Editor’s Notebook: The anatomy of sleepless nights

September 1, 2021 5:55 am
A cat sleeps on a couch cushion

Say what you will about Juno and her habit of tripping people in the middle of the night, but she has never had a problem with insomnia. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

There’s a lot to worry about these days – and nights. 

I’ll refrain from exploring that statement in detail, because if you’re anything like me you go over the list nightly when you should be sleeping. But in fairness to current events, my inability to sleep seems to be only partially caused by the unraveling of the world. Over the past decade or so, I have never let relative good times get in the way of a good 2:30 a.m. jolt of anxiety.

I remember when sleep wasn’t something you did but that happened to you. One minute you’re under the covers at 8:30 p.m. with a flashlight reading a comic book, and the next thing you know your mother is standing over you in the morning light yelling something about being late for school. Dumbfounded, you crawl out of bed desperately trying to understand the sorcery that turned 10 hours into 10 seconds.

Thirty years later the sorcerer changes tactics: interminable nights of chasing sleep in vain.

In recent years, I’ve made a hobby out of trying to understand why my brain sometimes seems bent on my destruction. So when bouts of insomnia became the norm at the onset of middle age, I tried to figure out causes and potential solutions. That led me to something called “sleep hygiene,” or a series of best practices to help you avoid lying in bed with your eyes wide open. If you’ve ever googled “insomnia,” you’re probably aware of the tenets of sleep hygiene:

  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.
  • Give yourself a half-hour to quietly wind down every night, and that means no phones or TV.
  • If you’re tossing and turning for 20 minutes or so, get out of bed and read, knit, or take up some other calming activity that doesn’t involve electronics.

It’s not just the nightly routine that matters, however. Sleep hygienists stress the importance of getting outside every day and exercising. They’ll also tell you to get rid of the cigarettes and to cut back on or eliminate alcohol. Also, no caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and no late dinners. A bed, they declare, is for sleeping and sex only – so no turning it into the home office.

Some of the rules are easier to follow than others. I’m not a smoker, so score one point for that. And I’ve never been very comfortable working on a laptop in bed. Grudgingly, I can give up the after-dinner beer and the 3 p.m. cup of coffee, but two working parents and two teenagers means most dinners are “late dinners.” And let’s just say I’m not awesome at getting outside and exercising on weekdays.

But the hardest rule to follow is getting up for a calming activity if you’re awake for 20 minutes. We live in a “charming” house (or “small and old” in non-Zillow parlance), so when one of us gets out of bed everybody’s sleep is interrupted. The stairs and floorboards don’t so much creak as scream, and there’s no option to quietly close any of the doors. Also, Juno the cat’s favorite nighttime activity is tripping people. 

And then there’s this: Isn’t life regimented enough without the rules of sleep hygiene?

When I first began dealing with sleepless nights, I assumed insomnia was the price you pay for being an adult with responsibilities. I told myself that I slept well as a kid because I was taken care of and there was nothing to worry about. But I know that’s not true. I’m not so far removed from being a kid that I’ve forgotten what it feels like to worry about a math test or the embarrassing thing that happened at school. It feels exactly the same as worrying about a mortgage payment and the embarrassing thing that happened at work.

What was different, unsurprisingly, was my sleep hygiene.

I had to go to bed at the same time every night because my parents didn’t give me a choice, and I always spent at least a half-hour winding down because that’s the only option when you’re told to go to bed before you’re tired. I wasn’t drinking beer at age 10, so that part was easy, nor was I consuming as much caffeine as I wanted: Milk with dinner, water before bed. But maybe the biggest difference was the time I spent outside playing baseball, football, basketball, or some sport that the neighborhood kids and I invented out of sheer boredom. 

One game involved using a Wiffle Ball bat to hit one of those volleyball-sized vinyl balls you could buy at the grocery store for 99 cents. We called it “goofball,” and the rules were similar to those of baseball and softball but vastly superior. The game would start right after homework and last until sunset, with just a short break for dinner. 

I remember feeling absolutely spent by the time the bat and ball were returned to the bin in the garage. I remember that a half-hour of TV was all I had time for before being sent off to bed against my will. I remember whispering to myself that I would stay up all night when I had a place of my own and was no longer under my parents’ control. I remember fighting against sleep to prove to them and myself that my arbitrary bedtime was just too early.

And then I remember nothing, until morning.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.