Persistent insomnia can be exhausting, and not just because you can’t sleep. The search for relief can sap your energy, and the remedies available often come with caveats.
Insomnia became a serious problem when I was in college, where the main point was to exercise my brain. Playing the piano could sometimes put a stop to the mental calisthenics that kept me from nodding off at night. When that failed, a couple glasses of my piano teacher’s home brew would usually do the trick. Trouble was, I woke up to hangover in the morning. No fun.
Sleep came no more easily when I started earning a paycheck. A friend suggested I take a muscle relaxant at night. The pill didn’t make getting to sleep any easier, but it sure packed a punch in the morning. I was lucky when I could hoist myself to a standing position—never mind trying to think.
On the advice of a doctor, I tried diaphragmatic breathing. “In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four,” and so on. It worked the first few times I tried it, and I was thrilled! But then there were nights when no matter how long I counted or how deeply I breathed, I could not manage to slide over the hump. Grrrrrr! My body had a mind of its own, or so it seemed.
The Big Guns
Then there were the little blue sleeping pills I carried around the year I taught in Mexico. They were fabulous. I kept them in a square pillbox, and one day I left it open on the bathroom sink. When I turned on the faucet (the water gushed like a geyser at the slightest touch of the handle) the pills got soaked. They swelled up like mushrooms and probably took in some iffy bacteria, but no matter. I let them dry out and eventually used every single one. But there was not a prayer of renewing my prescription. The 1980s were lean, mean years for users of sleeping pills. You might as well ask a doctor for crack cocaine.
The Alternative Route
Next came my years in California, when I tried every New Age insomnia cure under the sun. I talked about my insomnia with a therapist (to little avail). I listened to a relaxation CD, but the guy on the CD had an obnoxious voice. I took a meditation class. Traveling in Japan, I stank up rooms of sweet-smelling tatami mats with liquid valerian. The sole take-away was bad breath.
Back in the U.S., I discovered the soporific effect of nature programs I could play at low volume at night. In the late 1990s, the monotonous voice of Marty Stauffer and his leaping gazelles and lumbering polar bears could coax me into slumber. But the show lasted only half an hour—not long enough to put me into a deep sleep. The French horns trumpeting the end of the program were infuriating because they could jolt me awake again.
My quest to beat insomnia eventually bore fruit. Knowledge of the sleep/wake system, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and well-timed exercise have led to better sleep for me. But what exhausting lengths I went to—and many insomniacs I interviewed for my book report going to the same lengths—before finding strategies that worked.
If you’re fed up with half-measures and can’t get help from your doctor, I suggest going beyond the insomnia remedies listed on the first page of a Google search. Consider trying CBT, and other strategies that are research-based.