Thursday, January 7, 2010


My brain and I, we don't exactly get along when it comes to sleep.  I've suffered from insomnia for years.  I have the 'Brain won't turn off and let me fucking sleep' variety, and the 'Can't fucking STAY asleep' variety.  I'm also prone to some pretty horrific dreams.  Murder, fighting/running for my life, war, destruction of entire cities full of people and beatings are, unfortunately, fairly regular occurrences in my dreamscape.  I understand if you want to just back away now.  It's okay, you don't need to make an excuse about your kettle being on.

Regardless, if I sleep an entire night, without waking up once, I'm sick.  Or medicated, which is part of being sick, so I'm going to shut up now.

Most nights, I fall asleep fine, and, if I do wake up, I just fall right back into dream land pretty quickly.  I'm a lot better than I used to be, which I think is partly because I've learnt a few tricks to reduce the insomnia.  It's probably also because even nightmares can't beat the awesome relaxing powers of Snuggling the still-sleeping ITGeek, but he's a lot harder to share with everybody on the internet, so I'm going to stick with a few things I've learnt. 

So... tricks!  Just a heads-up, these are for the inexplicable insomnia.  If you're not getting any sleep because you've got a 6 month old, or you've got something playing on your mind, then these ideas may be completely useless.

Prevention is your best friend

I don't need to say this, but you know you need a regular bed time, right?  And to not take naps, because then you won't be able to sleep later?  Of course, if you've got baby-induced insomnia, sleep when you can.  Hell, sleep on that pile of laundry if you need to!  Just, uh, not when you're driving.  

Try to keep your bedroom just for sleeping (and sex!).  It's no coincidence that my worst insomnia occurred when I was living in a studio.  Put the computer, the exercise machine, maybe even the TV, in another room.   It's all about associations - you're trying to train your brain to realise that this place=sleep.  Do everything you can to make your bedroom restful.  If you can't move those distractions out, try tacking up a curtain around your bed - I've found that even a sheer curtain will help.  It also makes your bed look like you're either on safari, or a feudal ruler in the middle ages.  I say, go with it, preferably with appropriate headgear.

Make the room itself as restful as possible.  Reduce the 'elemental' distractions (I can handle noise, but I'm not a fan of light, so for me, it's blockout curtains and an eyemask within reach).  Have an adequate air flow.  Aim for bedding that keeps you comfortable, even when you've had to open a window to get fresh air.  This might mean you end up with a couple different sets of sheets/blankets/doonas.  If you're sharing a bed, this can be problematic, especially when one sleeper feels the heat or cool more than the other.  A friend's parents use two single doonas, so they can share a bed and still be comfortable, which is a great idea I may blatantly steal one day.

Outside of the bedroom, look after yourself.  Start with exercise, even just a longish walk after dinner.  If that's not enough, meditation or yoga (I like the corpse pose - lie on your back, with your hands palm up at your side and your legs just far apart enough that, when you turn your feet inward, your toes touch.  Then put your feet in their natural position and just breathe.  Laziest yoga pose ever).  If you're the creative type, you might find that ignoring those urges can lead to insomnia, so feed your creativity demons regularly. Don't have caffeine less than 4 hours before bed, and don't have a heavy meal right before bed, either.  And yes, today, I am Princess Obvious.  

When the insomnia hits

If you've been staring at the ceiling for more than half an hour, and you're still not sleepy, get up.  Don't let your brain get used to the idea that your bed is a place to lie awake in.  Wrap yourself up so you're warm and do something simple and repetitive.  I do chores.  My personal favourites are folding laundry and washing dishes, which are quiet and oddly soothing.  Eventually, you'll feel tired enough to sleep, and even if you don't, at least you know you don't have to force yourself to do this shit tomorrow when you're suffering a sleep-deprivation hangover.

Alternatively, relocate your 'bed'.  This works best for the 'Can't turn brain off' type of insomnia.  After getting up and warm, try to go to sleep somewhere other than your bed.  I used to curl up on my parents recliner.  When I lived in that studio, even the couch on the other side of the room could do the trick.  After half an hour, I inevitably found that I was falling asleep.

Last night, however, the first time I'd fallen victim to this particular bitch since our new couches arrived, I discovered that, despite having an awesome two-seater recliner and a very comfy 3-seater, they are not options.  Oh, no.  Not with my cat taking swan-dives off my mid-section and waging a vicious war on any part of me that leaves the boundaries of the couch (hand, feet, dressing gown cord).  I also suspect that, regardless of insomnia, I'd have slept a lot better if I hadn't discovered the little bastard was having impromptu 2am dance parties on our dining room table.

So, where was I?  Oh yeah, sleep.

There are other things that are only effective in certain cases.  For instance, some TVs and monitors emit light at about the same frequency as sunlight, sending the message to our monkey-brains that it's daylight, so they should be awake.  That said, some people find TV or computers a relaxing distraction from the whole not-sleeping thing.  So it's strictly a personal choice.

Alcohol is another one.  Yes, it puts you to sleep, but when it wears off, you might find yourself awake again.  Sometimes, I decide it's worth the risk, but I strongly suggest never trying the 'Two Mersyndal washed down with Bailey's' trick.  I tried it only once (and, for those who don't know, Mersyndal is an over-the-counter migraine treatment) and for the entire next day, I was a groggy, brain-damaged mess and had to ban myself from driving.  

Also, some people like a pre-bed ritual.  I'd love to have one of those, but firstly, I seem to be allergic to being organised, and secondly, my inner pervert keeps deciding she'd rather be sexin' the ITGeek instead.


You do not fail at life if you've had to resort to meds to get some shut eye.  This little ScienceGeek has been there herself, and this is a judgement-free zone.    As a science-lover, though, I've got a couple of suggestions.

You MIGHT be able to take half a pill instead of a whole one, and still get sleep, without some of the nasty side effects.  CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.  See how much emphasis I put on that sentence?  It's deserved.  Doctors love patients who help themselves, as long as said patient tells 'em about it.  As a VERY general rule, if you're taking a single whole tablet, and only sporadically (ie. when you need it, not everyday at 2pm or something) you should be able to cut down to half a tablet without too much problem. Regardless, please, just check with your doctor first.  

Which brings me to my favourite insomnia related trick...

Ever heard of Pavlov's dogs?  It's a fairly famous experiment about conditioning.  Dogs salivate when they smell food.  Pavlov tried ringing a bell when feeding his doggy test-subjects, and eventually, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard the bell, regardless of if food was there or not.

There's something we humans can take from Pavlov's puppies.  Our sense of smell has a direct, red-phone link to our brain.  That's why certain smells can revive memories more vividly than just sight.  During my pill-popping days, I got in the habit of burning aromatherapy oils in that half-hour while I was waiting for the meds to kick in (you could probably also use an old perfume, it doesn't really matter, as long as it smells).  I used a combination of oils, so the scent was unique enough that I wouldn't come across it while, say, shopping.  In my case, it was lavender, geranium and chamomile, 3 drops of the first two and four drops of the third, with water.  These oils are supposed to be good for relaxation, but if you already suffer low blood pressure, stay away from the lavender.  In your case, it only works if you consider 'fainting' the same as 'relaxing'.  

Regardless of what scent you use (and you can always dab them on your pillowcase, if you find the combination of sleeping pills and burning candles a little too close to stupid for your liking), only use this scent when you're falling asleep.  Eventually, you'll build a connection between the scent and feeling sleepy.  This won't send you to sleep (or the ITGeek would be burning it A LOT more often), but, years after my little imprinting exercise, I've found it still has the power to relax me.

Finally, and most importantly, acknowledge when you're in trouble.  Sleep is taken for granted, until you don't have it any more.  Then you realise just how incredibly vital it is.  Don't hold off on going to the professionals, because there are some out there who are much more professional than some woman with a blog.

That's it from me.  Now, for any insomniacs out there, what are your tips for surviving the war for sleep?  Just because we're sleep deprived doesn't mean we can't be sharing and caring!

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