If Sleep Will Come

Insomnia is more common in women, especially in older women, than in men.

“Insomnia,” on womenshealth.gov

It is three a.m., and the light is on in the backyard…a deer friend is grazing, perhaps, or that elusive little fox is dancing through. It could be a skunk or a squirrel or a raccoon, even a bird—any number of active wildlife species inhabit ‘our’ yards when daylight ends, when the People’s Realm closes down for another night.

The glowing motion-sensored light, though, when I wake and notice it in the depth of the night, ensures that I come fully awake. I throw back the covers and pad off to the bathroom. The door fails to latch, and I mutter and try to slam it shut quietly.

Through the bathroom window, I see the security light wink out. Before I am finished, though, it twinkles right back on.

My monkey mind twinkles back on, too. As I walk softly back to the bedroom, I am thinking that we need aluminum foil and that I should buy skinny egg noodles and try that rice pilaf recipe in Joy of Cooking… that’s something, I think, that we’ll ALL like. And if we had crusty bread, I could make French onion soup tomorrow.

Should I make some New York Times No-Knead Bread?

Should I stop at Giacomo’s and buy a loaf of Country French Bread?

Thoughts fwap down like wet pages.

I need to go to whatever office that is downtown and make sure my title is registered.

I have to bundle up my Kohl’s returns and get them to the post office.

We need to get started on the little box room, convert it to a kind of an office for James. Will the green desk fit in the nook by the window in my bedroom?

I lay down and pull the blankets up to my chin.

I rearrange the pillows so I can sleep on my back.

But are my toes cold?

I think my toes are cold. I get up and pull the quilt from the footboard, cover the bottom half of the bed, and crawl back in.

Mark sighs and rustles. His C-PAP machine breathes, regular and gently noisy. When he turns toward me, cool, damp, expelled air rushes into my face.

I pull the bedspread up to make a little wall.

Suddenly a memory from a long-ago job, a job that I held briefly twenty years ago, pops into my head. A distantly connected colleague was very, very rude, and I was much too pliable in responding. I wish I could go back and say what I should have said! I would tell him, boy.

No, I wish I could let that useless memory go. It is 3:35 now. Mark’s alarm will jingle its merry tune in two hours and twenty-five minutes. I need my sleep. I have a lot to do tomorrow. Did I mention the box room, the post office, the title process? Oh, and I should make some snickerdoodles; I’ve been promising to do that.

If I mop floors tomorrow, I won’t have to do it on Saturday.

And what was that idiot’s name…?

If I don’t fall asleep now, I am going to be exhausted…

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It is almost five a.m. when I finally fall back into a fretful sleep. An hour later, when Mark, who has his phone alarm set to that obnoxiously cheerful, diplomatically intrusive, sprightly tune, sighs loudly and throws the covers back a little too energetically, I want to thunk him.

I try to squinch my eyes and force myself back into sleep for half an hour. But there’s no going back. After five minutes, I sit up and read until the boyo is done in the bathroom.

Later, I check my Fitbit, Connie, which informs me I have slept for five hours and twenty minutes. And that says Connie, gets me only a ‘fair’ rating.

(Once I spent a sleepless night and logged a whopping two hours and twelve minutes of sleep. Connie called that ‘fair,’ too. In Connie-world, I believe ‘fair’ is another way of saying, “Well, THAT sucked.”)

Ah, young girl, behold your future. You may think you’re a champion sleeper. You may think it will never come looking for you.

But here we go: insomnia happens.

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I go online looking for an explanation. (An apology would be nice, too.) “Older women,” womenshealth.gov tells me, “are at a higher risk for insomnia.” It cites “unique hormonal changes” as one compelling reason.

It hardly seems fair. The site tells me that one in four women suffers from insomnia, compared to one in seven total adults. And lack of sleep affects everything…work, school, self-care, relationships.

No wonder, when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I start to worry about not getting back to sleep.

And worry, of course, leads to insomnia.

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There are two kinds of insomnia, I discover on womenshealth.gov. Primary insomnia is a diagnosis, an affliction, all on its own. Secondary insomnia, though, is what so many of us experience. It is caused by other things—by another condition, by the meds we take for another condition, by trauma, or by stress.

People who are depressed or anxious or who have PTSD have trouble sleeping. People who have thyroid issues might not be able to sleep. The symptoms of menopause (which I have long been waving goodbye to; they are far away, tiny specks in the rear-view mirror) cause sleeplessness, too.

And, gee, what, these days, could be making us anxious? Political strife? Threats of violence? Climate disaster?

Maybe there’s a little pandemic brewing in my neighborhood? Maybe people I know are sick? 

Of course, I am anxious. What I need is a good, deep, solid night’s sleep to buoy me up and help me cope.

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Womenshealth.gov has ideas for ways to achieve that restful sleep, too.

Limit, it tells me, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.

And that advice just makes me bitter. I have rudely shucked all three of those vices from my life: I stopped smoking before I got pregnant with thirty-year-old Jim. I think we might have had some wine with Christmas dinner; that was probably the first alcohol that crossed my lips in five months. And, at the behest of a doctor four or five years ago, I sadly turned my back on my last, great, sincerely savored, vice: caffeinated coffee. (I did, though, find a wonderful coffee roaster in Clintonville, Ohio; they roast dark, rich, decaffeinated beans and send them to me in fragrant bundles. Every morning, I grind some of those beans fresh and rejoice in the fact that they come in packaging I can compost in my backyard.

So the taste of coffee is still here in my life; the powerful kick of the caffeine is not.)

So that advice–the no alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine edict–is not, to me, helpful.

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But womenshealth.gov’s number two recommendation says to look at my sleep environment: is it restful?

I’d probably be wise to move my phone far enough away from the bed that I can’t grab it and scald my sleepy eyeballs with its unforgiving glow. And I could clear my little nightside table off; there’s a stack of books there, clamoring to be read. There’s an old digital alarm clock that’s only right half the year, too; the buttons no longer depress to allow me to change the time.

So right now, it’s an hour ahead. And when I wake up in the night’s thick middle, I look at that clock and think, “Four-thirty a.m.! It’s almost time to get up!”

Really, of course; it’s only three-thirty a.m., and I have plenty of time to fall back into peaceful slumber, but by the time I have reminded myself of this, my mind has clicked into high alert.

De-cluttering and making the sleep environment more soothing: that is definitely something I can do.

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I’m also advised to exercise during the day. Doing this too close to bedtime, the site tells me, can make sleeping more difficult; I should limit strenuous exercise in the five or six hours before I go to sleep.

That feels counterintuitive, but, since, right now, the sun sets around 5:30 in the evening, I am not tempted to head outside for my exercise of choice, a good brisk walk, in the late evening hours, anyway.

I think I’m good in this exercise realm, and, since I have recently taken up my daily walks again after the foot surgeon cleared me for take-off, I have great faith that their effects will soon kick in.

Related to the exercise exhortation is an interesting fact: I need 15 to 30 minutes of time outdoors each day. The natural light helps my natural rhythms. So—even when it rains or snows, I need to push myself to do this, to get outdoors and try to glory in even the austere, wet, cold, natural beauty.

Hmmm.

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Don’t eat, womenshealth.gov advises me, for at least two or three hours before bedtime. This is something I’ve been trying to do; I’ve read elsewhere that the simple act of fasting for twelve hours each day has all kinds of good effects on bodies…helping regulate weight and essential bodily functions.

My skinny little doctor agrees. Don’t eat, she recommends, after six p.m. or before six a.m.

I flex those times to seven p.m. and a.m. (sorry, Doc), but I do try very hard to maintain that twelve-hour fast.

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There’s a real benefit too, the site tells me, to a regular, soothing, bedtime routine. A hot bath, a book in bed, soft music, meditation…whatever the quieting activity, at the same time every night, may open the gates and let slumber roll softly in. This is a stricture I have no trouble complying with.

It notes, too, that separating from those glowing screens is an important component of a soothing routine…no email right before head hits pillow. No TV.

No picking up the bright little phone to just check messages one more time…

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Finally, the “Insomnia” article advises, if I don’t fall asleep, I should get up and do something restful until I do feel sleepy. And that makes sense. I can take my comforting book to my comfortable chair and simply glory in the extra time to read—I am always complaining that I don’t have enough time to read. Maybe I need to push my bedtime just a titch later and enjoy the time for my books…

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I realize there are other, safe things I can try, too: Jim, like many people with autism, has sleep challenges. His doctor recommends melatonin; Jim feels that works for him. And even if taking one has a total placebo effect, if belief sends me off to sleepy land, what’s the harm?

I’ve bought myself a package of Sleepy Time tea, too, with the only drawback that, while it makes me sleepy, I’ll probably have to get up at that deep dark hour to pad on off to the bathroom.

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And don’t forget, a friend reminds me, about the power of prayer.

Things happen that are out of our control: violence flares; sickness spreads. We do what we can to control our little corners, but the insulation in those corners isn’t thick, and cold worry swirls through the cracks and around the edges.

Prayer—whatever that means to you and to me, whether it’s scripted words or spontaneous ones, meditative time, rhythmic movement, or loving actions—is one way of handling the stress, of sharing it, of expressing our faith that this, too, shall pass.

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I’m thinking the worst thing I can do about the sleepless empty hours is to fret about them, to add them to my sledge of concerns and drag them, heavy and recalcitrant, along behind me,–to slog through my day, burdened by the thought that, “Jeez, I only slept four hours last night, and tonight,–well, tonight probably won’t be much better.”

That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever I wrote one.

So I will take my windy, gray day walks, and I will detach from the news before dinner; I’ll declutter my sleeping space. I’ll work on building a little meditative time into the evening end of my day.

I will counter insomnia with good and healthy practices.

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And I’ll be comforted by this:  if all else fails, there are naps…naps with a book, in the chair, by the fire. There’s a place where I know that sleep will come.

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https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/insomnia#18