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Free at last from the insomniac’s little helper

When it comes to sleep, I have long been a woman of firm convictions: I need eight hours, I can scrape by on six and if I don’t get my share I’ll be an addled, nauseated wraith with an obliterating headache.

For the sake of my precious eight hours, I have traveled with my own pillow, invested in expensive gear (blackout curtains, high-tech mattress) and cajoled my husband into wearing headphones lest the TV keep me awake. I have always been the first to leave the party (“Sorry, it’s past my bedtime”). Wouldn’t you know, I still ended up with a galloping sleep disorder and a little vial of pills that, for a good six months, were all that stood between me and the nocturnal heebie jeebies.

Last month I decided the time had come to give up the insomniac’s little helper. What a revelation! Turns out practically everything I thought I knew about sleep was dead wrong.

I didn’t kick this habit on my own. As I told you last month, I followed the draconian plan laid out by a shrink whose specialty is sleep disorders. What I didn’t tell you was that I feared the worst.

I’ve made two attempts to give up HRT, which I’ve been taking for so many years that I’m no longer sure when I started. Both times night sweats and broken sleep drove me back to the full dosage. (Why confront certain misery now to head off the slightly increased risk of breast cancer down the road? I exercise, dammit. I load up on blueberries and broccoli) On top of my dubious track record for quitting lifestyle drugs, I had other reasons to dread the sleeping-pill project.

“You’re allowed one cup of coffee a day,” said Dr. Sleep as he gave me my marching orders. One cup? I’m a coffee fanatic of 40 years’ standing. I may not travel with my own coffee grinder anymore, but my brain doesn’t kick into gear until the second mug of full-strength java (no wimpy decaf for me). By 9:30, I need another hit.

“But I never drink coffee after noon!” I protested. Impassive, Dr. Sleep repeated his one-cup prescription, as if he were granting me a favour.

There was more bad news. No more falling into bed whenever I felt the urge, usually by 10 at the very latest. I’d have to prop my eyelids open until 11:30 and bound out of bed with a 6:30 alarm. Theoretically, I’d have seven hours. But if I started tossing and turning, I’d have to get up and read myself back to sleep. “Most people find that they’re more efficient sleepers on a schedule,” the good doctor said. “But don’t be surprised if the problem gets worse before it gets better.”

Okay, it’s not as if he didn’t warn me. The first few nights, I probably got no more than four hours of sleep, interspersed with bleary-eyed reading sessions. (I’m guessing: on this routine, you’re not allowed to look at the clock.) Desperate for coffee, I would stagger out of bed at the prescribed time, wondering how I’d ever get through my day. If this kept up, I was in trouble.

By about day four, I’d noticed something. A couple of things, to be precise. I was writing, cooking and powering through killer workouts with my trainer. I didn’t have that woozy, fuzzy-brained feeling that in the past had always come with sleep deprivation. Instead of the coffee I craved, I’d refuel with nourishing foods (toast thickly spread with nut butter, freshly squeezed orange juice from the cafe next door). After dinner, I’d instinctively reach for a yogurt and a mango instead of Ben and Jerry’s. Sleep lesson number one: quality over quantity. In my experience, four restorative hours beat eight low-grade hours in bed, just as 1,500 nutrition-packed calories beat 3,000 calories’ worth of junk food.

I also became more aware of my own sleep process. By 11:30, I was thoroughly exhausted, a new sensation to me. I’d been like the compulsive overeater who ignores her body’s own cues and as a result cannot distinguish between the munchies and honest-to-goodness hunger.

In the middle of the night, nodding over my book, I learned not to go back to bed until I could hardly stop yawning. Thanks to the ban on clock watching, I didn’t obsess over how many hours of sleep I could knock off before the alarm began to screech. I learned to associate random, drifting thoughts and images with the prelude to sleep. I even came to believe what sleep experts keep telling us: that while we think we’re fully awake and conscious, we’re often sleeping, albeit lightly. Toward morning as the first rays of light filtered through the curtains, I would put on a sleep mask to simulate the dead of night.

Meanwhile, I was cutting my sleeping pills in half and taking them on alternate nights. It’s been two weeks since I took the last dose, and I’m sleeping just fine. In fact, the other night I didn’t wake up once. Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get off HRT. If that ever comes to pass, you’ll learn all about it right here.


Posted by Rona

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