Our house went on the market this past week, and daily, my husband, our dog, and I vacate our home for a few hours to allow real estate agents to show the property to prospective buyers. There’s no way to express the upheaval that accompanies this phase, and I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that my sleep has been significantly disrupted in the stress of this entire–and lengthy–process of relocating to another city. I awaken more than once during the night, check the clock and discover only an hour or at most, two, has passed since I last checked. By 5 a.m., I give up and wearily shuffle to the kitchen to make the morning coffee, taking some comfort in the continuation of one small ritual: grinding the beans, brewing the coffee, and settling into my favorite chair to write–even if the time to do it has been disrupted by the necessity to be out of the house during much of the day.
I’ve searched through the archive of my older posts and cobbled together this week’s piece on sleepless nights–something that afflicts many of us during times of stress, worry, and change. I hope you enjoy it and find some inspiration to write about those nights you’ve lain awake too, unable to sleep.
For the Week of May 7, 2017: Lying Awake in the Night
Even in the cave
of the night when you
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure eight
and lies down in your head…
(From: “Waking at 3 a.m., by William Stafford)
3 a.m. You’re awake. A parade of thoughts marches through your mind: worry, to-do lists, a snippet of a conversation you replay again and again. Perhaps you keep a notepad by the bed, like I do, hoping that if you jot down the persistent nagging by your brain, you might lull yourself back to sleep. But you can’t get comfortable, or your husband is storing, or you remember something you forgot to add to the list. You close your eyes again, trying to focus on little but a steady rhythm of deep breathing. Perhaps you doze off, awakening a short time later and checking the clock, annoyed to find that barely a half hour has passed since you last checked the time. Five, ten, twenty more minutes pass. A seeming infinity. It’s hopeless now; you’re wide awake and throw back the covers to pad into the kitchen and try the age-old remedy of drinking a glass of warm milk. Finally, perhaps an hour or so later, you sleep, only to be jolted awake by the alarm clock all too soon. It’s something I’ve been experiencing for the past few weeks, my head buzzing with “to do” lists and the kind of stress that comes with moving to another city. But whatever the reason, sleeplessness happens to each of us at some time or another. Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, finances, worry about a loved one or yourself– even just eating a late dinner–sleep is elusive. Even worse, during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, sleep disruption can last for weeks.
Sleeplessness, the New York Times’ Health Guide suggests, “can involve difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.” Everyone has an occasional sleepless night…as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”
Writers know the darkness of early morning hours well. Long, sleepless nights have been a theme in countless stories or essays or poems, for example, “Sleep now, O sleep now,” James Joyce wrote in his poem by the same name, “A voice crying “Sleep now”/is heard in my heart…” Charles Dickens suffered from sleepless nights too. In an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” he wrote:
But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open… my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; …glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third. http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/reprinted-pieces/8/
Like those who’ve written of the inability to sleep, cancer patients know sleepless nights well. I recall how a few years ago when I was unable to sleep, I turned on my computer soon discovered I was not alone. An email arrived in my inbox from a woman in my cancer writing group who was undergoing a new treatment regimen for metastatic breast cancer. She was awake and writing me in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and life, thoughts that kept her tossing and turning in her bed, unable to fall asleep.
What she was experiencing was not unusual. Sleep disorders are common among cancer patients. Several recent studies have shown that 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population (Oncolink, July 2016). Even 2 to 5 years after treatment, symptoms of insomnia were found in 23 to 44% of patients.
A number of factors associated with cancer can contribute to sleeping difficulties: physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization. The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep can have negative effects, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or even disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. Stanford University’s David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone. When our circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle) are disrupted, it can affect a person’s cancer prognosis. “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer,” the research team concluded. (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).
What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia? Here are a few helpful suggestions for a better night’s sleep from the MD Anderson Cancer Center:
- Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes with sleep.
- Rituals. Make sure you keep a bedtime and wake up ritual, even on the weekends.
- Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. The optimum bedroom temperature should be between 65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
- Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is soothing or boring. Spend time in prayer or meditation to calm the mind.
- Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three to four hours before bedtime.
- Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less. And, don’t take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
- Exercise. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
- Pull down the shades. Your bedroom should be like a cave. It should be dark, cool and quiet. Cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your bedroom.
- Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day’s events.
And just in case you think it’s only adults who suffer from sleep difficulties, perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that even the beloved Winnie the Pooh was afflicted with them:
But [Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all… Pooh could bear it no longer…
–A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh, 1926
- Write about sleepless nights. What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
- What thoughts or images invade your mind and keep you awake?
- Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night? Write it.
- What’s helped you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.