Jun 11th 2012

Most of my life I have been a good sleeper. At least in beds. Not so much in cars or airplanes; I’ve long envied my daughter her capacity for that. And I don’t fall asleep at movies, mostly, I thought, because I slept so well at night. Not anymore. From what I’ve read it’s a sign of age, this more fraught relationship with sleep. No longer am I the envy of friends and husband who have long suffered sleep issues. They tend to wake up at three or four and can’t get back to sleep. That doesn’t happen to me. No. My new problem is with falling asleep in the first place. I have two patterns. And the difference is alcohol. When I have two glasses of wine in the evening I fall asleep fairly easily, within thirty minutes or so. And then predictably I wake up in the middle of the night; but those night wakings don’t last too long and they don’t bring me fully awake. Also, I no longer prolong them with self-chastisement over drinking too much. Even so, I don’t think this pattern is healthy. But it is predictable. I can orchestrate it. As I did a few nights ago out of frustration over the persistence of the other pattern, the one that happens when I don’t drink more than a single glass in the evening. In that pattern I read for a while after getting in bed and turn out the light between 10:00 and 10:30. These days I set a noise machine to rain or surf to drown out Jim’s snoring. And then I wait. I focus on the breath. I do progressive relaxation. And I wait. I try not to look at the clock, which, thankfully, is over on Jim’s night table, so I can’t see it without lifting up to peer over his sleeping form. I wait some more. And finally I do go to sleep, usually after about two hours, I think.

I know there are things I can try. I have implemented some of them, like the breathing and relaxation, and also I no longer conduct my life’s business in bed, and I rarely watch television there. Maybe I shouldn’t read there either, but I love it so much. I don’t eat in the evenings because that often gives me indigestion; I now understand the popularity of senior citizen early bird specials at restaurants. My acupuncturist has recommended a warm bath, which I suppose I should try. I wonder about starting a pre-bed meditation practice. I know many experts say don’t just lie there, get up. And sometimes I do, but it doesn’t seems to help much. Doesn’t get me to sleep any faster.

Because of these patterns my other sleep problem happens in the morning. That dreamy liminal space between sleep and full wakefulness has long been one of my favorite parts of life. I often discover my most fruitful ideas then. In the morning I can glance at the clock at seven and think “oh, I’ll just sleep a few more minutes” only to discover that it is nearly nine the next time I think to check. And even at nine I could stay longer if some Puritan streak about not wasting the morning didn’t bolt me upright. And I like mornings. Mornings are my time, filled with satisfying routine, except when I wake up too late to fit everything in. Like today. (Well, not today. A few days ago, now.) It’s noon. And because I didn’t awaken until nine I am still in my pajamas, haven’t taken a shower, or walked, or meditated. I did spend thirty minutes on the phone with my sister-in-law walking her through how to open messages on gmail. So I could have done at least one of those things. But still. Sigh.

I’m not sure what to do. Perhaps I just have to live with it. But I don’t like resorting to alcohol when the waiting finally gets to me. I know that part of this is just about aging. And that it’s really okay. That part of the answer is to let go of judgment about how it’s supposed to happen. 

But I also think this sleeplessness is a sign of my continuing alienation from the wisdom of the body. My under-education in this crucial aspect of life. This most basic aspect of life. Now that I am retired and don’t have to report to anyone at a particular time most days, I am tempted to embark on a experiment to find out how my body wants to sleep. I am tempted to let it lead me. Which would mean what? It would mean listening. It might mean getting into and out of bed at the body’s direction, even if that means painting or writing or reading in the middle of the night and sleeping in the middle of the day. I know people who do this. But something holds me back. That same Puritan impulse I suppose. And the experts who say that the path to good sleep is to set up a routine and stick with it. Is following the body that kind of routine? This notion, which seems guaranteed to have me up at odd hours of the night, has the added attraction of bringing me face to face with my fear of the dark. Sometimes I think I stay in bed because that is the “safe” place. That, however, seems like the seed for a completely different post. 

For now I am still in limbo. Not quite ready to commit to my imagined experiment, I wait.