Janet Sheridan: Sleepless nights
February 6, 2014
Have you ever noticed that small concerns become major issues during sleepless nights? The occasional twinge in your molar is an abscess that will result in extraction and dentures. Your son doesn't call because he thinks your genes have kept him from bowling a perfect game; when you remember there are no bagels for breakfast, it breaks your heart.
I routinely magnify my nighttime concerns to red-alert levels, tossing and turning until the sheets twine around me like restraints, and Joel's peaceful breathing is as irritating as a fly buzzing against the windshield while I'm driving.
If nothing else, I lie awake and worry about why I'm lying awake. Last night I convinced myself that a disease-carrying mosquito had infected me with a life-threatening syndrome, and sleeplessness is the first symptom.
Recently, the “Today” show had a segment with Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who discussed the dire consequences of consistently getting fewer than six hours of sleep: increased risk of accidents, weight gain, mood disorders, lusterless skin.
I wondered if she was confusing lack of sleep with old age.
Lying awake the night after I viewed the depressing segment, I worried about the health of the many people I know who wander around bright-eyed most of the night and talk about possible causes and cures the better part of the following day.
Some commonly suggested sleep-inducing solutions seem impossible. We're advised to maintain a pleasantly cool temperature in our bedrooms, season in and season out. In Craig? Where in the summer I sleep with open windows and pray for a breeze and during winter wake up with icicles on my nose? We're told to ban digital clocks with bright displays from our bedrooms. If I can't see what time it is, how can I keep track of the hours I'm not sleeping?
I've also heard that when I wake up at night, I shouldn't lie in bed longer than 20 minutes before getting up and pursuing a quiet activity — reading, listening to music, biting my fingernails, looking in neighbors' windows — and I should do so as many times as necessary during a night.
What a ridiculous idea: 20 minutes isn't nearly enough time to make a sound decision about how I'm sleeping. It takes me 20 minutes to figure out I'm not asleep, another 20 to blow my nose, adjust my bedding and nudge Joel to his side of the bed. I fritter away 20 more thinking I'll fall asleep any minute and another 20 acknowledging that I'm wide awake and might as well get up — which it's time to do anyway.
My brother-in-law decided he wasn't sleeping because he had restless leg syndrome. Fortunately, his wife read in a health newsletter that putting hand soap between your bottom sheet and mattress sometimes relieves restless leg syndrome. She convinced him to try the remedy, but he experienced a terrible night. Rereading the article, she realized she should have placed a sliver of soap under her husband, not two bath-sized bars.
Joel heard another tip for inducing sleep: "If you're having trouble falling asleep," the expert advised, "force your eyes to stay open, like you used to when you got drowsy during your high school English class. Soon you won't be able to stand it, and you'll drop off."
As a former English teacher, I resent the implications of that suggestion, so I've refused to try it. Joel, a math major, claims it works.
An elderly relative mentioned to her doctor that she fell asleep off and on all day, but couldn't sleep at night. She added that, surprisingly, her wakeful nights were quite pleasant; she didn't seem to mind them. The doctor asked about her medications — what type, what dose, when taken — and discovered she was swallowing her sleeping pill first thing in the morning and her antidepressant at night.
I think about her sometimes when I'm lying awake, trying to name all my nieces and nephews in the order of their births because I've already counted every sheep in the world. Maybe her remedy would be preferable.