Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
–Macbeth, William Shakespeare
When something is a precious commodity, necessary but sometimes hard to come by, you tend to become obsessed with that thing. For me, that thing is sleep.
I have been plagued by insomnia, off and on, for pretty much all of my adult life. In most cases, it takes the form of nocturnal awakenings: waking in the middle of the night and then having trouble falling back to sleep. More rarely, it presents itself as onset insomnia, difficulty falling asleep. In either case, I usually tell myself stories to try to trick myself into falling asleep. Usually, I end up obsessing over things not done or still to do.
I never take the commonly given advice to get up and do something when I have insomnia, unless I am very wide awake and my brain won’t stop racing until I do something to quiet it. I think that advice is dangerous. For one thing I believe we doze more than we think we do, and some sleep is better than none. I’m also worried I’ll miss that magic window when I drift back into real sleep if I am not lying down in the dark.
Once I saw a fim about a DJ who made himself stay awake for 8 days and nights. I will never forget his face. He turned into a pyschopath before my eyes. At the end, he was sleeping sitting up with his eyes open. No wonder sleep deprivation is a form of torture. We need our sleep.
Even worse are periods of sleep paralysis, which may be caused by sleep deprivation, among ohter causes. I have these occasionally. Usually, I believe that I am lying in my bed and someone enters the room to attack me. I cannot scream or move — I am paralyzed. This phenomenon is actually quite common. It occurs when the mind wakes from REM sleep but the normal body paralysis persists, so you are consicous but unable to move. People used to think that demons were sitting on their chests stealing their souls, and that’s why they could not move.
I have recently learned about segmented sleep. Before there was electricity, people often went to bed at dark and stayed there until dawn. In the winter, this could mean spending 12 hours of the day in bed. After a period of deep sleep, they often awoke a few hours before falling back asleep again. This period might be like a meditative period, relaxing and pleasant. It was even a time for reflection, prayer, talking, visiting and making love. I like the idea of a middle-of-the-night quiet period. Unfortunately, I don’t get several more hours to sleep after a period of insomnia, as I have things to do in the mornings.
- Insomnia by Faithless (video)
- Deep into Sleep (Harvard Magazine)
- Dreams Deferred (New York Times)
- Healthy Sleep (Harvard Medical School)
- A slew of sleep articles (LiveScience)