Mark vs Cancer

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Sleep should not be difficult. Sleep should be easy. Infants sleep instinctively for eighteen hours a day, no training required. Bears and chipmunks do it for months at a time. It is a basic, nightly, perfunctory activity. What do you do at the end of the day? You go to sleep.

Not me. These days, I go to bed, but not to sleep. I no longer possess this capacity. Sleep's mystery eludes me like a dream. (But I don't have those any more, either.) In fact, it's been over a month since I've had a night of continuous, restorative, blessed sleep.

I feel tired--extremely tired--as I turn out the light and my head hits the pillow. Then the all-night wrestling match with my brain begins. I cuddle with Elizabeth. I practice deep breathing. I pray. I utilize mental relaxation techniques. I even try counting sheep. But my brain continues to whirr and hum. I glance at the clock. It's 11:15, 12:46, 2:20, 4:00, 5:49, one sleepless minute rolling into the next, and then all too soon there's my alarm clock, crackling with the local country station into my sleep deprived ears. Time to wake up and exercise! But is it waking up if you never fell asleep in the first place?

I've had this insomnia problem ever since high school. I came to refer to myself as an "Insomna-maniac." It comes in spurts. I'll go months with regular, restful sleep, and then suddenly I'm swept into a vortex of insomnia that engulfs me for weeks at a time. I've blamed late basketball practices, snoring roommates, school stress, midnight snacking, weather patterns, residency hours, jet lag, anxiety. I've tried benadryl, nyquil, melatonin, herbal teas, relaxation techniques, ocean waves, diet restrictions, prayer. It's all pretty much useless.

The common denominator in these spells seems to be a pattern of relentless, purposeless brain activity. Ever see a freshly caught fish thrashing around helplessly in the bottom of a boat? That's my brain. Once, I lay awake all night with an old John Denver song playing an endless loop in my head. Why? Sure, I liked the song "Matthew," but after 30 repeats, hadn't I had enough? A few weeks ago, I annoyed my lovely wife when, at 3:00 am, I rolled out of bed to scratch down the lyrics to what seemed to be a brilliant, humorous song that I'd spent the last several hours composing. Strangely, it wasn't nearly as brilliant a few hours later. Often, it's anxieties that keep me awake, which is weird, because I rarely feel anxiety during the daytime. Maybe that's what's really going on: I've learned to suppress anxiety in my waking mind, and so it punishes me all night long. If I spend more time pulling my hair out in the day, could I get at least a few hours of sleep at night?

I used to fight these episodes, throw pillows at the wall and clocks in the trashcan, often panicking in the middle of the night when it became apparent that the sleep bus was passing me without stopping. But I've since learned to accept my fate: I let my brain have its fun, focus on my physical rest, and passively let the night slip away into morning.

The only sustained period of time in my whole life that I've not had insomnia problems was as a missionary. The highly regimented schedule, the exhausting work,

and undoubtedly some divine intervention let me sleep like a baby for two years. But otherwise, I hit these spells at least a few months out of every year.

My daughter, Joy, is the ultimate sleeper. She's out like a light within seconds of hitting the pillow, and she sleeps like a rock for 11 hours straight. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I'll wander into her room and watch her peaceful face in blissful sleep, and I feel vicarious contentment and a simultaneous envy. I think wistfully, "If only it were so easy."

To sleep, perchance to dream . . .


Adam said...

I have the same problem. It usually only last a night or two becuase I am so tired the next night I go to sleep. I hate it when I am super tired and the second my head hits the pillow I am wide awake. I usually get up and walk around or I try reading for 30 or 40 minutes and sometimes it works but usually I will lie awake for several hours. I don't it is any where near insomnia but it is frustrating none the less.


Dad said...

I remember when you were in high school how you struggled with this problem. I even remember you wrote a short paper or poem on the subject. I'm sure part of the issue is exactly what you have an active mind with lots going on up there and it just seems that could possibly cause problems. Although I have to say that our wives are creative and have active minds and they don't seem to have much problem in this area.

As I have aged I have found myself sleeping less and even finding it difficult to sleep more even if I can. It is frustrating and I don't understand it. Your mother needs 8 or more hours to be funcitioning at peak. I can get by with less (not that I normally function at peak!!) but I really do not sleep as much as I would like. Although I have to say, that though sleeping is a great thing, it is kind of a waste of time and I wish I could use some of that time I don't sleep to better use rather than just try and lie there and go to sleep when I can't. I think it is something you learn to live with. I know people that get by on 2 or 3 hours a day and are brilliant in there ability to perform at peak. One guy I know gets up at 2 or 3 in the morning after going to bed at 11 or 12 and writes his books. He is a technical guy and has written 7 or 8 books in this period of time during his day. He gets up and goes to his regular job during the day and this goes on and on as a daily routine. He has all kinds of neat hobbies that he sometimes does at these times. (He loves model cars and builds model sailing ships) He simply has learned he does not need to sleep like a normal human being. I know others that are work alcholics that work unbeleivable hours and get by with little sleep (from my perspective) I don't understand it except to say that not everyone is the same.

You seem to need the sleep but just can't get it which is a whole other subject. Maybe during these restless, sleepless nights you should really write a book or a song or read a novel or something that you can't get done during your normal day. Or maybe you should try a fairly potent sleeping pill every now and then. You know more about that than me and it won't be my choice, but if you need more sleep maybe that would work periodcially.

I have some sort of built in alarm clock that wakes me up when I know I have to be somewhere early. When I went to Minneapolis this week I had to leave our house by 6 or 6:30 to catch my flight. At 4 a.m. I'm bug eyed lying there trying to catch a couple more hours, having to listen the deep breathing and peaceful sleep my lovely wife was getting while I am tossing and turning for two hours. Never did go back to sleep. I have come to know when this happens I will pay the price that night and sure enough by 11 p.m. that night I was beat. Slept like a baby that night, but I wish I wouldn't do that. I will wake up almost every day at 6 a.m. no matter what, Saturday, weekdays, Sunday, even when I could sleep in. Very frustrating.

To the extent your problem is genetic in nature, I apologize to you. You must have gotten my gene instead of your mother's!!

We need to take lessonns from our wives as they have this sleep thing down pat.

Good luck with it son. I feel your pain.


Danalin said...

That sounds awful! The most I've ever had to endure is a few hours of sleeplessness...and that's annoying enough! Pregnancy brought that on for me. Not because I was uncomfortable (if you'll recall, I had the Snoogle) but because my mind would not shut down about becoming a mom and all that I needed to do to get ready. My heart goes out to you, Mark! I hope it doesn't last too long.

Angie said...

Poor Mark!! I haven't ever had that big of a problem falling asleep, but I definitely have some weird sleep habits (just ask my husband...), and there's nothing worse than not being able to get the rest that you need. I hope this "spurt" doesn't last too much longer and you can go back to getting regular nights of sleep soon.

Matthew said...

Whoa Mark,

You seem to have been awakened suddenly, with your face changed. And was the weirdo that woke you up in a bright green light as your face changed and you grew facial hair?


Matthew said...

Relaxxx. Yeah, man.