A (fairly) light-hearted look at insomnia ~ scourge of my life and that of others

A (fairly) light-hearted look at insomnia ~ scourge of my life and that of others.

If there is one thing guaranteed to get people talking on social media (and we shall exclude certain subjects for reasons of simple decency) it’s insomnia. It’s far from a simple subject, as this article from Wiki shows but when people start discussing it, you really would think it was simple. Don’t drink caffeine, stop worrying, lavender oil on the pillow…. the advice is endless. I’ve doled out enough of it myself to deserve to be punched.

Those who have never suffered with more than the occasional missed night of sleep are lucky. That said, I’d not wish it upon them.

The definition of insomnia is ambiguous too: Insomnia is often defined as a positive response to either of two questions: “Do you experience difficulty sleeping?” or “Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep?”

Now I’d answer a resounding yes to both questions. Once you start looking more deeply into causes, that’s the point when you realise that it’s not a simple matter of applying head to pillow and shutting the eyes. Insomnia can be fatal (though this is rare) and it is far more debilitating that folks who never suffer can imagine.

I’m going to run through a number of the things I have tried over the years. Some of them work for a while, and some are tried and tested sleep aids. If any of them are things you haven’t tried, do consider trying them.

Herbs (teas, tablets and tinctures): usually people suggest camomile for this and it is indeed very relaxing in small quantities. Over use of it produces the opposite effect. Other herbs that are beneficial for sleep are valerian and hops. The downside is that both of these have a depressant effect. Many herbal sleeping tablets contain both. Not advisable if you suffer with depression. Another good herb is passiflora; this works as a muscle relaxant so if you have a heart problem this one is out. I concocted a herb tea made with about 15 different herbs, all known to have relaxing, soothing and sleep inducing properties: wild lettuce, (which was used to treat the Emperor Augustus of a life threatening bout of insomnia; to such effect he put up a statue in its homour) wood betony, vervain, violets, lavender, passiflora, Californian poppies, limeflowers, camomile, rose petals and St John’s wort among a few others. The tea does work but to make up the mix costs a fair amount of money and you make a pretty large amount. You can’t store herbs for very long without them losing their potency, so when certain herbs like limeflowers undergo chemical changes (after two years they produce chemicals that induce the effects of intoxication) after a year or two, making a blend needs to be done in small quantities at regular intervals. This works for acute insomnia but not for chronic.

Sleeping pills: both over the counter remedies and prescribed ones can be very effective for acute insomnia. One of the most readily available brands  has the option of one OR two tablets. I keep these in for desperate measures. On the leaflet it warns against using them habitually and also if you have kidney damage. Those nights I do take them, I find the next day I have significant pain in the kidney area. Prescribed ones I have taken usually produce such a heavy, unrefeshing sleep that takes hours to emerge from that I’d prefer to avoid them.

Cutting down on caffeine: worth doing. I don’t drink any caffeine-rich beverage after a certain time and drink only a certain amount during the day.

Exercise: taking some form of exercise each day does help. However, according to research, too much exercise can increase insomnia. How much is too much? Exercising immediately before bed will certainly not help.

Aromatherapy: there are many essential oils that have soporific effects. Using one of these (lavender, camomile, rose, jasmine etc) will aid acute insomnia. However, in my experience, long term they don’t do much.

Hot baths: this works by relaxing the muscles with heat. However don’t get into bed until the body temperature has returned to normal. The body’s sleep mechanism is triggered by the body temperature falling slightly, which is why it’s best to sleep in a room that is slightly cooler than usual room temperature.

Crystals: no, don’t laugh. Using certain crystals to aid sleep goes back a long way. Amethyst that deep purple gem is often suggested. It’s also supposed to give deeper and more restful sleep. I have a fondness for crystals and I have found using them helpful. Placebo, maybe but don’t diss it. Again, it may help with short term acute insomnia.

Meditation: this helps to come to a kind of quiet space. Used regularly meditation has immense benefits for a lot of people. My problem is finding the motivation to do something that takes discipline and determination.

Music: I have a good dozen cds of music to help sleep. Some are excellent and some I just find annoyingly bland. Once more, they help through an acute phase but long term efficacy is poor.

Flower essences: yes, I know, another one many find flaky. I’ve used them and found them helpful. Might be placebo but if it helps? Again, short term efficacy.

Blue light: I was given a funny little box that emits a softly pulsing blue light. The idea is you match your breathing to the pulsing and you drift off. Surprisingly effective for acute phases, especially when suffering with severe anxiety. It’s battery powered and I keep forgetting to charge the battery. It also may annoy the person you share a bed with.

Incense: burned some time prior to bedtime, smoke stimulates serotonin production in the brain. I use a very lovely lavender incense from Greater Goods. If nothing else, it makes your bedroom smell wonderful.

I’ve tried a lot of other techniques that simply don’t work for me, including the old favourites hot milk, sex, reading a boring book (I just get bored!) hot toddys and many more. Contrary to what people have assumed, I don’t lie in bed worrying. I’m usually not a worrier. I’ve lain there and quietened my thoughts till they are all sitting there obediently being silent and STILL sleep wouldn’t come for hours. This is not about mind over matter.

It comes down to what is causing your insomnia. If you are treating a symptom without knowing it’s cause, it’s going to be far harder. I read through the article of wiki and this line jumped out at me:

Major depression leads to alterations in the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing excessive release of cortisol which can lead to poor sleep quality.”

Oh. So we’re back to the Black Dog again. What a surprise.

Dream Torment

Dream Torment


Sleep, sleep; dive deep:

The Sea of undiscovered dreams appears.

Sleep, sleep; dig deep:

The underworld of hopes and fears.

Is it real or is it not?

Can I reach it? Better not!

Twists and turns; tunnels long.

A voice beyond: a siren’s song.

Eyes are heavy; legs are weak,

Can I find the thing I seek?

Waking now, it fades away.

Forget it in the light of day.

At sleep-fall it comes again,

Lures me in, lets go and then,

Moves beyond where I can go,

I cannot run; I am too slow.

Dreams torment me, draw me deep:

I get no rest in nightly sleep.

A night of soap bubbles

I didn’t go to bed last night until after midnight and I slept quite soon after that.

I woke with nightmares somewhere after three; I think I got too hot or it might have been the cheese on toast I had for supper. It’s a nightmare that crops up from time to time, where something evil and unearthly has somehow inflitrated my home and I am required to perform an exorcism. I remember reciting the Lord’s Prayer and demanding that the thing (under my bed at this point) leave at once. I might even have directed it to move into the light but I can’t be sure. One curious thing for those of you who interpret dreams (I am talking to you, Robert) the dream was set not only in my parents’ house, but in the bedroom I had as a child but not a teenager. It wasn’t exactly as I remember it; the drab wallpaper was there but the double bed that inhabits the room today was there instead of the single bed of my childhood. I woke up partially during the dream and took better control; the monster(which I never saw) had been reluctant to obey me, but when I became lucid within the dream, I found the atmosphere of dread and terror dissipated and I work feeling OK. Usually after such a dream I wake in a cold sweat and turn the light on for a while; I often also reach for some item of religious comfort, or my husband (who could be said to be that too, given his calling)

I went back to sleep and dreamed assorted dreams that have left me with fragments of bubbles, solidified slightly to shards of very fine and sparkly glass. I’ve been playing with them since I woke, rearranging them to make pretty or interesting patterns.

It feels rather good. I feel like a child with a new Fuzzy Felts set, one with glitter and satin as well as the usual bright and not-so-bright colours, to play around with and make new pictures. None of them are permanent because, if you ever had Fuzzy Felts, the joy of them was being able to change the pictures at will to tell a new story.

The really  funny thing is that even though I didn’t go to sleep till almost 1am, I woke at about 8am, feeling ready for the day. Even when I got to bed at 9pm and sleep till 6.45 I wake often as if I have tossed and turned all night. Obviously this needs more thought; recent research suggests that sharing a bed is not actually good for sleep, but I do suspect that NOT sharing one is likely to be bad for marriages. I don’t yet know if it was the skewing of my sleep pattern that has effected this change, or if it’s a mere one-off, or whether as is equally likely, that I am just relaxing from stopping my work schedule, or because I slept alone.

More research needed. I suppose I could always go and sleep in a tent in the garden to see what effect that has….

The Witching Hour approacheth

It’s pretty rare for me to be up this late. I am usually ready for bed from about 8.30 so being up at 11.45pm is quite strange.

And that’s how I feel. Quite strange. I know I must be tired as my typing is a tad erratic but I don’t feel sleepy or tired in the slightest. I feel wired as if I have been slurping down the coffee all evening. I’ve been writing a lot tonight, mainly here but I have done some fiction earlier. I’ve mostly been bouncing ideas around.

I do feel as if I may be running headlong into a manic high episode, though. Normally I crave sleep like a junkie craves a fix. Now I just don’t feel like sleeping. I’m going to go and get ready for bed shortly and hope the routine of washing face, cleaning teeth and so on trigger the desired result.

The trouble is I’m a natural owl. There’s a theory that people are either owls or larks, in terms  of the setting of their body clocks. I’ve always felt I’m an owl. I work best in the darker hours of the night, even though it’s been decades since I pulled an overnighter to complete an essay. I married a lark and birthed one too.

So an owl living with two larks and living a lark lifestyle of early rising and daylight working….No wonder I’m so screwed up and struggle with insomnia despite being exhausted by 9pm. My whole bodyclock is in denial.

I’m not sure what the solution might be, given that much of society works by lark rules and therefore most jobs are run on lark time.

I’ve got six minutes now before midnight arrives. I shan’t turn into a pumpkin or lose my slippers but I know something has shifted in me.

Five minutes now. Tick-tock.

That’s the sound of today dripping away to tomorrow.

Good night and sweet dreams to you all!

Sleepless in a Hospital bed.

Sleepless in a hospital bed
My world has shrunk:
Bordered by weakness,
Walled with pain,
Curtained by wakefulness.
My world has shrunk
To this one bed,
This room, this ward;
My leash, an IV drip.
I'm anchored not by hope
But by stubborness,
A sheer bloody-mindedness
That stops me escaping in sleep.
Determined to live
Each uncomfortable second
Each awkward moment,
Each pang of pain or fear
Holds me tight as arms.
I'm safe, I know;
My fears are fools
With louder voices
Than my common sense
Whispering of Occam's razor
And going home well again.
But the whispers are drowned
By the night noises of the ward:
The crying in the next room
Of a confused distressed old person
Going apparently unanswered;
The bleeps and clicks
Made by machines
Surrounding us-
And the traffic slowing
But never stopping.
I watch the curtains
Billow softly around me
In the night wind
Blowing warm from heaters
And finally let myself
Begin to drift
Into the safe painless

Harbour of sleep