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.
- Thank you, Jan and John! [↩]