You don’t think about sleep until you can’t sleep. It becomes more important in inverse ratio to its lack, so the less you sleep, the more you think about it.
You try to get to the bottom of it. You think once you know the cause, you will find the cure. Maybe you already know why you’re not sleeping: it’s tax season, you’re dreading some dental/surgical procedure, your next grandchild is 2 weeks late in arriving, you’re contemplating a move, you’re moving. You had an argument and it hasn’t settled. Most of the time, if it’s something specific like that, and it has an expiration date, once you pass it you go back to sleeping again.
But there are those other things, like chronic pain, or restless legs, or too sedentary a lifestyle, or the glass of wine which you don’t want to give up but which puts you to sleep much too early and wakes you at 2 a.m. These can feel permanent, and knowing about them doesn’t help you sleep one bit.
So eventually, you focus on solutions. Oh, the things some people will do to bring back sleep. Of course, for some insomniacs, it is as straightforward as taking a pill. Just pop it and forget it (sometimes literally, if it is one of those pills they say are not habit forming but are amnesiac: you could clean the house in your sleep and not even know it. In my case, since I hate cleaning the house so much even zombie pills won’t make me do it, I would probably eat my weight in Oreos).
Fellow non-sleepers tell you to get up and do something, instead of taking it lying down, adrift in your own angst. If you get up you will break the cycle of not-sleeping which leads to thinking about not-sleeping which keeps you from sleeping, they say. I’ve gotten up and gotten a lot done, including folding laundry, washing the kitchen floor, and writing blogs. But it did not break the cycle. The cycle breaks itself when its ready.
I have also counted: trees in my backyard, number of times I can remember making lasagna, number of cookie recipes in my tin recipe box — in other words anything as long as it’s not sheep. I have lain awake, planning my days and weeks, including what clothes I would be wearing every day. I have played out soothing scenarios, like my granddaughter’s wedding (she’s not even thinking of it right now), and my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech. I have composed whole stories in my head, but they keep me up with excitement, unless I get out of bed to write them, and then I am wide awake.
I have tried listening to music, but the wrong song can send me in the opposite direction, towards wakefulness, and I find myself doing a lying-down salsa. Talk radio, especially the drone of world news on BBC can sometimes bore me to sleep, but then sometimes it goes the other way and gets so interesting that it wakes me back up again.
I have a friend who eats pretzels to help her sleep. She has tried pills, warm milk, special teas, but the only thing (besides exhaustion) which puts her out is pretzels. She munches herself to sleep. I’ve told her it is dangerous, that she might choke in her sleep. She’ll risk it. That’s how much she needs a good night.
When everything else fails, I roll over and bump into M. He grunts and turns over. I bump him again.
“What? What?” he says, sleepily.
“Oh, are you up?” I say.
“I am now,” he says.
“Well, as long as you’re up,” I say.
“What?” he says.
“I can’t sleep,” I say. “Let’s talk.”
He groans. Yawns. Is silent for a few minutes, but then, finally, says, “All right. What do you want to talk about?”
I try to tell him, but my tongue is getting floppy and suddenly I am too sleepy to remember what I wanted to say. I am fading fast. “MMM hmm,” I say, and that’s the last I remember until morning.