The Ongoing Struggle Of Sleep

The heat didn’t help. Not that it was broiling or boiling or likely to break a record of any kind, but it was an uncomfortable January night in Sydney, where the atmosphere was close and the sheets felt heavy. At one point I rolled away all the bead clothes and lay there, allowing the fan to perform its task, and then after cooling off a bit, I rolled back the bed clothes, or partially rolled them back and until I felt the weight and heat of the duvet[1]. It had absorbed all bodily warmth over the previous few hours and all other warmth too, becoming a big heat sponge, and I thought of the months when the best thing in the world is to be under the covers and feel the soft, spongy, thickness of a duvet up around your neck and the cozy sensation all the way down your body, and this was nothing like that. It was a sad comparison to draw for it would be many weeks until that feeling was back again.

And in the meantime it was hot.

Now it would be unfair to completely blame a sorely lacking sleep technique on the thermometer level. All those other conditions: light, sound, smell, and less tangible things like frame of mind, what you ate recently and if you are still digesting, overall sense of wellbeing, mattress and pillow size, shape, and quality, all play a part – but it doesn’t help if it’s stinking hot.

And so there is more desperation to get to sleep. Being asleep means getting through the uncomfortable hours as if with a free pass. It’s a very desirable free pass to have and on the few occasions that you are lucky to sleep though a sticky period you do recognise that it was good fortune, and acknowledge that if you had to fight through it, scrapping for fragments of available slumber, it wold not have been an easy experience at all, and you hope you get another lucky escape sometime. And you try extra hard to go to sleep when it is next unpleasant, remembering you dodged a bullet before, or just understanding that when it’s more difficult to go to sleep that logically implies more effort to get to sleep is required. Neither of these are quite right (or even correct at all): 1) you were lucky if you slept through unpleasant conditions and this is unlikely to occur again, no matter what you do; and 2) trying harder does not work, effort of this kind retards sleepiness, and in fact too much effort reduces the chance of success.

But you do think about how you sleep and how you get to sleep, and that’s normally not a good thing either. It needs to be instinctive. But there I was, with the sheet sticking to me and thinking about the little mental tricks I indulge in when the foggy canopy is a bit slow to descend. It’s a bit like when you hear about counting sheep. I well remember being a little boy, watching Sesame Street, and the children, adults, and Muppets, would all at some point talk about counting sheep. This confused me – at this point in my life I found sleeping really rather easy and may have been puzzled by the topic – and it seemed so pervasive that jokes were made about it and characters shown imagining a flock of sheep and then individual sheep would run up and jump over a fence and the character would count, and that was counting sheep. I suppose it’s a bit like when people suggest counting backwards from 700 – it’s a mental challenge, using an abstract part of the mind, and while your mind is on that you allow yourself to relax properly, and sleep occurs when you aren’t thinking about it. As a boy I did attempt to count sheep once, still a bit unsure of what the point was, and reported to my sister the next day that I had had a go and it didn’t work and it was stupid. Not sure how long I tried it for – maybe a few seconds – and it is likely that when I couldn’t adequately imagine the scene featuring sheep I simply gave up. More recently the counting backwards technique is something I have done a little bit, perhaps recalling experiences in an operating theatre when you count or answer a simple question or two, and then wake up feeling groggy and you don’t have your appendix any more. This thing – counting – doesn’t work for me either. I can feel myself relaxing and a part of my mind taking over from the more dominant logical part, and then the logical part will kick in and express the opinion: “My body is relaxing, and my mind is becoming calm. But this has happened before. I wonder whether it will lead to sleep this time.” Yes, this tends to stop the relaxing process, and yes, the thought that the process of going to sleep has begun tends to interfere with that process, and yes it really is like the two parts of my mind are having a conversation and the hyperactive logical one won’t shut up and the more considered and artistically inclined part just wishes he could get some bloody peace and quiet for a change. But he can’t – because when this conversation has begun the process has ended and you will need to start all over again.

There has been a change in me, though, over the last few months, and the night when sleep just won’t come is now the exception rather than the rule. I still feel like I could do with more sleep, and more sustained sleep – waking up two or three times a night does no good – but the situation is better than it was. After trialling a few supplements I have found that Valerian Forte, made by Blackmores, to be very effective. A few tablets swallowed at bedtime, and then reading for a little while, has become a solid routine. It’s all part of what the experts call (rather wankily, I reckon) sleep hygiene. I was doing some or most of these things before but now I do all of them all the time and the results have been good. I drink less, and one of the reasons is that the Valerian will help me sleep – I trust it to work – and although the experts always say that alcohol shouldn’t be used as a tool by people with sleeping problems it still seemed to address my falling asleep issue, even though I knew it wasn’t helping me to stay asleep, or helping with a variety of other aspects of my health either.

Coupled with this chemical assistance has been the realisation that a number of imagined scenes are available, and can be used instead of counting, but to bring about a similar intended effect. Writing down details of these is something a bit scary, as the desire to not jinx something which works by publicising it is strong, but as long as I don’t say too much it should be fair enough to assume that these trains of thought will work or won’t work based on principles other than jinxing[2]. A few weeks ago I found myself thinking about the front yard and where plants could be put and rearranged, in short planning and imagining and organising it in my head. This didn’t work. I was absorbed and right there among the plants, but the thinking was too active, and so it was restful without being sleep-inducing, as I kept moving on to the next thing and as a consequence the mind would not slow. More successful are a scene I imagine at the back of my Nanna and Pa’s old place in a closed in sort of verandah, and I’m on a comfy chair, with a small pile of books, and there’s maybe a pot of tea on a little table, and I’m warm enough, but it’s a colder time of year, and outside, where there are ferns and trees and bushes just beyond the windows, and a little old outside toilet and a swing and vines, it is raining and I’m so happy and comfortable being where I am, doing what I’m doing. This is only partially successful in causing sleep, but it’s not an active thought, and it does relax me. Another much more successful thought I have used recently is to imagine getting dressed, in good clothes – a suit maybe or overcoat over the top of a good quality shirt and shoes – and this I think plays the role of imagining the sheep and counting and using logic, abstract, and emotional parts of the mind together – imagining it all in one scene, all together at the same time. And then, in my mind, I travel somewhere and go and sit somewhere on my own and watch people and make notes in my notebook.

This has been effective. And I feel weird about relating it. I recently learned what Laetitia thinks about to get herself to sleep, but I won’t write that down as it wouldn’t feel right. It’s just a different kind of imagining. Imagining scenes, with the different parts of the mind playing a role, but different from my scenes. Is this yet another example, I wonder, where everyone is different? If so, where the hell did the sheep thing some from, and why was it thought to be such a generally useful technique? Perhaps that shall have to remain a mystery.

[1] Yep, duvet. If this is confusing think of a doona. It’s the same thing.

[2] One scene I used to replay in my mind was attempting to sleep on a cold, hard floor, with thin carpet which was nevertheless soaked through with beer. It really happened at a mate’s place after a party once, and for a long time when the thought was fresh in my mind, recalling this experience was enough to make me feel snug an dozy in my bed, as the conditions where I was were so much better than they were in my head.

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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