#9. Sleeping

I don’t sleep well. The hyperbolic in me would like to say that I’ve never slept well, but then you get some joker popping up from your past yammering about how you slept like a log when you were a baby. Which might be true, but what good does that do me now? I could blame my fibromyalgia, as the faboo one-two punch of chronic exhaustion paired with insomnia is one of the most common hallmarks of the disorder. But even giving that a hefty dose of credit, the truth is I don’t actually know that many people who say they sleep well or enough or who wake feeling rested and energetic.

Well, I for one, am tired of being tired. How about it? Are you with me? I said, ARE YOU WITH ME? Sorry. Got carried away. Lack of restorative sleep’ll do that to a gal. Anyhoo, by now you know where I’m headed with all this: I spent the past seven days in a row sleeping. Non-stop. Just sleeping. And now I’m caught up. The end.

Not really, of course. Instead, I decided to try to sleep better and, according to my highly scientific web research, that meant I needed to improve my sleep hygiene. Which meant, first and foremost, I had to find out what the hell sleep hygiene is. According to Wikipedia – the great arbiter of all that is true in the world – sleep hygiene refers to “all behavioural and environmental factors that precede sleep and may interfere with sleep.” In other words, it just means your sleep habits. But I prefer to say “hygiene,” because I think it makes me sound more expert-y.

So how bad is my sleep hygiene? Well, thank goodness, the web can offered up the perfect tool for a gal raised on the quizzes in the back of women’s magazines. So I took a Discovery Health online quiz to find out. Even as I was doing said quiz, I realized it doesn’t really take a test to tell you if you have bad sleep habits. I think if you’re tired, you probably already know the answer. But what fun is that?

I actually didn’t do as badly as I thought I would. I scored a 44 out of 100, which offended both the over- and underachiever in me, but still got me plenty scolded:

According to your sleep hygiene score, you clearly do not listen to your body's cues and you might be fighting its natural rhythm. Sleep is a necessity and though you may not feel the side effects yet, be assured that lack of sleep will catch up to you! Your results show that you need to make sleep a priority. You may think that you don't have enough time for proper sleep, but take the time to consider the facts; what you "lose" on sleep, you can recouperate in productivity because you will be rested and clear-headed.

Listen to that snarky tone: “you clearly do not listen to your body’s cues.” Up yours, Discovery Health! I won’t be insulted by an internet quiz that can’t even spell recuperate properly. Ha! I win due to good spelling once again.

Minor triumphs aside, the bottom line was I needed to figure out which changes, specifically, I would try to implement for the week in order to improve my sleep. I perused any number of websites for tips and suggestions and discovered most of them shared the same pearls of wisdom. I compiled the most frequent ones into this list to follow:

  1. Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy
  2. If you’re not asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something else
  3. Create night-time rituals to help you relax and enhance sleepiness
  4. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning.
  5. Avoid taking naps.
  6. Don’t do anything other than sleep in bed. (No reading, watching TV, playing on the computer, etc.)
  7. Don’t exercise late in the day.
  8. Avoid caffeine after lunch.
  9. Create a pleasant sleeping environment: keep your bedroom dark, quiet and a bit cool.

One of the first sites I found actually had rule #1 written as “do not sleep unless you are sleepy,” which seemed to me not only pretty funny but also patently impossible. So I went with the more sensible version of #1, even though the insomniac in me was grumbling about the fact that she’s always sleepy and it doesn’t seem to help much.

Ditto #2. I don’t remember the last time I fell asleep in less than 30 minutes. Thus, if I got out of bed if I wasn’t asleep within 20 minutes, by my calculations I’d have had exactly zero sleep in the past decade or so. Surely that can’t be what the spirit of what these “experts” meant. Thus, I decided to give myself 45 minutes to doze off.

Without question, #3 was my favorite! Who doesn’t love the idea of creating nighttime rituals? This is right up my alley. I already take a bath nearly every night, and now I could claim it was in service of a loftier aim. I filled my tub with only the most soothing-scented bath oils. I floated on a lavender cloud, got out and slathered on pretty, calming lotions. I filled my kettle and settled in with a cup of aptly-named sleepy-time tea. I practiced some deep breathing and tried to make my mind melt. Oh, I was so good at this one!

Similarly without question, though, #4 was not my favorite. The quality of my sleep varies wildly from night to night, so I was reluctant to commit to dragging my ass out of bed at a certain time if I wasn’t well-rested. (Well-rested being, for me, on a scale of bad to worse.) Same with going to bed. Instead, I gave myself a one-hour window for both, which seemed far more reasonable than my previous wild yo-yo-ing. (Best thing about running your own life-change experiment? Your rules.)

Number 5 was not really a problem. Generally, those who can’t fall asleep easily don’t nap well. But #6 was the worst. I didn’t think I could go seven days using my bed just for sleep. Now, please march to the gutter and retrieve your mind. I’m referring to reading in bed. I’m adamant about not having a TV in our bedroom and laptops are banished (admittedly, only at night), but no reading? My entire life I’ve read in bed before going to sleep. I wasn’t sure it was even possible for me to fall asleep without reading. Could this really be the problem?

Now, I’d heard #7 a bunch of times before and had broadly interpreted it to mean that if exercise late in the day was bad for sleep, then surely no exercise at all was best. Turns out that’s not true. Exercise actually helps you sleep, as long as its four to six hours before bed time. So, yes, dammit, I actually committed to getting some exercise. Some.

No caffeine after lunch? Piece of cake! After my grand (though largely failed) caffeine experiment a couple of weeks back, I’ve been much more aware of my caffeine intake, particularly later in the day. It felt good to have a concrete rule in place to avoid it after lunch. And if you tell anyone I said that, I’ll deny it.

Last, the pleasant sleeping environment. This one was only slightly problematic. I found that (again with the brownie points for prior change) making my bed in the mornings makes a much more pleasant atmosphere to come to at night. Our room’s pretty dark and I sleep with ear plugs in anyway. To top it off, I lit the candle next to my bed and let its scent fill the air before I climbed in for the night.

Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking, Enough about what she did. What about how she did?

I answer with a resounding: meh.

I mean, for the most part I stuck to my guns really well and I’m pretty proud of that. I’m just not really sure, in the end, that it made that much difference. I might have slept a little better, but the truth is it’s just hard to say how much difference all this effort really made.

Of course, I did, annoyingly enough, discover things about myself. Which, frankly, I’m already getting just a little bit tired of.

I discovered that – as with so many of the other changes I’ve attempted – my biggest obstacle seems to be that I lack an inner parent. Go ahead. Roll your eyes all you want. But we all need to have a sane, reasonable voice inside our heads, telling us to behave, to take good care of ourselves, not to stick our fingers in the fire place. I’m beginning to think my inner parent is deadbeat.

I’ve gotten myself all mixed up about sleep, so far removed from listening to my body. (Damn you, Discovery Health quiz, for being right!) Just because I’m sleepy at 11 doesn’t mean I’m not going to stay awake for two more hours knitting and watching reruns. No matter how much prep I’ve put into winding down, when it comes time to the action of getting my ass into the bed, I drag my feet.

So the big thing was having the sheer willpower to turn off the TV, put down my knitting and march my rear into the bed. The inner teenager/toddler in me is alive and well and she wants to stay up all night watching TV and behaving like a person who doesn’t have any actual responsibilities. The part of me that knows how to make sane, self-nurturing decisions is conspicuously absent at these times. I have to dig deep to find that voice.

The second biggest challenge was my monkey mind. I found that – relaxing scented candles be damned – if I snapped the light off right after falling into bed, most of the time all I did was think. Think, think, think. And not just about all the TV I could have been watching. I thought about everything that ever happened to me in my life, pretty much. Every problem that I’d ever had. Every problem I might have.

After a couple of nights of this madness, I decided I’d let myself read for a while. Yes, in bed, experts be damned. Turns out that reading is part of my falling asleep ritual. Maybe diving into a book makes other people’s brains pop alive, but not mine. Mine stops trying to work out the problems of my life and gets lost, hazily, in some fictional narrative. Things slow down. I get lost. I drift. I need to read to fall asleep.

So what does it all mean? In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think this experiment involved a faulty premise from the get-go. I realize now, I was relying on a list of arbitrary suggestions meant for normal people, not those with a chronic illness that affects sleep patterns. And, worst of all, I had the expectation that following this list diligently was going to solve everything once and for all.

Instead, I think that maybe the information I needed to get from this week is that the real experiment for me – the truly uncomfortable work – is trying to accept my fibromyalgia and not compare my sleep abilities to those of regular ol’ stressed out folks. That toddler/teen doesn’t wanna be different from other people, doesn’t wanna have those things. I need to find that parent, that voice that will help me work within my limitations without letting them define me.

Yeah. That all sounds good and mature and maybe even a little wise. I’d get right on it if I wasn’t so  goddamn tired.