TO SLEEP. PERCHANCE TO DREAM.
I was a lifelong insomniac. My earliest memories of lying sleepless go all the way back to overnight camp when I was ten years old. My insomniac identity ran so deep that my college roommate shocked me with her observation that within the first minute of meeting new people I let them know I suffered from its curse. For as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for answers, understanding, compassion—the cure.
I tried relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, intensive exercise, herbal supplements, and of course, sleeping pills of all varieties. Here and there I experienced short stretches of idyllic sleep that might last a week or two, but then I was back to square one again.
Lack of sleep haunted me. It was painful and depressing to be continuously fatigued and worried about the effects of sleeplessness. As I tossed and turned, I worried about how I would make it through the next day.The media didn’t help. Headlines were constantly touting the importance of sleep for good health. Most recently, a study that drew a connection between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease nearly put me over the edge.
I had to try something different, so I made a call to Dr. Spett, a well-regarded cognitive behavioral therapist recommended by my psychologist sister-in-law. I had serious doubts, as I was sure I knew what he was going to tell me. I had read extensively about the cognitive behavioral approach toward changing behaviors and beliefs, and had already experimented with many of its tenets, including keeping a regular bedtime, turning of electronics before bed, staying away from alcoholic beverages in the evening, and getting out of bed when you couldn’t sleep.
But I had reached the point of desperation. I showed up at my first appointment loaded with notes and skepticism. I told the therapist about my years of sleepless agony and failed attempts at correction. He asked me to share my thoughts, fears, and concerns, and it felt good to get it all out.
After carefully listening to my tale of woe, the doctor gave me a few simple rules to follow. I was to get into bed at midnight, and out when the alarm rang at 7 a.m. every single day. I also had to turn the clock away from me during the night so I couldn’t see what time it was – a ghastly undertaking for a hyper-vigilant person like me.
The hardest and most unexpected assignment was to remain in bed when I couldn’t sleep–just the opposite of the generally accepted wisdom. The thought of forcing myself to stay in bed tossing and turning sent me into a cold sweat. Dr. Spett instructed me not to toss and turn, but to lie there as quietly and peacefully as possible. My personal challenge was to learn that lying in bed could be an enjoyable, not torturous experience. I walked out of my first session a little bit hopeful—but still highly doubtful this would work for me.
We met weekly to discuss my progress, or lack thereof. I felt free to raise all issues and concerns as I learned about the body’s need for sleep, and the association between darkness and the 24-hour sleep cycle. Many of my basic assumptions about how much sleep my body needed and the consequences of lack of sleep were challenged, and I learned I was probably getting more sleep than I thought.
Perhaps most significantly, we explored the paradox of my needing to learn how to try hard not to try so hard to sleep. I needed to learn how to simply REST. The doctor suggested focusing on the letters R-E-S-T and creating an image of them in my mind. Anytime I found my mind wandering, I was to go back to that image.
I also had to learn how to not think–to turn off active mind work; once again, a difficult undertaking for one who is hardwired for cognitive activity.
It wasn’t easy. I challenged the doctor every step of the way, but he always had a comeback, and through it all urged me to have kindness and compassion for myself. He encouraged me to stick with the program and do the best I could. I didn’t need to be perfect. I just needed to trust the process and follow the rules. Life was not going to end if I didn’t get the ‘right’ amount of sleep. I was going to be just fine.
I worked hard and as I started to experience success, I began to look forward to the nightly opportunity to rest my mind and body. I noticed I was getting tired at the appointed time and shockingly, was starting to happily anticipate—as opposed to dread—getting into bed.
We had six sessions together. My sleep started to improve after just three and has continued to do so ever since. I’m astounded that this life-changing phenomenon occurred within a matter of weeks, and sometimes fear my success might leave as quickly as it came.
But I don’t think it will. I know on an intuitive level that some truly transformative psychological changes have taken place. I have a certain trust in myself that wasn’t there before—and believe I’ve finally granted my mind and body permission to turn off the day and give themselves a well deserved REST.
Is this a result of some magic alchemy that occurred between my therapist and myself? In a sense. I think the magic was a result of the trust I developed for Dr. Spett as he encouraged me to suspend my disbelief and give therapy a chance. As I learned to let go of some of my incorrect beliefs and assumptions, I’ve been able to replace them with healthier ones. To see sleep as a natural, beneficial, restorative process that my body can accomplish on its own — if I let it.
Perhaps it takes a talented therapist to help unlock and unblock us so that our healthier selves can emerge. One thing I’m sure of is that I no longer want or feel the need to identify as an insomniac. I know I have some sleepless nights ahead of me, but that’s okay, because I know I’ll have many more ‘good nights.’ I’m finally getting the sleep that was mine to enjoy all along.