Learning to Sleep
Tagged: thoughts learning essay
Sleeping has been a challenging affair. I wake up before the alarm clock and in a few minutes my brain is firing on all cylinders. No coffee needed. Haven't had any in a year to be honest. Falling asleep is the real battle though. It takes between 30 minutes and 3 hours and even in the latter case, my brain wakes up at dawn. A person talking on the street or a neighbor moving about their apartment is all it takes to wake me up.
Since about 2016, my mind has been in a state of weariness, irritability, and confusion. Just good enough to do some useful work and keep me healthy. But my body wasn't getting rid of stress effectively and the whole thing was affecting my work and relationships. The worst part is, it crept up on my slowly. I was the boiled frog.
Throughout this time, I picked up a few methods of counteracting the problem. These helped keep it in check, but didn't roll it back. Some of them are:
- No looking at a screen at least an hour before sleeping. Not only does this prevent light from tricking my brain into thinking that it's day, but also keeps me from getting too excited about things.
- Lowering the temperature in the room. Much to my wife's annoyance, I air out the room every day in every season. A system of blankets helps her adjust the temperature to her liking.
- Not eating just before bed. My last meal is usually around 6pm.
- Playing mind games, like repeatedly counting up to five or imagining I'm floating on a dark, calm river just as the sun is setting. After reading The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, I've discovered that these practices are a form of meditation that slowly extinguish racing thoughts.
In February of this year, I decided enough was enough.
I came up with a two pronged approach: address the main causes that existed in my mind; get some training wheels to improve the situation right now.
A few months of psychotherapy helped address my anxiety. It's amazing how much guided self-reflection can do to stop the mind from attacking itself. Therapy pushed my mind out of the ruts it had cut, the established thought patterns, and into healthier ones. There's still plenty of work left to do, but after six months, the difference is noticeable.
As for attacking the immediate problem, I stumbled upon Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra tea. It's core ingredient, valerian root, works by calming down the nervous system. One day, I downed a cup of this stuff and experienced the bliss of deep restorative sleep for the first time in months, even years. I dreamed for what seemed like days or weeks. In the morning, I woke up feeling energized as if I was 5 years younger. My thoughts were clear and crisp and focus came easily. Food tasted and smelled better. The usual feeling of brain fog was gone. Reality seemed to flow smoothly around me.
A few weeks later I found an alternative: Hypnos Sleep by Origin Labs. It contained the same core ingredient along with a sprinkle of extras. More importantly, it came in pill form, which made ingesting and transporting it easier.
Being well rested helped me focus and make progress in my therapy sessions. Each session took away a small chunk of my anxiety. The whole thing was a self-reinforcing success spiral. It countered the opposite spiral I had been in: anxiety making it hard to sleep, lack of sleep making me more prone to anxiety. As long as I took the pills and attended therapy, my mind would learn how to sleep again.
At the beginning, a sense of vague unease filled me. What if I was getting addicted to the herbal remedy? What if it would become my lifelong crutch? What if the pills were masking a deeper problem that would continue to get worse?
The reward would be worth the risk, I decided.
What began with me taking three pills every evening turned into taking one. One evening, a few days ago, as I was reading a book in bed, I let out a long, deep yawn. That day's pill was still in the bottle. Wonder mixed with disbelief, but didn't keep me awake. Soon, I was in deep slumber without the training wheels.