Some scholars tell us that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were really written by Bacon, or Marlowe, or someone else. Whoever the author was, I know one thing about him or her: they sucked at sleeping. Think about it: Hamlet wanders around the castle and sees ghosts instead of staying warm in his bed. Henry V soliloquizes about how lucky peasants are to slave all day in the hot sun because they get to sleep soundly at night. MacBeth, suffering remorse about the murder he’s committed, focuses on the fact that he will never again know peaceful sleep.
These characters obviously know what it’s like to be unable to fall asleep. They’ve felt the loneliness of being awake while the world sleeps around and below and next to you; the worry of knowing you’ll be too tired to function in the morning and knowing you must. The pain and fatigue and vague nausea. Trying to breathe and move quietly so as not to wake up those nearby, all the while wishing they would wake up and see how lonely you are. Telling them to go back to sleep because you know you should say that, but thinking “Don’t believe me! Stay up and talk to me!” Dwelling, when away from bed, on the texture of the blankets and pillows with obsessive anticipation, only to find the magic gone when you get there.
Well, I am no Shakespeare character. I haven’t killed anyone, and I’m no king, and my father died of natural causes. But my insomnia would seem to think otherwise. For about thirteen years now, I’ve had a pretty intractable case. During my years of drug abuse I used ever-increasing amounts of sedatives and hypnotics to force my brain to accept sleep, only to have them stop working as I developed tolerance. When I abstained from them or ran out, my brain rebounded with a more complete inability to drop off than before.
The longest I’ve ever gone without any sleep at all is six days, but that was a bipolar episode that ended at the hospital. Usually, when I got tired enough, I would drop off for an hour or two. It was quite common for me to fall asleep as the birds began to sing in the morning and be awakened by my alarm an hour or two later. When multiple days of three hours sleep or less were strung together, it tended to make my other issues worse. Hardly surprising, given the known effects of sleep deprivation on everything from mood to pain threshold to appetite.
It was awful, there’s no doubt about it. But what a self-pity bonanza for a using addict! I always had a plausible, prepared reason for retreating from anything I didn’t want to do: sorry, the sleep deprivation’s crossed a line and my survival requires a nap instead of whatever it is you are asking of me right now. It was one more thing that made me “other,” and as such it was useful to the side of me that wanted no part of ordinary routines and responsibilities.
I am not trying in any way to downplay the suffering insomnia brings to all of us, and especially to those who have mental health issues even on a full night’s sleep. I’m only saying that in order for me to get clean, I had to work on changing my attitude about my sleep. I had to become willing to stay clean even if I never got a night of sleep again. I had to start applying my spiritual tools to sleep and all that goes with it.
What does that mean? It means I try to accept that I’m not in charge of how much sleep I get, and I try to have faith that I’ll get what I absolutely need when I need it badly enough. It means I try to accept when my energy and mood are impacted by lack of sleep, and I try to let go of any question of fairness around this. It means I take responsibility for my own choices when I do things that contribute to the problem.
What inspiring ideas these are. Truly, I must be a paragon of spirituality to have reached such a state of acceptance! Right. It probably comes as no surprise to read that I fail at these goals. Often. I picked this title from my list for today’s post because I’m having real attitude problems the last few days.
When my alarm went off yesterday morning, I wanted to cry as soon as my grit-encrusted eyelids blinked open. I’d fallen asleep three hours ago, but awakened fifteen minutes later because our neurotic and intellectually challenged dog decided that 4:15 am was the perfect time to jump out of bed and go scratch at the patio door. After all, we might be being invaded by a pre-dawn squirrel army; better not to take chances. So it was closer to 5 by the time I got deeper into sleep. (Don’t worry, animal lovers, I let the dog live. This time. The two-legged beast I sleep with is probably in more danger the next time he flops over and wakes up the dog at the wrong moment.)
So I’m dragging. Sleep has gradually improved since I got clean, but even when I’m at my best we are not talking about anything approaching a full night. My family going to bed is the cue for me to settle in for several hours of reading or playing with my iPad until my eyelids get heavy. When the sleep total goes at the low end for several days like this, I get irritable and vulnerable to self-pity. I want to snarl at anyone who makes constructive suggestions about how to get more sleep. I don’t want to admit that there are times when an earlier sleep attempt might have worked if I put everything away and dealt with the anxiety of lying there long enough.
Imperfection, and lots of it. I’m not trying to be harsh with myself for that; it’s just important for me to acknowledge it. Important to see and name the vulnerable spots, those lightly guarded passes through which a dangerous thought can slip. A completely human, understandable, but dangerous thought. Something like: “I really need one night of sleep. Just one night. I’d feel so much better. I haven’t taken the sleeping pills in years, so they’d probably work really well…No one would have to know.”
Honesty is always a useful start. I can’t promise to stop having cranky days, but I’ll continue to work on my willingness to address my lifestyle issues and try things I haven’t tried. In the meantime, I’ll go on using those imperfect tools. Because I don’t really need “one night of sleep.” Not at that price.