Scrub my Brain

It all started when I was about 19 years old, and outgrew the teenaged ability to sleep and wake without much consideration for the body’s actual needs. Since then, I’ve rarely been successful at sleeping through the night.

I’m sure most of this is because of my type-A personality, and tendency toward anxiety. While I’ve done the lion’s share of the personal work needed to be, for all intents and purposes, a mentally healthy individual, the one thing that never quite stuck for very long was the ability to sleep for more than 5 or 6 hours without waking up worrying about something.

Has the dog been fed?
Did I blow out that candle?
Did I email that client?
What will my contingency plan be if the car breaks down again?
Did I lose an earring at some point?
Where is my cell phone charger?

Even if I can answer those questions, I’ll sometimes doubt the rational (and correct) answer my brain has pulled out, in favour of worrying enough that I’ll finally have to get out of bed to check on that thing I’m worrying about, just to ease my mind.

At my worst, I used to have an answering machine (instead of adopting voicemail like the rest of the 20th century) because I liked being able to call it when I thought my house had been burnt down or burglarized (rationale: if my apartment had burnt, the answering machine would be broken, or if I’d been burglarized, it would’ve been stolen and therefore wouldn’t pick up when I called it). And believe me, nothing feels like Crazy quite like getting out of a boyfriend’s bed at 3:00am and taking his keys to drive across town, because I couldn’t be convinced that I’d blown out a candle at home, and calling the answering machine wasn’t providing enough peace of mind.

I no longer do those things, but my brain is still very good at pulling something out of the grey matter and dredging it up for me to obsess about during the wee hours. I’m currently stuck in a cycle of “Sleep for 3 hours, wake up and worry for 2 hours, sleep for another hour until I have to get up and face the day again.” The prolonged lack of sleep is making me very cranky and unproductive.

So off I trundled to my neighbourhood clinic for some medical intervention. The doctor was wonderful and helpful, and presented my options :
1. Regular sleep-aids, which will leave me with a regular sleeping pill hangover and are habit-forming.
2. A revolutionary sleep-aid that would have me sleeping through the night, waking refreshed and alert, and gaining approximately 2 kilograms (about 4.5lbs) per WEEK.
3. Sleep Hygiene. Ding Ding Ding! We have a winner!

Sleep Hygiene doesn’t have anything to do with showering before bed, instead it’s a systematic way of approaching bed and sleep in order to train my body to know that the bed is for “sleep and sex and nothing else.”

(Aside: why is it that whenever I go to the clinic, and something about my sex life comes up – whether I went in to discuss a pap smear, STD check up, contraception issues, or even this sleep thing (which included talking about sex, at least a little) – I get the hotty doctor, around whom I lose my words and act like a slack-jawed yokel? And when I go in for something like muscle pain or a flu shot, I get the four-million year old doctor that smells like mothballs? The universe is cruel.)

So I now have a set of rules governing my relationship with my bed:

1. I must adhere to a strict sleep/wake time schedule – EVEN ON WEEKENDS! This means that since I need to get up at 6:30am from Monday to Friday, I get to do the same thing on Saturdays and Sundays. I am also officially no fun at parties, because I’m supposed to go to bed at 10:30pm.

2. Bed is for sleeping or sex only. No TV. No Eating. No Reading. No Worrying. No “hanging out on top of the mattress” for reasons other than the two mentioned. This completely obliterates my and Neil’s rituals of watching TV or reading in bed before sleep, and having coffee (and sometimes breakfast) in bed while watching the morning news on TV. Also, Neil similarly injured his coccyx in a snowboarding mishap of his own last weekend, and sometimes laying down is the only comfortable thing for us to do. And the couch is only big enough for one of us.

3. The bedroom should be dark, and no looking at the clock when waking up in the middle of the night. I must cover the LCD display of my clock radio before going to sleep so that I can’t see that it’s 4:00am when I wake up in a fit of anxiety and further freak out about that. This has already screwed me over once: the alarm didn’t go off, and I laid in bed (in the dark room, of course) for a good 20 minutes trying to get back to sleep before getting up and seeing that HOLY SHIT I’M REALLY LATE.

Of course, there have been a few good bits:

If I can’t sleep, I’m supposed to try my best to get back to sleep – and if I can’t, I must get up and go somewhere else in the house and do something quiet – read or watch TV – until I feel sleepy and go back to bed. Usually the knowledge that getting up involves putting on sweats and finding a blanket (it’s pretty cold in our apartment at night – on purpose) and certainly does not involve having another body to spoon with, is enough to convince me to get over my damn self and fall back asleep.

I’ve noticed that when I do wake-up in the middle of the night, it’s far easier to fall asleep without the pressure of knowing what time it is, and therefore how little time I have left to get a “good night’s sleep” I have.

And I’ve certainly noticed that as inconvenient as it is sometimes to have a “bedtime” on weekends, adhering to it makes a world of difference on how well I sleep during the week.

I haven’t been all that good at adhering to the rules as strictly as I should, but when I do manage to follow them for 5 or 6 days in a row, I start to notice a marked improvement. Enough for me to be convinced that there really is something to it all, and it’s not just a scheme cooked up to make me miserable.

It still sucks that now need a very good reason to stay up later than 10:30, and that I have to take my morning coffee on the couch or at the table, instead of still mostly snuggled underneath the covers.

But I have started making some KILLER weekend brunches, and it no longer bothers me that Belgian waffles need to rise for an hour before baking. It’s not like I’m not already up.

So while I’m not all that fun at parties these days, if anyone’s interested in some sort of weekend afternoon activity, I’m SO there. Or give me a call and come by for Sunday brunch. And while you’re over, could I interest you in purchasing an answering machine?

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8 thoughts on “Scrub my Brain

  1. Gwen

    You’re not the only one who would have a hard time adhering to 10:30 bedtime. That’s d*mn early! I’d shift it an hour later because work’s flexible.

    Instead of covering clocks, closing drapes, and the like, did you consider getting an eye mask? I’m considering it because ambient lights like the lamp that illuminates the fire exit lights up my room won’t seep through even if you open your eyes.

    Finally, I don’t think that watching TV is a particularly good suggestion should you hull yourself out of bed when you wake in the middle of the night. TV lulls you and keeps you watching longer than you anticipate in this semi-state of wakefulness. Reading is far better as you will tire when you’re really tired.

  2. donna

    Doctors are very big on sleep hygeine. I got that prescribed for me a few years ago, and save for the getting up early on weekends thing (why not just strip away my will to live?) it’s actually worked reasonably well for me.

    I still wish I could sleep 16 hours a day, but if I’m in bed by 10, I can at least function when I have to get up at 7…

  3. Hannah

    I totally know what you’re going through. I just switched to a new schedule, which has me working from 2pm to 10pm. It’s really hard to get up in the morning with nothing to do, so I lie in bed, which has me going to bed later, and not sleeping through the night.

    Luckily, worry is not the problem for me. I’m just finding the need to kill time at 3 or 4 in the morning. I really, really need to set myself a bedtime and wake up at the same time every day.

    But in the meantime, maybe I can call you when I’m restless – 2am my time is 9am your time, so you’d be up and about on those lazy weekend mornings!

  4. Mark

    As much of a rockstar palace my old apartment was (the one you saw) it really wasn’t set up for long-term living (ie more than one week) so I had too much shit in my bedroom. After moving last week, the only thing in my bedroom aside from bed and clothes and normal bedroom things is nothing. Bedroom is for sleeping and playing only. I’ve already noticed in a few short days that I wake up more refreshed. (not having the HVAC units from the Ritz Carlton blasting in the windows helps too). ANd I get to tell people I live on the “highway to Hell” literally. look for pictures and a post soon 🙂

  5. Pingback: Sleep Hygiene and Curing Insomnia |

  6. Derek K. Miller

    Sleep is very natural and non-stressful for me, in general. If I wake up and see it’s 3:23 a.m., I think “oh, it’s 3:23 a.m.” and nod right off again.

    My oldest daughter finds the whole experience much more stressful, although she too can go back to sleep once she’s finally gotten herself into it. She does sometimes sleepwalk, however.

    You might be interested in my link to an October Ideas Podcast from CBC, which speculates that we may have completely disrupted natural human sleep patterns with artificial light, and that if we slept longer with the fade of the sun, we might normally be awake for some hours in the middle of the night — and should not be alarmed about it.

  7. Beth

    Came across your blog courtesy of the recent post on Darren’s blog. Very interesting post. I don’t usually have trouble sleeping (except on days when I have something really, really important to wake up for, where I’ll wake up in a panic every 20-30 minutes all night long, thinking that I’ve overslept), but I went through a very stressful time last year and I had the worst trouble trying to sleep (usually, I would get up and watch Zoolander… of course, this was more about entertaining & distracting myself than it was about trying to ever get to sleep). If I ever run into another stressful, insomnia-provoking situations, these sound like really good suggestions to try out.

  8. Gregg Scott

    My sleep hygiene needed a ‘Purel’-like cleansing a couple of weeks ago when my sleep schedule was completely reversed. I would not fall asleep until 9am and wake up at 4pm! Late afternoon is already dark in Winter in Vancouver in Canada.

    I tried virtually every kind of scheme I could think of including staying up all night and day a couple of times and drinking stimulating energy drinks like my personal favorite Guru and even a rare coffee from the evil empire, around the normal wake time on those days but it had little effect on my circadian rhythms.

    Sleep medications would knock me out for a day or two but when I didn’t take them my body clock had not reset.

    I finally thought I would go the melatonin route and try 5HTP which converts in the brain to serotonin. I easily purchased both these items even though I thought melatonin could not be purchased legally at all in Canada. That night I slept like a baby(less the drooling and filling my diapers part). I also took some ‘No Shift Lag’ – a homeopathic remedy which I have used with great success in the past to cope with a misaligned sleep cycle due to shift work – and everything seems better. It has been explained to me that if your body doesn’t need the homeopathy it won’t use it.

    I wrote more and linked to your post @

    Gregg Scott

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