The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Content note: passing mentions of depression.
There was a time when sleep was easy. It was so easy, I literally didn’t understand how it could be not-easy. I lay down at the end of the day, and in ten minutes I was asleep. It felt like pure, physical cause-and-effect: falling asleep at the end of the day was like falling down if I rolled off the bed. It just — happened. How could it not happen?
But age happened, and menopause, and post-trauma, and depression, and anti-depressants with a stimulant effect. Sleep got more and more elusive. At this point in my life, some degree of insomnia is no longer the exception — it’s the norm. And I had a realization a little while ago that’s been helping me deal with it:
Falling asleep is no longer something that happens to me. It’s an activity. It’s something I do.
So to fall asleep, I have to go through a deliberate series of mental techniques. I have an assortment of mental images I bring to mind that help me fall asleep, images of totally comfortable and safe places: gently rocking boats on quiet lakes, huge beds with heaps of pillows and perfectly soft bedding. I often meditate when I’m trying to fall asleep, if the comfy mental images don’t work. When my train of thought starts to dissolve into disconnected nonsense, I have to focus on the nonsense: or more accurately, I have to focus/not-focus, in that meditative way where you keep your attention on your train of thought while letting it go where it’s going to go.
I also have a pre-trying-to-fall-asleep routine, consisting of a series of games I play on the phone in a particular order, followed by reading whatever book I’m reading. I know, I know, looking at electronic devices is lousy sleep hygiene, I’m looking at ways to wean myself off of it. But right now, this is what I’ve come up with to distract my mind from its anxieties and derail it into another track.
My mind, on its own, will not go into sleep mode. I have to consciously and intentionally put it there.
This creates a weird relationships with tiredness and exhaustion. Obviously, I’m more likely to go to sleep if I’m tired — but if I’m too tired, sleep becomes harder, not easier. It can mean being too tired to go through my falling-asleep routine. And it can mean being too tired to muster up the discipline to make myself do my routine. Even when I’m not exhausted, falling asleep is a battle between my executive function and the childish part of my brain that wants to do what it’s enjoying right now. When I’m exhausted, executive function rarely wins. So if I’m seriously tired, my brain will, paradoxically, stay up for hours.
Part of this is anxiety and post-trauma stuff. Falling asleep means loss of control: I’ve never been good at that at the best of times, and when I’m feeling freaked out, sleep can feel like death. Part of it is the flip side of that coin: my brain enjoys being awake and alive and thinking about stuff, and it’s reluctant to let go of that, even for a few hours. And part of it is almost certainly just physical. Insomnia is common with age, and it’s common with the meds I’m on.
Accepting this kind of sucks. I’m glad I’ve figured it out, it means I can get some sleep, but I’m not thrilled about it. Sleep is supposed to be a comfort, it was for years, and I don’t like feeling like it’s a combatant.
Other insomniacs — is this a thing for you, too? If so, what techniques help you? I don’t so much mean general insomnia techniques (although I do have those, like no chocolate after 7 pm and no email or Facebook for an hour before I go to bed, and I’m okay with hearing more). I’m more interested in this “falling asleep as a conscious activity” thing. Do you do it, too — and if so, how? And what about the meta? Have you found ways to make peace with this?
Comment policy: If you yourself have insomnia, I welcome suggestions and perspectives on managing it — but please frame them as what works for you, not as prescriptions for me or anyone else. If you don’t have insomnia, please don’t give advice of any kind. Thanks.