I remember perfectly well the week it happened. I had gone five days straight without sleep. With concern in his voice, my family doctor referred me to a specialist (psychiatrist). Also that week, a glass of milk mysteriously slipped from my grasp and crashed to the kitchen floor, driving shards into my shins. Zombified, I watched as red dots bloomed on my legs. The mishap was one of many; I was drunk with exhaustion, which had made me clumsy and disaffected.
Having been a mother, I thought I’d mastered the 2:00 a.m. sleepwalks as I pat-patted the tiny back of a crying infant. Surely, I had chops for this, I thought. But I’d forgotten what lack of sleep does to the brain (dulls it), not to mention the body (numbs it). Perhaps most staggering was the toll it took on my psyche, which in my case led to what the specialist called “disassociation,” which the psychiatric literature describes as “feeling unreal,” which can be a blurriness about one’s place in the world, or the world itself. Either way, it’s not good.
If I wasn’t careful, the chronic exhaustion might tip into “cognitive collapse,” which truthfully was too big a concept for my under-slept brain to comprehend. The chief warning signal is deep depression. I would learn later that my insomnia showed signs of what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines as a disruption “in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, and identity.” In other words, I wasn’t just depressed, I was estranged to myself.
On the day of the diagnosis, after a 30-minute interview, the psychiatrist said, “You’re not depressed, you’re chronically under slept.” At that moment, a window opened and I could see the route to reclaiming not only my lost vitality, but myself.
To some extent, we are all in the same boat here. In our times, sleep problems are on the rise, consistent with constant use of our devices. We invest time in multiplying our personas. Then we share them in a digital cloud of what do you think about me, now? All to say we are little vessels tossing about without a sense of true north. It’s unnerving. Worse, it’s not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Here’s what helped me mend my broken sleep pattern:
- Stop worrying about it. Every night around 9 p.m. a mild panic crept in. I kept reminding myself that I hadn’t slept the night before, or maybe for days. Slipping between the covers, the prospect of another sleepless night had already been played out in my imagination. I wouldn’t call it relaxing.
- Reset your night. I had a strange fear that giving into sleeplessness made me a weak person; that I lacked the discipline to figure it out, or something like that. Oddly, when I surrendered to the fact that it was 2 a.m. and I was staring at the ceiling, I got up. Pillow in one hand, blanket in the other, I made my way to the blue couch in my living room. There, I nestled into the cool, unsullied medium of the nubbled sofa. Voila! A fresh start. Because sleepless nights mean tossing and turning, we get overheated. Cool bedding is a reset for sleep.
- Make peace with lost productivity. You probably already know—as did I—to limit screen time an hour before bed. What felt new to me was the idea that my work had encroached on my life in hidden ways, manifesting in lousy sleep. Without my realizing it, personal technologies had made it so easy to stay in my professional mode. Failing to shut off my workday had created an imbalance that was disrupting my sleep. Mentally, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of all-night problem solving. By 5:00 a.m., my mind was a war zone of conflicting priorities. Seeking a truce, I attempted countless hacks. The easiest fix was to walk away from my laptop no later than 6 p.m. Make a delicious meal (no taking pictures of the food). Laugh with my husband. Get out of my head.
- Find your pacifier. Falling asleep means soothing the part of us that needs emotional comfort. Like infants who need the succor of a pacifier to fall asleep, our overwrought minds need something else to chew on. In my case, it was rediscovering novels. For decades, I had dragged research papers to bed in an attempt to cram more into my brain in the waning minutes before sleep. More fuel for my mental overdrive. Once I switched up the fuel, my mind ran smoothly on Jane Austen and Edna O’Brien. About 10 pages in, my imagination idled into a gentle sleep. My dreams returned with a flourish of windswept landscapes and purloined symbols.
- Believe you can sleep. I’m serious. I had to fully embrace the part of me who was a good sleeper, temporarily disabled though she was. I had to believe myself to be the kind of person who could go to bed, sleep hard, and wake refreshed. The dirty little secret about insomnia is its fatalism–we lose faith we’ll ever be a well-rested person again. Something that interferes with a basic human need like rest, also screws up our self-perception. Over time, our psyches respond to negative conditioning by adapting our sense of self. Once I stopped believing I was a sufferer with a chronic problem, I made room for a version of myself who was going through an extended episode. Like a novella, it had a beginning, middle and crucially, an end. Viewed this way, I was able to tap the inner resources (hope) that led to my recovery. Because I was no longer a fragile victim, I could reclaim the person who believed she could sleep. She could dream. She could heal.
The psychiatrist was right. I was unraveling from lack of sleep. I wasn’t depressive. I was a striver with dark circles under her eyes. I’m also no expert on sleep. Maybe like you, I’m just reaching for the next best version of myself. Doing so demands tenacity in these chaotic times. I can’t muster that if I’m depleted.
In strange ways, chronic conditions like sleeplessness can alter the way we see ourselves. Once we crack the self-destructive pattern it feels liberating. Freeing ourselves from the terror of hyperstimulation gives us back to ourselves. Therein lies the power of a good night’s sleep.