Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Sleepless in Denver

Sweet Sleep

Insomnia, well, it’s lousy.

You might use a different word for it, perhaps a word with more umph and profanity, but I think we can all agree that not sleeping is horrible.

For those who wake in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep, I hear you.   I lie in a dark room, trying to think calm, soothing thoughts.  I follow the breath, in and out and in once more.  I turn onto my other side.  I reach for blankets to be cozy, or thrust them off because I hot.  I no longer have  clock on my nightstand with which to watch the minutes, hours, of sleeplessness tick by.  But there is my phone.

I’ll just check the time; I say to myself.  Just to know how long I have been lying here, determined not to sleep.  Once I pick up that phone, however, the allure of “just checking” my email, my texts, Instagram, the news — well, I get sucked in.  All that blue light from the screen is supposed to be bad for sleep.  And then interacting with the world – texts, email, Snapchat, what have you — that will wake me up for sure.  Even just knowing the time is unsettling.  I begin to count backwards from my morning alarm:  if I fall asleep in the next 10 minutes, I still have 4 hours of sleep!  Now only 3 ½.  I both wish morning would come already, and dressed it just the same.  Without enough sleep, I have migraines, and the next day, I will be exhausted, more anxious than usual, sort of miserable.

At some point, though, I just give up.  It’s 3:30 AM and I’ve been up since 2?  Let’s call it morning.  I turn on the light, fire up my computer, and try to decide if I should take my morning medications now, or wait an hour or two until the sun is up and it is officially the next day.  I eat some breakfast, and try not to go right for the instant gratification of eating something full of sugar.  I read the news online, and check Facebook.  I turn on the TV and pick up my knitting.  Perhaps something can be accomplished with all the extra time I get by not sleeping.

And then there is the other type of insomnia:  getting to sleep in the first place.  Confession time:  I take a sleeping pill every night, and sometimes I have to add a benzo (anxiety medication, such as Xanax) before I nod off.  I take medications for other stuff that should make me tired (and it does), and I have, essentially, chronic fatigue ever since my stroke 19 ½ years ago.  I need SO MUCH sleep to function.  I am talking about 10-12 hours of sleep nightly, just to function.  And yet . . .

Some nights, I fall asleep over my book, still resting on my pillows to read.  Some nights, I put aside the book, lie down, and wait for sleep to come — and it does!  But, other nights, I just lie there.  Exhausted, headachy, medicated — all these come together, and nothing happens.  The voice in my begins to panic:  I will never sleep again!!  How will I function tomorrow if I have been up all night?  Should I get up and read some more?  Why aren’t my calming thoughts helping?

I know all about sleep hygiene:  go to bed and awaken at the same time each day; cut down on the blue light of electronics before sleeping; watch your fluid intake, so that you are not up all night going to the bathroom; if you are not asleep after 20 minutes or go, get up and do something non -arousing, like folding towels; use your bed for sleep only.  I do most of these things (except the last one).  Sometime they help; sometimes not at all.

There is no magic involved in going to sleep — but there should be!  It is a combination of tiredness, calmness, and, frankly, luck.  The same bedtime routine that works 50% of the time do not work the other 50% or so.  There are times when I am able to accept my lack of sleeping, and just rest.  I quiet my mind, and think about happy memories, safe and loving spaces.  I notice how my thoughts drift from one thing to another, and, if I get anxious, I try to turn my attention to more pleasant things.

I picture vacations from my childhood, up “at the lake” in Northern Minnesota, a place that is so beloved by me that it feels almost sacred.  Slowly, calmly, I guide the images in my head through many stages of those family vacations:  the car trip; arriving in Virginia, MN and stopping to fill the car with groceries for our house-keeping cabin; driving the next 30 minutes or so with bags of food on my lap until we reached Cook, MN; the gleeful anticipation of the last 15 minutes or so on back roads until we get to the dusty parking lot; calling to the island itself on a crank phone; unloading our stuff and getting a tour of the newest additions to the small, island resort.  And then I remember the stuff of the vacation itself:  waterskiing; boat rides at night when the lake calmed in a reflective pool, like glass; heading over to another resort by boat, where we bought gas for our rented motorboat, and purchased MilkyWays for my mom; sitting at Sunset point and watching the colors change as evening arrived; wandering all over the island by myself, with only my imagination for company; playing basketball with my dad; and even just settling into my room in our cabin (the cabins were Sundown, then Dawn, and finally Northern Lights) — putting my stuff away and delighting in all the books I would read over the next two weeks.  And, of course, s’mores.

The times up at the lake felt, in my memories at least, idyllic.  My sister and I had a sort of vacation truce, and didn’t really argue when we were up north.  We had wonderful family time, but also, at least for me, lovely solitary time, in a place that was safe and beautiful and my own.

Sometimes, those memories help me drift off to sleep.  When they don’t, at least I can lie, resting, with a smile on my face.

I think the dread of not sleeping is almost worse than the actual experience being awake past my bedtime.  There is the aloneness of being awake at 3:30 AM, knowing that I have no one to reach out to at that hour.  There is the way that time passes so slowly when I am trying unsuccessfully to sleep.  There is fear that, as I mentioned, I will never sleep again.

Bu the truth is, eventually sleep will come,  If not tonight, perhaps tomorrow evening.  Acceptance helps calm the panic; reminders that, in the past, it has gotten better might soothe my anxiety.  Ultimately, if I allow myself to be awake now, even if it is late, even if I am exhausted,  then sleep, like a muse, will return to me.  For that, I am grateful.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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