The End of Sleep

Two weeks into the New Year, and all that’s left of my illness is a badly out-of-sync body clock. I spent so much time sleeping during that period – albeit at the oddest hours – that I am wide-awake at night, the ability to fall asleep seemingly forgotten.

I’ve spent many long nights with eyes wide open, listening to the wind, insects, night birds. Sleep is a weird thing. Like breathing, or the beating of our heart, it is a function we do not think about. It just ‘happens’. What are the instructions for sleep? Where is the manual?

1) Lie down on bed
2) Put head on pillow
3) Close eyes
4) Sleep

That’s about it, as far as I can tell. I seem to have forgotten how to become unconscious, forgotten how to initiate that little moment when we slip out of awareness and into something else. One night, after giving up any attempt at sleep, I find myself on the net, trying to find help. I go to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and type in ‘Sleep’. I scroll past the list of possible results of sleep deprivation (brain damage, obesity, hypertension, heart attack, cancer, and death), glance at some interesting statistics on the sleep habits of animals (e.g. giraffes only require two hours of sleep), and find the section on ‘sleep hygiene’.

The list of guidelines for better sleep is as follows:

– Reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity.
– Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
– Keep the bedroom as dark as possible.
– Establish a regular bedtime routine (light activity, no video games, tv or computers).
– Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.
– Avoid large meals within one hour of sleep.
– Use relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation) before sleep.
– Regular, vigorous, daily exercise, preferably in the morning.
– Get adequate exposure to natural daylight.
– Avoid exercise within one hour of sleeping.
– Avoid napping during the day.

Now, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity’, after all, I’m not what other uses it might be good for (jogging? acrobatics? building model aircraft?), but I’ve tried most of those suggestions. Maybe I should be exercising more during the day? Maybe I should have another go at meditation?

I try some other sites, and find a few more suggestions:

– Drink milk.
– Hide your clock.
– Don’t smoke.
– Eat some turkey.
– Do visualisation – focus all your attention on your toes, or visualise walking down a flight of stairs.
– Keep a sleep diary.

I’ve tried drinking milk, and I don’t smoke, but hiding your clock! That’s something I haven’t tried. I take my big clunky Mickey Mouse alarm clock and hide it in my underwear drawer. I sense the clock’s unhappiness, but try and put it out of my mind.

Now, what’s this about turkey? Apparently, turkey contains trytophan, a building block for making serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which sends message between nerve cells and causes feelings of sleepiness. That explains a lot about Christmas Day. I thought I was just bored.

I make a mental note to eat more turkey.

I try focusing all my attention on my toes, but only feel nauseous, then try to visualise a stairway and can’t stop worrying that I’m going to fall down it.

I’m not sure about the idea of a ‘sleep diary’. I’ve kept a ‘dream diary’ before, but not a ‘sleep diary’. I imagine what it might contain.

11th January – Went to bed at 11.30pm. Drank warm milk. Tried to meditate. Could not sleep
12th January – Went to bed at 12.30am. Ate turkey sandwich. Tried to visualize toes. Felt sick. Could not sleep.
13th January – Went to bed 11.15pm. Listened to meditation tape of running water. Needed to pee. Could not sleep.
14th January – Went to bed 10.30pm. Could not sleep. Did some push-ups and running-on-the-spot until tired. Could not sleep. Wrote in sleep diary.

I decide there is little value in keeping such a diary.

In the end, I give up and go to the doctor for some sleeping pills. I am given Temazepam. I take not one, but two, before bed. I still can’t sleep. I feel very, very tired, but can’t sleep.

However, the following day I fall asleep at work. Not only does no-one notice, but I also get my work done well ahead of schedule. At the end of the week, my manager even praises me.

‘You’re doing some marvelous work, Graham,’ she says. ‘What’s brought about this sudden burst of energy?’

‘I’m just getting some quality sleep,’ I reply with a smile.

Some sleep links:


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