The first time I stayed up all night was not for fun. It wasn’t even intentional. I spent the night before my first day of eighth grade huddling beneath my comforter, squeezing my eyes shut and wishing they would stay that way naturally, effortlessly. But my mind wouldn’t shut down. I worried over a thousand tiny and not-so tiny things like my outfit, my new classes, the girls who’d picked on me over the summer, and, most of all, who would fill the void that my best friend had left when she moved away. These thoughts spun round and round while I tossed and turned. I got up to pee. I got up for a drink of water. And then to pee again. And then more water. And then it was too hot. And then my alarm was blaring and I totally had not slept a wink.
This might sound familiar to you. Maybe it happened once, maybe it occurs once a week, or maybe you struggle to get to sleep EVERY NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, which was the case for me from the ages of 13 to 30. And none of the doctors I saw, not my general practitioner, my psychologist, or any of the sleep specialists, could tell me what caused it. I went in for one of those overnight sleep tests where they monitor you while you attempt to sleep in a hospital bed with a bunch of wires taped to you, and they said there was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t have restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or any other physical issues. I also took a lengthy psychological survey, and it was determined that though I have struggled with depression, that wasn’t the cause of my sleeplessness either, since it went on even when I wasn’t depressed. My diagnosis was “general insomnia.” As one doctor told me frankly, “We don’t know what causes it and we don’t have a cure.”
When I was 18, I was prescribed Ambien, which was thought to be a wonder drug for sleep at the time. It didn’t leave you in a haze the next morning like older sleep aids. It hadn’t yet been discovered that it had weird side effects like sleep eating, though I did find it a little odd that the first time I took it, with a friend who had a prescription, we woke up to find my laundry balled up around my room and then vaguely remembered “making nests” for little creatures that we’d hallucinated. That didn’t bother me much because (a) I thought it was fun, (b) it didn’t seem worse than drinking myself to sleep with wine, which is what I’d been doing at college, and, most important, (c) I hadn’t slept so soundly in five years. Ambien worked really well for me. I mean, eventually I was up to three and a half pills a night, but the doctors told me it was OK. “You can take it forever” was an exact quote from one specialist, who also assured me that it wasn’t addictive, though I might experience “a little kickback” when I stopped.
It was all good until I turned 23 and was no longer covered by my mom’s insurance. Ambien, which was not sold as a generic drug at the time, was insanely expensive. That’s when I started trying to get off of it. Ultimately it took seven years to wean myself from the drug I was assured wasn’t addictive. Part of it was psychological, but that “little kickback” the one doctor told me about? For the first two weeks that I went completely without Ambien—a feat that took me five years to work up to—I slept four hours. And I don’t mean four hours a night, I mean four hours total. But eventually I achieved what I thought was impossible: solid, drug-free nights of sleep on a regular basis. I still struggle sometimes, but now I have an arsenal of techniques to try when I do, and here they are:
- Exercise. Yeah, I know I’m starting the list with something that might not sound fun at all, but if you just sit on your butt all day it’s hard for your body to sleep at night. And it can be enjoyable if you pick the right activity for you. I started with Pilates. Both it and yoga have great meditative/relaxing qualities. Running or doing other cardio in the morning can give you a boost, too. P.E. counts, obviously, but you might need more to wear you out. However, don’t try to wear yourself out right before bed. Exercise in the morning or afternoon, because it can cause an endorphin rush and it gets your blood pumping and increases your heart rate, which needs to slow down when you’re falling asleep.
- Closer to bedtime, eat a light snack—because if your stomach is growling it will keep you up, but if it is working hard to digest a lot of heavy food that makes it hard for you to fall asleep, too. Also, drink a warm beverage. Milk is a go-to for lots of people, but I prefer herbal, uncaffeinated tea. Just looking at the cozy little bear in his stocking hat on the Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea box is soothing. Good Earth makes a great nighttime tea as well. Chamomile is your friend when you can’t sleep. The only problem with the warm-beverage approach is it might make you have to pee like a maniac. If that’s too disruptive, try the next thing instead.
- Take a warm bath. It’s relaxing; plus, when you raise your core body temperature, the cooling-off process helps you sleep.
- Try an herbal remedy. Valerian root helped me, and so does Bach’s Rescue Remedy, which is a liquid made out of flowers. They have a type that is specific for sleep, but the regular kind works just as well. I buy the spray, and when I’m feeling anxious, three spritzes on my tongue calms me right down. You can get this stuff at natural-food and vitamin shops like Whole Foods.
- Melatonin is another natural sleep regulator. It’s a hormone that is a part of your sleep/wake cycle, and a lot of people struggle with sleep because they don’t have enough of it. However because it is a hormone, you should talk to your doctor about before taking it, even though you can get it without a prescription again at places like Whole Foods.
- Avoid caffeine. I know that this sucks. I liked coffee and soda a lot, too, and if you’re tired, it’s probably what you use to perk up. But when you do that, especially in the afternoon or evening, you are only making things worse for yourself. To get my sleep regulated, I had to quit caffeine completely. Eventually I was able to start drinking it again, but only in the mornings, and I became a tea drinker because in general it has a lot less caffeine than coffee and soda.
- Regulate those naps, too. Personally, I can’t nap at all, because it makes me feel more tired, but if you like them and/or need them because you don’t get enough sleep at night, try to take short naps (no more than an hour or you could make yourself really groggy plus have a hard time falling asleep at bedtime) at the same time every day, preferably right after school so you aren’t napping too close to bedtime.
- Regulate your regular sleeping hours according to what’s natural for you. This is by far the hardest thing to do. I read about it all the time and resisted it because it seemed impossible, not to mention totally boring, to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day, but ultimately this was the thing transformed me from insomniac to normal sleeper. I discovered that I am by nature a night owl. I cannot force myself to go to bed before midnight or one AM, and as a result my natural wake-up time is nine, not six or seven AM like the world wants it to be. I actually changed jobs from office work to bartending just to match my actual schedule with my body’s natural one. One of life’s biggest cruelties is how early they make you get up for school—unfortunately, in most cases, you don’t have control over that until college. Then, if you are a natural night owl like me, go ahead and sign up for only 11 AM-and-later classes, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re lazy. In the meantime, however, you really have to try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day—even on weekends. I know it’s tempting to sleep past noon on Saturday and Sunday, but that could be a big contributor to your problems during the week. To figure out your natural sleep pattern, I highly recommend a program called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There are doctors who specialize in it, but you can use an online guide that is only 35 bucks. This is what finally worked for me after years of drugs and different doctors.
- That program also emphasizes good sleep hygiene, which includes regulating things like caffeine and naps as I mentioned, as well as creating the right environment for sleeping. It’s easier to fall asleep in a cooler room with the right amount of blankets. If you are kicking your blankets off every night, ditch some of them. Also, evaluate your pillows. I splurged on good ones, plus a body pillow, to make myself comfortable. I also tacked a dark sheet over my blinds to keep the room dark enough. When I travel, I use a sleep mask. If noise bugs you, get a white noise machine or an app for your phone, or download some MP3s of whatever sounds soothe you, like rainstorms or ocean waves.
- The experts agree that beds should be used for two only things: sleep and sex. Watching TV and using your laptop in bed makes your brain associate being in bed with being awake. Even reading can do this. Train your brain by taking that stuff to the couch or a chair.
- This also means that you shouldn’t let yourself toss and turn for too long. If you are awake for more than 30 minutes, get up. Even if it’s three in the morning, get out of bed. Don’t start cleaning your room or surfing the internet, though. Do something that isn’t going to be too engaging. Reading a really dry textbook can work.
- Speaking of surfing the internet and the TV, staring at any kind of screen an hour before bed can also mess with your brain. So whenever possible, finish up your homework, nightly television-viewing and Facebook-checking, and even texting an hour before bed and do something like read or write or draw in a journal instead.
- But don’t write really emotional and upsetting things down right before bed, if you can avoid it. Vent in your journal or to a friend earlier in the day so you can put that stuff out of your mind when you’re trying to sleep. Also, if you are like me and obsess about things you’ve got to get done or even what you are going to wear in the morning, write a to-do list, pick out your clothes, and organize your stuff before bed. Then when you start to obsess, you can remind yourself that you are prepared to handle it in the morning.
- Try not to freak out about not sleeping. I don’t know about you, but if I’m up late worrying about something, eventually my worries turn into Oh my god, I only have five hours left to sleep…four…three and a half… Don’t keep looking at the clock—in fact, it’s best to make the numbers on your clock as dim as possible, or use the alarm on your cell phone and put it out of arm’s reach. And remind yourself that if you don’t sleep well tonight, you will tomorrow, and that being tired is not the end of the world.
- That old method of counting sheep can work, but it’s more effective to visualize yourself drawing numbers on a chalkboard, because it engages both the left and right sides of the brain.
- If you need more than that, try meditation or guided imagery. My Pilates teacher recorded some meditations for me, and I also visited a hypnotist to learn self-hypnosis, which uses very similar guided visualization techniques. You can try Amazon or iTunes for stuff that might work for you, but here are the basics. Start with taking deep breaths to slow your breathing. You can also tense and then release your muscles. Then visualize a warming light slowly moving up from the tips of your toes through every part of your body up to your head. If you aren’t asleep yet, visualize yourself walking or floating to some place that relaxes you and makes you feel safe. It may be a forest, cave, beach, or whatever. For me, I’m floating in a pool, I see mountains on the horizon, and my cats are nearby. I can hear them purring and both smell and taste the crisp ocean air. Engaging as many senses in your vision as possible will help occupy your mind.
- Regular massages can help with general relaxation, and I also recommend acupuncture if you are battling severe insomnia or if you have been taking sleeping pills and want to stop. Just like no one entirely understands how general insomnia works, they can’t entirely explain how those needles help, but they do. For most people, it just feels like a pin prick and isn’t painful. Acupuncture combined with all of the techniques above ultimately got me off of Ambien and into a regular sleep routine. I hope that something here will help you find relief, too, and I’ll see you in the Land of Nod. ♦