“Sleep is like a cat: It only comes to you if you ignore it. I drank more and continued my mantra. ‘Stop thinking’, swig, ’empty your head’, swig, ‘now, seriously empty your head’.”
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Did you know?
The first reference to counting sheep is found in a twelfth-century Spanish book, Disciplina Clericalis by a lad called Petrus Alphonsi. It’s a collection of fables in which the author tells one humorous tale about a King and his Story-teller counting sheep. Apparently counting sheep was a widespread practice in early Twelfth century Islamic countries, which fascinated and influenced our dear Mr Alphonsi. No doubt a shepherd or five was known to fall asleep during this monotonous daily routine …
Et voila! The origins of a completely useless remedy for insomnia.
So you can’t sleep? Neither could I – on and off for almost 10 years!
Now I’m sleeping like a baby.
As you can imagine, I’ve done a lot of research and am filled will wisdom.
Sleep wisdom? I’m not going to give you sheep, though they might bore you to sleep. I’m not going to warn you about computer / mobile phone screens, though I’m reliably informed that switching them off at least an hour before bedtime is good. I’m not going to stop you from having a glass of wine to make you relaxed and dozy, because my dear Dad swore by that [WARNING don’t over-do this]. I’m not even going to guilt-trip you into going for a run, though regular exercise definitely helped me and is actually good for you. And I’m definitely not going to suggest pills of any kind, though they have helped me occasionally and they do have their place under proper medical supervision.
Honestly, most of that wisdom did not work or only worked for me in part.
For ages I had a long list of stumbling blocks to sleep … too much light, not enough wind-down time, too hot, crinkles in the sheets, pillow too big, pillow too warm, pillow too lumpy, crumbs in the bed, noise, ear worm (terrible songs on repeat in your head), too many thoughts, can’t switch off …
While I tried to create the perfect set of circumstances every night for sleep, lack of sleep persisted. And so I developed a fear of sleep.
Every night I felt a rising panic. This, accompanied by exhaustion and frustration meant that I, a formerly 8-10 hours-sleep-a-night-person, no longer knew myself.
So what has changed?
Back in 2009 an NHS doctor gave me a ‘sleep hygiene’ leaflet. Buried in this leaflet was one piece of advice I had, up til recently, stubbornly refused to take.
That one thing?
To gave my body what it was asking for.
The night that everything changed, went something like this:
Me: You don’t want to fall asleep, do you?
Body: I can’t (whining)
Me: Right, we are getting up then.
Body: No way. What’s the point of that?
Me: You heard me …
Body: But it’s warm and cosy in here and I need to fall asleep. I have a long day tomorrow and I’m exhausted!
Me: Get. Out. Of. Bed!
Point no. 10 in the NHS good sleep guidelines is a nasty little line which I find completely counter-intuitive: “If you cannot sleep,” it says “get up”. Every fibre of my being fought this advice for 10 years. I was so against this advice, you could almost say that it went against my religion.
Nevertheless, one night in September – the night of the disastrous pumpkin soup affair, needless to day I had a lot on my mind that night – I got up, eased my journal quietly out of my bedside table, left my warm cosy room and my sleeping Hubby, and went to the lounge to teach my body (and mind – not being dualistic here) a lesson it would never forget.
The small print of the NHS guidelines reads:
“If you haven’t fallen asleep in 20 minutes, get up.”
“Help your body to associate bed with sleep, not wakefulness.”
“Try and force yourself to stay awake for a set period – 30 minutes or an hour.”
“Do something relaxing – no screens.”
I set myself 30 minutes, wrapped myself in a blankie (baby word I know) on my sofa in the lounge and poured out my pumpkin-soup-woes in my journal. I love journaling and hardly ever write in my journal anymore. It’s relaxing and I can scribble out my thoughts in a steam-of-conscious-style without spell check or clever phrases and a readership of just one. It turned out to be quite difficult to make myself stay awake for 30 minutes. I wanted to fall asleep all the time.
Just 2 nights of this torture, it took me, to develop a new habit of good sleep (with a couple of reminders occasionally since).
So, completely illogically, barring myself from bed and trying to stay awake, actually made me ready to sleep … and sleep I’ve done ever since.
I wish you sweet dreams and restful sleep, dear readers! I hope this helps.
P.s. I have one caveat! Find out what it is that you’re afraid of, what’s worrying you, the thoughts that you wrestle with day and night. If you can’t figure it out, see someone – I did. These are the things that will fill the pages of your journal while you force yourself to sit on that sofa in the lounge at midnight. These are the things you need to get to the bottom of. For me, it’s always been ‘fear of rejection’. It underlies all my over-thinking. But now that I know that sneaky little sleep thief, I also know how to silence him.
P.p.s. Gary Larson is my favourite cartoonist. He depicts animals as they might be if they were more like humans. His specialities are cows and chickens, but has also been known to do snakes, bears, flowers – and yes, sheep. This cow cartoon (left) is one of my faves.
P.p.p.s. I finally went to see a psychologist for a counselling session in September – should have seen someone in 2000 when my world imploded. He helped me to see some patterns in some of my thinking. He was super expensive so I can almost never afford to go again, but so … that was another turning point for me in 2019.