man lying on a pillow in the dark with question marks surrounding him and a clock behind him

The March of the Clock

Having insomnia sucks. There’s really no other way to put it. Twiddling your thumbs and staring at the ceiling while the rest of the world dreams happy dreams is not a fun way to spend the night.

One of the first things we’re taught when we have sleeping issues is good sleep hygiene. I spent many an afternoon nagging my teenage boys about the importance of turning off screens, having regular bedtimes, and ditching the Red Bull.

I embraced all the lifestyle changes

This excellent advice fell on deaf ears. But I took it to heart and embraced all the lifestyle changes:

  • Cut out caffeine and alcohol
  • Go to bed and get up at regular times
  • The bedroom is for sleep and sex and nothing else
  • No screens for an hour or so before bed
  • Gentle exercise during the day but not too close to bedtime
  • Establish some kind of bedtime rituals
  • Don’t clock watch

I ensure my linen is comfortable and the air temperature is cool

And so on and so on. There are 5,260,000 results if you type “sleep hygiene” into Google. It’s something a lot of people are talking about.

When good sleep hygiene is not enough

But for many of us with more severe insomnia, cutting out coffee doesn’t bring about a nightly dose of blissful dreaming. For those of us with more severe insomnia, the march of the clock can be a slow trudge throughout the night.

I’ve spent many an evening optimistically thinking, “Tonight’s the night - I’m definitely tired enough,” only to hit the pillow all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, staring at the ceiling. I’ll diligently do all the relaxation exercises I learned over the years and slowly I may feel my eyes droop and a sense of fatigue seep through my bones. I’ll break my sleep hygiene rule and check the clock - surely I nodded off just for a moment.

It’s just 35 minutes since I hit the pillow.

Resignation and desperation

A sense of resignation will come over me and I stare at the dark ceiling, trying not to disturb my sleeping husband. I practice acceptance of a sleepless night and eventually, unknowingly drift into slumber. I awaken and can’t help but check the clock, desperately hoping that hours have passed.

It’s another 35 minutes. I’ve basically been awake in bed for over an hour. I get up.

I go downstairs and break more of the sleep hygiene rules by checking my phone and making a (herbal) tea. Maybe watch a bit of Netflix or if I’m energetic enough, read a book. I let a couple of hours march by then head back to the comfort of my bed and pillow to once again lie there wide awake hoping for the best.

There’s something about getting into bed that wakes me up.

Resisting the urge to feel sorry for myself

I repeat the relaxation exercises and this time drift off into a half-sleep half wake doze. I wake again and check the clock. It must be morning time now! It’s 4 hours since I hit the pillow and the sun is still a long way, away.

Right about now it’s tempting to feel resentful and sorry for myself. Instead, I have learned to create daydreams that occupy my sleepless nights. Journeying myself to distant lands and happy times. I try not to think about the day that's been or the one to come then eventually doze off. Sometimes I get 2 or 3 hours sleep, but the next time I check it’s definitely morning. For me, 4:59 AM is nighttime and 5:00 AM is daytime. Anything after 5:00 AM is an acceptable time to be awake.

The march looks very different now

Some nights I follow the sleep hygiene protocol and dispense with the clock. I just have to guess the time. It feels about the same.

And these days, I am fortunate to have been to multiple medical specialists and pharmacological support means I am getting far more sleep than I used to. The march looks very different now. Medications see me consistently fall asleep about 45 minutes after I take them. I always get a solid 4 hours then the march continues much as it did before. This morning the march ended at 6:53 AM. That’s a great night!

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