Life In General: Sleep Disorder

Oh for a good night’s sleep.

Anyone had one recently?

Most everyone I know complains of trouble sleeping. Either they can’t fall asleep, or  - most commonly -  they can’t STAY asleep.

 Since I first experienced the pernicious symptoms of menopause about 15 years ago, I’ve been likely to wake up about 4:00 a.m. and be unable to go back to sleep. My eyes pop open as if some evil sleep sprite has sprinkled wake-up dust on them.

Then the ticker tape of worries and anxieties begins to roll. I’m sure you have one of those too.

During the months of June and July I was sleeping like the proverbial baby for the first time in decades. What a gift! I rarely have a problem falling asleep, and for those two wonderful months I was sleeping from 11:00 p.m. straight through until the classical music station wakened me with some Scarlatti or Chopin at 6:45 a.m. 

But lately? Oy vey. It’s back to the very early morning wakeup - not even 4:00 a.m., now the favorite time is 3:00 a.m. instead. 

This morning it was 2:10. Today is going to be an 18 or 19 hour day, which is a very long time to be awake. 

What’s changed? I’m not feeling any particular stress, at least not anything different than I was in June or July. I haven’t altered my bedtime routine, about which I am extremely Obsessive Compulsive. (Internet off at 8 p.m., TV until 10 p.m., warm bath, reading in bed until sleepy.)

It’s ironic that this is happening right now, because I’ve been doing some research for a new book project about SLEEP. Everything I’ve read indicates that (1) I am not alone, because over 62% of Americans report some type of sleep disorder; and (2) middle of the night waking may be a phenomena associated with our pre-history. 

In the early 1990’s, a sleep researcher named Thomas Wehr conducted a study through the National Institute of Mental Health. He gathered eight volunteers who subjected themselves to 14 hours of total darkness every night for a month. No candles, no light of any kind, and definitely no Electronics - conditions that mimicked the way our ancestors lived before the advent of electricity. At first, these volunteers slept nearly eleven hours each night, sleeping straight through without interruption. After just a few days, their pattern changed. They fell into a deep sleep early on, sleep about four hours, then wake up around midnight for a few hours of “peaceful wakefulness,” after which they returned to sleep for a few more hours before dawn.

Now this sounds like a nightmare to me, and replicates exactly the kind of night I’ve come to dread. When my eyes open in the middle of the night and I realize it’s still far too dark to be anywhere near daylight, I typically thrash around for a while before I give up, get my book and book light, and try to read myself back to sleep. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. If I’m hungry, I go make toast and hot water with lemon. If I’m cold, I heat up the lavender scented microwavable heating pad. If I’m desperate, I head for the iPad and fire up Facebook where I usually find a number of compatriots in wakefulness.

But the volunteers in Wehr’s study had a different reaction to this early middle of the night waking. Instead of being agitated and restless (like I am) they described it as a “quiescent, meditative state,” in which they felt inspired to wonder, muse, and ponder. Since they couldn’t read, make a snack, or update their social media status, the volunteers were limited to lying in bed with their thoughts. “It’s tempting to speculate,” Wehr stated, “that in prehistoric times this arrangement provided a channel of communication between dreams and waking life that has gradually been closed off as humans compressed and consolidated their sleep."

There are physiological changes associated with this sleep pattern  - changes like increased levels of prolactin and melatonin, hormones that promote a sense of restful calm and satisfaction, the kind that make you feel as if all is right with the world.

I surely have not felt the benefit of those hormones in MY middle of the night wakeful periods. Instead of feeling more rested, I actually feel RESTLESS, in all the meanings that word entails.

Writer Brian W. Aldiss described these midnight hours as the time we are “most able to hold all our life in the palm of our skull.” I’m not convinced that’s much of a positive thing. In the middle of a dark, sleepless night, I think I’d prefer to have my life on the outside of my skull, maybe even locked up a box on top of a high shelf in my closet where I can’t peek at it until morning light.

But as my own periods of broken sleep seem to be increasing with age, perhaps I should view them as more of a gift than a hindrance.  These hours of wakefulness during the night may be a way to reclaim some of the precious time I’m losing as the sands of my earthly hourglass begin to run down. Those silent hours when the rest of the house is sleeping and the cacophony of the world is easier to shut out could be a restorative time for reading, reflection, and learning.  

And then again, it could be a really nice time for SLEEPING. 

If only my body would agree.