Sleepless in the Sierra
July 13, 2013
It began after my hip replacement last year. I stopped the pain pills, and then I couldn't sleep, so I'd stay up and watch TV. When I did get to sleep, I'd be awake after two hours and nap in a rocking chair or the sofa until 4 a.m. I'd finally get to sleep just before sunrise. What an awful way to spend the night.
I refused to get addicted to sleeping pills, so I went to a psychotherapist: Wendy Conway of Nevada City. She used "cognitive behavioral" therapy with me. It's basically common sense, but nobody ever accused me of having such a thing.
"Don't try to go to sleep," she said. "Instead, relax."
"But that's why I'm here," I said. "I'm trying to get to sleep."
It took me nine months of weekly sessions to get my sleep back.
"Don't try so hard," said Wendy. "Let sleep come to you. Don't do anything that keeps you awake."
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I began to relax. No night coffee, cola or sugar. I turned down all the lights. No guns and violence on TV. No late-night comedy. No cable news talking heads to raise my blood pressure.
I listened to classical music on the back TV channels. I soon discovered BabyTV (Dish channel 823), lullaby style music with contemporary songs, abstract colors and cartoon characters floating about on an imaginary merry-go-round. Boring but relaxing.
I began reading biographies: Bill Clinton, John Lennon and Lincoln, a thousand pages each. I changed my habits — brush teeth, take meds, put on bed clothes, bring in the cat food and turn off the yard lights. If I did all that and jumped into bed, I'd be wide awake. So I did all this before I got drowsy. And I knew I was drowsy when my eyes naturally closed in the middle of a sentence of my reading.
But I still didn't stay asleep. I'd awake around 3 a.m., watch BabyTV and read John Lennon for an hour or two before getting back to sleep.
"Don't go to sleep until you're sleepy," said Wendy.
I couldn't believe how obvious this was. At first, I didn't go to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m., but that quickly settled into 12:30 to 1:30 a.m. Now I don't try to go to sleep if I'm not sleepy. Finally, I was able to get to sleep without lying there awake in the dark.
I still woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep without BabyTV and reading. Wendy again gave me simple but effective advice: "Don't look at the clock," she said.
I always looked at the clock, however, to see how long I've been asleep and how much longer until morning.
"I'm curious about what time I wake up in the middle of the night," I said. "Self-control is not my strong point."
Wendy smiled and said emphatically, "Don't look at the clock."
That night I did all my go-to-sleep routines, went to sleep, awoke but didn't look at the alarm clock. I got back to sleep not knowing how long I'd slept or how long until morning, and it didn't matter. That happened twice. I actually got back to sleep each time.
I hesitated to think I was cured. Relapse is always possible. But relapse never happened. Instead, about once a week, when I do a lot of outdoor work, I go to sleep at midnight and I don't wake up until morning. This is like a mini-miracle to me.
I still turn down the lights and read a little before going to sleep. I let the country silence be my night music until I'm drowsy. I often wake up once or twice a night, but I always get back to a peaceful sleep.
It took me nine months of weekly sessions to get my sleep back. I've been accused of being a divergent thinker, creative and enthusiastic. I'm not good at following directions, taking orders or applying theories to my life. Anyone can rediscover the sweet temporary oblivion of sleep in less time than I took.
Paul August is a freelance writer living in Nevada City.