This post comes to you because I casually mentioned that my insomnia had been cured and immediately got an avalanche of letters saying, “Tell! How? I must know!”

So now I tell.

It’s not easy and it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, the sleep doctor who put me on this regime said that the vast majority of his clients cannot stick to it and thus never find out whether it works for them or not. That’s because it’s very difficult for most people. Especially those with children. On top of that there are a (small) set of people who are addicted to their lack of sleep and the drama of it, but cannot admit that to themselves, and thus cannot undertake a systematic change of their sleep habits.

With this regime you have to change your sleep habits and make them regular, which is really really hard:

  • You are only allowed to sleep in bed—no reading or writing or anything else.
  • You’re not allowed to sleep during the day. Not even the teeniest, tiniest nap.
  • You go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning—to start with make them at least five hours apart.
  • An hour before you go to bed have a hot bath. This is to raise your core body temp which will then drop in the hour before you go to bed. If you don’t have a bath do some not-too-vigorour exercise for half an hour to raise your temperature. Don’t take a shower because that will wake you up.
  • You need to get up in the first hour of dawn and go out and walk or run around in the sunshine for at least 15 minutes. This is to set your something or other. Can’t remember what you call it.
  • If you can’t sleep when you go to bed, get up, and do something until you get tired again. Then go back to bed, if again you can’t sleep, get up, and do something else. This can go on until it’s time to get up. You then have to get up cause you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.

There you have it: that’s what cured my insomnia. If you stick to it it’s very likely you’ll be sleeping again.

As I said, though, sticking to it is the hard part. Did I mention how difficult it is?

I was in the ideal situation to try it: I was living with people who were not disturbed by my getting up at 5AM every morning, who were also not disturbed by my being up half the night, and my being shitty all day long when I couldn’t take a nap to cope with not having slept the night before.1

I was also a research fellow at a university where I had no fixed office hours and taught no classes. My duties were to research and write and publish. Undertaking this regime is a lot harder if you work nine to five or even longer hours and if you have children, pets or other responsibilities.

On the other hand, if your insomnia is really bad anyways this regime is probably not a whole lot worse than what you’re already going through.

When I started out I went to bed at midnight and got up at 5AM. The first week I did not sleep more than an hour or two during designated sleeping hours, but after that my sleeping crept up to three, four and then the full five hours. Then I expanded my sleeping to six.

I stuck to the regime for a few more months. First I experimented with not doing the bath thing and was still able to sleep. Then I let myself sleep longer than six hours and miss the dawn walk. When that didn’t affect my sleep I started going to to bed when I felt like it not at midnight every single night. Eventually I was back to normal.

Now—almost seven years later—I sleep fine. I do occasionally have sleepless nights. But they don’t freak me out the way they used to. I’m not afraid of insomnia any more—I’ve had long bouts of it since I was a kid. I now know what to do if an extended bout happens again. It’s a good feeling.

I think part of what used to happen when I was locked into crap sleep patterns was that I’d be so wound up about not sleeping that it made everything worse. I’d lie in bed for hours waiting for sleep to come, getting angrier, and more depressed, and less likely to sleep. At the same time, in a weird way, I was addicted to not sleeping. It felt romantic to be up in the early hours writing when the rest of the world was sleeping. I was convinced that I wrote my best stuff when I couldn’t sleep. I even thought my red eyes and pinched insomnia face were romantic. After all lots of famous writers have struggled with sleep. Writers are meant to be miserable and tortured, aren’t they?

Having learned how to beat my insomnia, I also beat those stupid romantic ideas out of myself. None of my fiction written while suffering from insomnia has ever been published. All my published novels are the product of a happy well-slept author.

  1. Thank you, Jan and John! []


  1. janet on #

    It sounds a little like re-booting a computer.

    Is part of the regime that you’re not allowed to have sex in bed? Don’t mean to pry, but when I’ve seen this kind of regime described, sex is the only exception to the first bullet point on your list.

  2. emmaco on #

    I think I was one of the ones asking for your cure. Not because I need it right now but just in case the insomnia sneaks back and I need a new method to beat it, so thanks! (The best thing I ever did was stop having a clock I could glance over and see. It just made me more aware of the sleep I was missing and the decreasing amount of time until I had to get up)

  3. hillary! on #

    I don’t mean to gloat, but I’ve never really had sleeping problems, if anything I’ve had trouble staying awake.
    But I am such a horrible person that last year, in my psychology class, I taught myself to fall asleep. And only because I hated the teacher sooooooooo much!

  4. dragonfly on #

    i think i might be able to do this. not until my husband leaves for iraq (our schedules are so messed up right now because of getting ready for deployment)…but it might be possible. the most difficult thing will be the morning walk, since i’d be getting up before my son…do you think it would be as effective to do jumping jacks or run in place or something on my balcony?

    it will be yucky to give up reading in bed, but usually i read in bed because i cannot sleep, so i’d do it willingly.

    i’m not kidding you, this gives me hope. i haven’t had a full night of sleep in…well, years. even when i was taking sleeping pills i woke up after a few hours. *sigh?*

  5. Liset on #

    hillary I sooo smell what you’re stepping in!

    My problem is that i sleep WAY too much.

    When I was in highschool, my mom thought i had mono!!!

    Also, I’m always hungry. Always hungry and sleepy…. hmm

  6. Liset on #

    is sleeping 12 hours a night too much?
    …just wondering…

  7. Margaret Crocker on #

    Sleep is so stressful. I have never been a morning person, and I am so f*cking tired of the guilt. I mean, it bugs people that I sleep until 10 or 11 every day (even though it’s only about 7 hours sleep for me). Yeah, some people are envious, but most people just think it’s lazy and self-indulgent to sleep late. Grrr!!

  8. Justine on #

    I should point out the obvious: I’m not a doctor. This is what worked for me. I really can’t answer any questions about how to make it work for you. Medical opinions may have changed over the last seven years. Plus, like I said, I’m not a doctor.

    Janet: Sex in bed was not forbidden.

    Margaret: I, too, am not a morning person. But when I wasn’t sleeping it was kind of a moot point. Also the early rising was because there’s supposedly some kind of thingie that happens with dawn light. But I’m blanking on what it is right now. The getting up early was not a moral thing; it was a reset your internal clock thing.

    Now that I’m sleeping normally I do not wake up at 5AM! Left to my own devices I’m also a 10-11AM kind of girl, who needs at least eight hours of sleep to function properly.

  9. aden on #

    Is “circadian rhythm” the nebulous term you’re looking for? Otherwise, I’ve got nothing, and need to dress up my store of obscure medical terminology I don’t have any real need to know.

  10. Margaret Crocker on #

    I wasn’t getting any guilt here, btw. Just sharing my particular sleep-related bugaboo. 🙂

  11. Ellen Kushner on #

    Elizabeth Hand once told me about some big academic study that figured out what an individual’s perfect sleep patterns might be (I’m with Margaret – stay up late, sleep in – miss half the day, but work all night!) – it apparently varies wildly, and if you fill in a complicated questionnaire online, it will tell you what regimen is best for you. I’ll ask her to drop by with the info. Anyone else?

    (Oh, and a note to hillary! & friends – I used to be a Champion Sleeper. No kidding. I could win prizes, if there were any. No trouble falling asleep, much trouble waking up; easy to fall back asleep if disturbed. It changes with age. Now I wake up too early and am grouchy. It’s hell on my self-image. Like being a show dog with mange.

    However, lisbet – I’m still always hungry!)

  12. Liz hand on #

    The site is through Columbia Presbyterian’s Chrobobiology Laboratory, which compiled data regarding sleep patterns and seasonal mood disorders (so, not insomnia, but still interesting). Not sure if the questionaire is still available but here’s their info:

    For the record, I slept like a baby until I had two of my own, and have not had a good night’s sleep in the last 18 years.

  13. Mahek on #

    I have to stay up doing homework and coursework and sometimes I have to revise so I get to sleep really late. Then I am tired the next day and teachers complain that I am always sleeping in their classes and say I should get to slep earlier.

    I would get to sleep earlier if only they would stop giving me so much work to do. And I have reallu bad sleeping problems. My characters talk to me for hours. My mum says I’m lying when I tell her I have problems sleeping. Sheesh!

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