March 12, 2013

From Chronic Insomnia to Two Good Sleeps a Night

Today, I pick up on yesterday's post about our obsession to get "seven solid hours" of sleep. In fact, two separate sleeps each night just might be the more normal pattern.

My Battles with Insomnia
Until several years ago, I struggled with insomnia all my life. In my wild early years, I overcame the problem by making sure I was at least half-drunk when I went to bed. If I woke up in the middle of the night, the glass of vermouth under my side of the bed would send me right back to sleep.

After I got sober in 1978, my sleep was generally OK for a few years. Then for several years I couldn't fall asleep in my bedroom, but found I could get a solid night's sleep on the living room couch. I'm embarrassed to admit it took me years to figure out that the street light beyond my window was the culprit. The problem disappeared when I installed blackout blinds.

Soon I began using Tylenol PM several times a week to guarantee seven hours of sleep. During my many trips to Nepal from 2001 to 2009, I started using Ambien to deal with jet lag. Returning home from one trip, I used both Ambien and Tylenol PM, a combination that led to a crisis of anxiety attacks and depression like nothing I'd experienced before or since.

That craziness caused my "Summer from Hell," during which doctors prescribed a series of drugs. None of them helped; some made things worse.

Then I stumbled upon a book that recommended meditation-like exercises designed to alleviate insomnia. Most of them didn't help much. But one technique -- which involved a "secret handshake," believe it or not -- DID work: Click here.

Still, through all these struggles, I feared dire consequences if I didn't get a "solid seven hours" of sleep.

My Current Two Sleeps a Night 
My real break from the "solid seven" handcuffs finally came this past year when I began what I call my  "Joy of Quiet" hour. I decided to experiment with mindfulness meditation after my early morning trip to the bathroom.

Initially, I continued to meditate bedside with my eyes closed, so that I could con myself into thinking I was getting those seven solid hours of sleep. I usually turn out the lights about midnight, get up four or five hours later for a bathroom visit, meditate for an hour, and return to bed until around 7am. So, that adds up to seven hours of "sleep."

I quickly came to love this post-bathroom quiet hour. I no longer call it "meditation," since I usually do the traditional breath-focused meditation only for a few minutes at the start and end of this time. Some of the  rest of it could be called "mindfulness meditation," since I just sit and watch as thoughts come and go. It's been amazing how problems find solutions and new ideas appear during this time.

I keep experimenting. Lately, rather than get up and go to my straight-backed meditation chair, I stay in bed, lying on my back, stretching and doing back exercises. These are easy movements. I do them slowly, letting thoughts come and go.

After years of trying to sleep and meditate according to the recommendations of others, I've finally found what works for me.

Sinatra says it all.

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