For the Week of March 5, 2018: Sleepless Nights

But it’s really fear you want to talk about

and cannot find the words

so you jeer at yourself 

you call yourself a coward

you wake at 2 a.m. thinking failure,

fool, unable to sleep, unable to sleep…

(From: “Insomnia,” by Alicia Ostriker, in: The Book of Seventy, 2009)

“Unable to sleep…”  It happens to me periodically, and I’ve written about it before, since it is one of those persistent afflictions that comes with life’s worries and aging.  It’s triggered by a distraction like my husband’s snoring or finding my dog has quietly leapt up and curled her body next to mine–taking up the better part of my side of the bed.  More often, there’s worry, whether for my loved ones or myself.  It happened just a couple of weeks ago, after a round of cardiac testing and a frank discussion with my cardiologist.  “We’re in this together,” she said, as I digested the results.  Later that night, however, the emotions I’d held at bay during the day kept me tossing and turning until the wee hours.

Paul Kennedy, in December 2017 CBC broadcast entitled “Have Insomnia?  Blame the Romantic Poets,” described a “culture of insomnia” as typical for this century, the Information Age we now live in. He quoted the work of Robert Vaughn, author of Bright Eyed:  Insomnia and its Cultures (2015), who wrote:  “We’ve naturalized insomnia and … valorized insomnia.  People boast about it, connecting to late capitalism’s idea that we are in a total state of productivity… We’ve created a dialogue in our heads that sleep is a kind of luxury. We’re expected to be on call 24/7.”

Whether a 24/7 work culture or the anxieties and worries of life, sleeplessness or restless nights are something most of us experience at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of a tough day at work, deadlines, finances, worry about a loved one or just eating a late dinner–sleep may be, for a time, elusive.  Worse, however, are the times during emotional upset, personal crises, or serious illness, when sleep disruption can last for weeks.

You’re lying in bed trying to sleep, but you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable…”  Ironically, it a message in this morning’s email that sparked this week’s prompt, leading me to the ad from the makers of “Privacy Pop,” a pop-up bed tent designed to promote  a solution for better sleep and “alone time” or simply, fun for children. I went to the site to unsubscribe and instead, ended up reading their blog, which offered  several practical tips on improving sleep, including, of course, the pop up tent, stating it “is a perfect method to develop and maintain the darkness necessary to promote the best possible sleep for your body.” (I bought one in December intended for the fun of my grandchildren’s sleepovers, but I now wondered if, during a restless night, I should try it!)

Sleeplessness, according to the New York Times’ Health Guide, involves “difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns.”  …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.”

Sleep difficulties are common to most of us at some time or another, as evidenced in countless stories, essays or poems from literature.   “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, in an essay titled, “Lying Awake,” 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.

Even the beloved children’s character,Winnie the Pooh, had sleep problems:

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

Among cancer patients, sleep disorders are common.  A few years ago, unable to sleep, I tiptoed to my desk in the pre-dawn hours and turned on my computer.  I was not alone.  An email arrived in my inbox moments later from a member of one of my cancer writing groups.  She was beginning a new treatment for metastatic breast cancer and unable to sleep, had been writing in an attempt to capture the myriad thoughts about her illness and life, ones making her sleep elusive.  Several recent studies show 30 to 50% of cancer patients have trouble sleeping, compared to 15% in the general population. Even 2 to 5 years post-treatment, symptoms of insomnia were present in 23 to 44% of study participants. Several factors contributed to patients’ sleeping difficulties:  physical pain, side effects of treatment, emotional stress, surgery and hospitalization.

The inability to go to sleep and stay asleep has negative effects on us all, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches or disruption in the body’s hormonal balance, but perhaps more than we anticipate. In an earlier study, David Spiegel and his colleagues found that those who suffer from troubled sleep are also more cancer prone.  When one’s circadian rhythm is disrupted, a person’s cancer prognosis can be affected.  As a result, the researchers concluded “A good night’s sleep may be one weapon in the fight against cancer.” (Science Daily, October 1, 2003).

What can you do if you are one of those who suffer from sleepless nights or insomnia?  MD Anderson Cancer Center offers suggestions to help you achieve a better night’s sleep.

  • 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 more like a cave, 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.

It appears that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about sleepless nights. What keeps you awake at night? Explore it.
  • What do you remember most about a particular sleepless night? Describe it in as much detail as you can.
  • What fears or other emotions often resurface and keep you tossing and turning?
  • Have you ever “birthed” an idea for a poem or story in the darkness of the night?  Write it.
  • What’s helps you coax yourself back to sleep? Write about your rituals or calming practices that help you overcome the agony of a sleepless night.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
This entry was posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal. Bookmark the permalink.

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