For the last month, I’ve been waking up between 5 and 6 a.m. — on my own, without an alarm clock, or a dog in my face. (Monkey and Ilsa would never try to wake me because I am an arm-waver in my sleep. The Husband, however, is fair game.)
This waking-up-early phenomenon has been happening for the last few years when the weather in Texas drops down to what I call “the bearable region” (under 85 degrees).
To compensate for the change, I go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m., and no one phones me after 8 p.m. because I’m cranky when I’m tired. The rest of the year (also known as “why is it so #*$%ing hot?”), I wake up at about 7 a.m. No matter what the Texas weather does, I am a person who needs my straight eight (hours of sleep), without which I am, frankly, awful to know.
Waking up early after eight hours of sleep has not always been an option for me. I have chronic insomnia. I have always had a touch of it, even before I was old enough to drink real coffee. My experience with insomnia ranges from the light sleeping with periodic waking in a startle, to not being able to sleep, to only being able to sleep after 2 a.m., to a mixture of the above phenomena, to waking up at four a.m. and not being able to fall back asleep, plus a few other things I’ve managed to forget.
For years, I had intermittent chronic insomnia, which means that I might sleep for a month, and then have all these problems sleeping for a couple of months, and then back to fine. A few years back, the insomnia stopped being intermittent, and essentially, I wandered around in the middle of the night trying to go to sleep and trying not to flip out that I couldn’t sleep. It was awful and I dealt with it, but I would rather clean my bathroom with an old nasty toothbrush than ever go through that again.
If you’ve ever had insomnia, you know that professionals and friends and perfect strangers will offer you a range of advice. You will learn everything conventional wisdom and science has to provide about circadian rhythms and proper sleep hygiene. You will be offered many, many glasses of warm milk. And, even if you follow this advice to the last letter, you may not be able to find sleep, at least, not the good nourishing, deep-in-your-bones kind that makes you feel refreshed in the morning.
You may also find, as I did, that professionals and friends may make judgment calls about your character based on your sleep, or lack thereof. Insomnia is not a character flaw. This is what I found myself thinking about yesterday morning after a night of pretty blissful sleep. (How did I finally manage to kick insomnia? A combination of good sleep hygiene and prescription medication. That combo works for me and that’s all there is to it.)
Having gotten to the place where I can sleep like a normal person most nights, here’s what I considered as I watched the sun rise yesterday morning: if a person gets the same things done at 2 a.m. as s/he would at 6 a.m., is there any difference? For instance, if I wash dishes at 2 a.m. (ugh) versus 6 a.m. (ugh), does one or the other confer a sense of moral superiority, especially for Americans?
Americans are really big on hard workers. What we really like to talk about, though, are people who do things we cannot, or will not, do, such as waking up at three a.m. every morning to work on a novel (but only if it becomes a best seller), or training for an Iron Man thingy (but only if you place in the top ten), or keeping a clean house (but only if you’re telegenic and photogenic).
The Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin talks about getting up early and the conventional wisdom of 18th century philosophers, and yes, a certain kind of moral superiority arises from people like Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Pepys about getting up early versus going to bed late. (Remember, Franklin was the one who coined the phrase, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”) (Which in my head, got turned around to “Getting up early, staying up late, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and… Wait, that’s not right.”)
We even ascribe animal characteristics to sleep habits. A “night owl” is someone who stays up late, right? But, consider this: when I call someone a “night owl,” I’m also conferring a host of traits that may, or may not apply: I’m unintentionally saying that you stay up late on purpose, that you prefer to do things in the middle of the night when most people are asleep, that you live on the wild side, and that you may even eat dead mice. Ew.
Okay, let’s do the same for “early bird.” An “early bird” is someone who is chipper, up early, probably has a house cleaner than yours, potentially ex-military (at least that’s where my husband’s head went when we talked about this), and definitely means you get the first worms (a metaphor for the best part of the day).
So, try thinking about people you know who goes to bed late or wake up early, and try not to think about these habits or traits we append to folks based on their sleep preferences, or insomnia— a condition that is either intermittent or continuous, which has nothing to do with sleep preference, personality flaws, stress, or housekeeping skills. Having woken up (or stayed up) on both sides of 6 a.m., I can say with some authority that people in general tend to respond better to an early-riser-writing-at-six-a.m. story versus an insomnia-I-worked-in-the-middle-of-the-night tale.
People also don’t really understand what insomnia is. Everyone you know will probably go through a period of disrupted or no sleep. (It’s called “having a baby.”) Not everyone you know will suffer through years and years of not being able to sleep to the point where it feels as though your soul is being sucked out through your left nostril and no matter what you do or how tired you are, you cannot seem to find the magic route to dreamland.
I have two friends in the midst of horrible illness-related insomnia right now, and I can’t imagine saying (in a chipper, upbraiding tone): “Have you ever thought of turning off your television set at 9 p.m.? Flickering light from TVs and computers can especially disrupt your circadian rhythm.” Chances are, when someone you know is telling you about his/her insomnia, his/her doctor has already covered these bases. (Not that I haven’t ever offered unsolicited and redundant advice to someone I care about, because I have done that and will do it again. I love my friends and I am socially awkward. Those two traits can produce some pretty funky results.)
What I will tell you about chronic insomnia seen from the other side is this (the unsolicited advice portion of this story. See? I told you I’d do it again.):
Sleep is like food— you don’t merely need the basics, you need enough to nourish you body and soul.
Sleep medication doesn’t always work. I usually have a couple of nights per month of breakthrough insomnia, which is just enough to remind me to be grateful that I no longer have long-term insomnia. It sucks, but I can deal with it.
Going to bed at the same time every night helps. So does ceasing your caffeine intake after 4 p.m. The same goes for turning off and turning down all electronic devices (including covering my super-bright clock).
If you can’t sleep, read or do something boring and repetitive. The television and the computer will keep you awake due to rapid light cycles that you can’t even consciously register.
And, if you can’t sleep, don’t beat yourself up about it. Insomnia is insomnia. It’s not a character flaw, and it is not something you are doing on purpose. No one would deprive herself of sleep on purpose in the long-term. Sleep-deprivation is physically painful and mentally disorienting. That’s why it is used as a torture method.
Finally, if you know someone who has insomnia, and you’ve never understood it or accidentally said something stupid about it— do me a favor and give him/her a call to let him/her know how well you think of him/her. It will make you both feel good, and when your friend cannot sleep tonight, do you know what s/he’ll be thinking about? What a nice friend you are for calling today. And maybe s/he’ll get a good night’s sleep. Probably not. But, at least s/he’ll be thinking happy thoughts and that helps.
Every little bit helps. Except warm milk. Which may have tryptophan, but never did a thing for me, personally. And it smells like boiled socks. I don’t think you can develop a taste for boiled sock, can you?
*Photograph courtesy of the archives of The Powerhouse Museum.