September 19, 2013

#3 of My Big Three: Sleep "Prescriptions"


It's 11:30pm, and I'll post these thoughts in the morning. But now, I'll go to bed, and I will fall asleep without any trouble whatsoever, without popping any pills, and without any anxiety about being able to fall into a deep, refreshing sleep.

It has not always been like this. In the past, I've struggled with several severe, prolonged bouts of insomnia. Each had a different scenerio, and each a different solution.

My Battles with Insomnia
Booze. During my alcoholic years, my wife and I would drink two or three martinis before dinner and several glasses of vermouth before bedtime. So I usually had no trouble falling to sleep. But I'd wake in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. My solution? Slurping down another glass of vermouth, placed strategically the night before under the bed where my wife wouldn't see it!


LightAfter I got sober in 1978, I experienced the longest, strangest siege of insomnia. For years, just as I was drifting off to sleep in my bed, my body would give a sudden jerk. I'd wake up and stay awake for much of the night. After years of this odd fragmented, unsatisfactory slumber, I discovered that I could get a decent night's sleep on the living room couch. From time to time, I'd try the bedroom again, but without success. 

Years ago in law school, I started taking brief naps after lunch; otherwise, I couldn't stay awake for my 2pm class in real property law. (It was so long ago that I napped in what they called the "Men's Lounge" at the Cornell Law School. Our class numbered about 100 and only two were women. They didn't have their own lounge.) 

I've continued these after lunch naps ever since. During the insomnia siege, I realized I could STILL take them in the bedroom during the afternoon. . . I just couldn't sleep there through the night. I wondered if my problem had something to do with the streetlamp outside shining into my bedroom through the venetian blinds. . I installed blackout blinds and the weird body-jerk insomnia disappeared. D'uh!

Pills. Some insomnia continued, however, and I started taking Tylenol PM at bedtime. Since the problem seemed especially bad during trips abroad, I got a prescription for the sleep aid Ambien from my internist (who knew I was taking Tylenol PM). When I felt tired and jet-lagged, I'd add another half-tablet of Ambien. 

Returning from a trip to Nepal in 2006, my insomnia was especially distressing, so I started taking a full Ambien in addition to the Tylenol PM. After a few days of heavy-duty pill overload, I had a frightening panic attack. Thus began my "Summer from Hell," filled with sleeplessness and panic. I worked with my internist, sleep clinic specialists, and a psychiatrist who specialized in medication. 

Through that awful summer, I tried half a dozen new prescription sleep aids and antidepressants, but the problems only got worse. Finally, the pill shrink (of all people) suggested we abandon all the meds and seek a holistic approach. I tried hypnosis, which didn't work. 

Then I found The Insomnia Solution, a new book that described a variety of relaxation / meditation techniques. One of them, "the Secret Handshake," involved squeezing one thumb and then the other. Damned if it didn't slowly begin to work!

My Current Insomnia-Free Life
For the past few years, I've been virtually insomnia-free. What a relief! But what changed? I suapect there are several contributing factors.

Mindfulness Meditation. See yesterdays's post, below.

5-HTP. The OTC serotonin booster was the only pill that seemed to help during my Summer from Hell." I started using it again after I was diagnosed with Parkinson's four years ago, and it has helped my mood and my sleep. I've discovered I need to keep doses small -- 25mg or 50mg. Higher doses have elevated my blood pressure. 

At first, I really touted 5-HTP because it helped me so much. I came to understand that my response was my response.  Friends who tried it didn't experience the benefits I did. It was a good lesson for me: everyone's situation is different. I've written often about the supplement. Just enter "5-HTP" in the search box.

A New Perspective on Sleep. This spring I read that before the Industrial Age -- through the millenia -- most people spent the night in two separate sleeps. They'd come home from the fields, have a big supper, then go to bed. They'd wake up after a few hours, and stay up for awhile before going back to bed for a second sleep. Ben Franklin described sitting nude in his chair, reading during this time between sleeps. 

Today's obsession about getting "seven solid hours" of sleep emerged when factory owners and office managers wanted everyone on regular schedules that fit the new workday requirements. Knowing this history helps me feel more at ease about getting up at 4am . . . and staying up for a while to enjoy my meditations and "joy of quiet" before returning to bed.

This summer, I traveled across Europe for five weeks without any anxiety about sleep. What a pleasure!

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