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A “Bad Night” Is Not Always a Bad Thing; Five Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep

December 27, 2009

It’s at night, when perhaps we should be dreaming, that the mind is most clear, that we are most able to hold all our life in the palm of our skull. I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed out that great attraction of insomnia before, but it is so; the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instincts and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind. I wish I believed, as J. B. Priestley did, that consciousness continues after disembodiment or death, not forever, but for a long while. Three score years and ten is such a stingy ration of time, when there is so much time around. Perhaps that’s why some of us are insomniacs; night is so precious that it would be pusillanimous to sleep all through it! A “bad night” is not always a bad thing.
• Brian W. Aldiss

I am often awake in the middle of the night. In fact, I’m awake right now and it’s 3:14 a.m. Insomnia used to bother me much more until I realized that I can lie here with the lights off watching the minutes pass on the clock or worrying about all the things a very good worrier like me can obsess about or making mental lists of things I need to do or fretting about how tired I will be in the morning or bemoaning the fate that saddled me with a restless brain or I can turn on the light and do something.

Dale Carnegie wrote How to Stop Worrying and Start Living in 1948 and it’s another of the books that was on my grandparents’ bookshelf. I have a copy in a collection of old self-help books that I use to provide historical context for stress-management workshops and to remind me that no matter how fast-paced my life seems, past generations felt pressured too. (Important note: I am a sucker for any kind of numbered list that promises to make my life better hence the inspiration for today’s title.) In part seven of the book, “Six Ways to Prevent Fatigue and Worry and Keep Your Spirits High,” number six is this: “Remember, no one was ever killed by lack of sleep. It is worrying about insomnia that does the damage—not the insomnia.” I find this comforting, although I suspect that there may well have been people killed by lack of sleep or that this at least contributed to their demise.

As a perpetually tired student, I found mid-night wakenings to be especially frustrating. I knew I needed to rest because my days were filled with so many demands from so many directions. It was frustrating to know this but be unable to sleep even though I badly wanted to. While I don’t recommend deliberately staying awake to work on things for school—please sleep if you can and do all the sensible things like avoiding caffeine and alcohol and other sleep-stopping/interrupting intake and activities and for gosh sakes recognize when you’re too old to pull any more all-nighters—I do recommend using the time when you would otherwise be stewing in sleeplessness to accomplish something. Here are five possibilities, plus an extra one for my students who are going to be teachers:

1) Braindance and write down ideas, insights, and inspiration about upcoming papers and projects. As you write, keep topics separate so you can add these notes to your file folders.
2) Do a bit of reading. It doesn’t matter much what you read—just read. You might even grow your vocabulary a bit. There is a danger to trying to read serious stuff in the middle of the night since it can keep you awake. Choose something soporific (since this is often textbooks, be careful with using mid-night reading to study for an exam). I like murder mysteries and I’ve found that other English teachers do too. The serious stuff we read gives us too many ideas and pretty much guarantees that we will still be awake to see the dawn.
3) Update lists of things you need to accomplish (school and life) and set new goals for completion.
4) Write down things you’re worrying about and/or things that are keeping you awake. Save them and put them away to revisit. Do this regularly and you will likely find that they are either not things you should be worrying about or that they are things you need to take action on.
5) Dream a little about your hopes for your life and think about how you might make these waking dreams a reality. What do you want to create for yourself?
6) For teachers: How will you ever get all those papers read and lessons planned if you don’t do some of it at night and in the early morning hours?

I don’t think I’d have been able to complete a dissertation if I hadn’t embraced sleeplessness and its companion, early wakening, and used them to process my thoughts, do some reading, and write bits and pieces of various chapters. The act of doing these things regularly allowed me to feel productive and stay on track to completion. I still envy my husband who sleeps beside me while I wake and think, and I appreciate his ability to sleep while the light is on. Right now, there’s a mystery I’m hoping will put me to sleep. Wish me sweet dreams.

What advice would you give someone who has trouble sleeping?

If people had as many ideas during the day as they do when they have insomnia, they’d make a fortune.
• Griff Niblack

NOTE: I wrote this title with a straight face and sincere heart, never realizing until later that some readers might be vastly disappointed by my idea of middle-of-the-night fun. If this is you, I’d say I was sure you could take care of yourself, but then I’d just be feeding the flames.

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