all the advice, but I did start taking some supplements (Myo-inositol being the most important one, as well as transresveratol, fish oil and vitamin D).
Myo-inositol increases insulin sensitivity, decreases hyperandrogenism and improves the menstrual cycle, all of which basically mean that my body is working better when I take it. Less sharp hormonal swings that were most likely causing the worst of my major sleep issues.
I still have the odd disrupted or sleepless night (normal!), but after 1.5 years of being on this supplement regime, I think it’s safe to say restorative sleep is here for me AND I AM SO HERE FOR IT.
Hooly dooly I cannot advocate more for reading this book if you have PCOS.
Getting the proper treatment for whatever your troubles are (whether it is mental, physical, social or all of the above) can change your life. I’m only sorry it’s taken me 20 years of useless medical interventions to give naturopathic advice a go.
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Main image by Naomi August; owl picture by Kaz