How you sleep is a secret. You can’t tell from walking next to someone on the street if they can drift off in seconds while the lights are on and the TV’s blaring, or if they need a sealed cocoon of solitude kept at an exact temperature with no piercing noises or lights. Well, sleep doctors might. I’ll ask mine the next time I see him.
Based on the totally non-scientific notes I’ve taken from since I’ve started dealing with my sleep issues, I can say that a lot of people can’t sleep at night. Some people have full blown sleep apnea, and I really feel for them, but I think there are a lot more who just can’t shut down at night and drift off. Maybe ten thousand years ago we could have, but now that we’re in the big cities with the job stresses and the always-available entertainment and the ten thousand projects going at once, we’ve lost that ability.
My journey towards trying to get better sleep started when I moved out of my parents house after high school. I’d gotten a pretty good gig doing consulting development at Whole Foods, and had some money to spend. I figured that since I’d probably spend at least a third of my life in it, I went a little crazy, and bought this:
This is actually the short version of The Bed (note the capitalization), the first version had full height box springs. I’m 5′ 10″ and I felt like I needed a ladder to get into it. Our house in San Marcos at the time was a 800 square foot (if you measured the outside of the building) 2 bedroom. There was barely enough room in the biggest bedroom to walk around it. It was the most wonderful thing ever.
I’m one of those people whose brain refuses to shut down. Given normal everyday stresses, I will lay in bed, awake, till 3 or 4 in the morning before finally falling into a half-sleep. If there’s something urgent happening early, or I’m wearing something scratchy, or there’s a strange noise, or there’s too much light I might not sleep at all. I want to, by body likes to be in bed, but when I close my eyes it feels like someone hits fast-forward on the VCR in my brain and I can’t slow it down.
Acquiring The Bed was a great first step in solving some sleep problems. It was a Serta double-sided pillowtop, and I think it set me back $3,500. It was probably the best $3,500 I’ve ever spent, but even it wasn’t enough to guarantee sleep. I still have problems, and between the time I started writing this post and when I actually finished it, there were a lot of nights of no sleep.
So in the interests of helping out someone else who might share my problem, here are a few things I’ve tried, and some comments on them:
I like it dark and cold. The colder the better, really, but usually in the high 60’s. This can be expensive in Texas. If I were clever I’d have an in-room AC unit and only cool off the bedroom. White noise is good, but those tinny little white noise generators just don’t do it for me. I need base, I need rumble. The circulator fan in our AC unit is right next to the bedroom, and for years I slept about 4 feet away from it. Now I have a small air purifier next to the bed that I run on medium, which does a decent job.
For a while when our daughter was small and in the same room with us my wife wanted to have a night-light, which drove me up the wall. Fortunately now our daughter’s in her own room. The baby monitor we use throws off a really bright light, but some things you can’t avoid.
Finding a really good bed can be hard. The market is designed so you can’t do real comparisons, and even with a 30 or 90 day money back guarantee, who wants to go to the trouble of returning a giant mattress? We bought The Bed at a dedicated furniture store, and paid a lot of money for it. We bought our second bed at Sears, and got it on a big sale. The first bed was great, the second bed isn’t great at all. You can’t compare list prices between stores, sales don’t really matter if they’ve just marked the cheap one up a bunch. Go to a reputable place, get some advice from friends, and lay on them for a while. I like really soft beds, they’re pretty hard to find. Don’t give up, you’ll be living with that thing for the next 10 years. Keep your purchase and warranty information. Scan it, take a picture with your iPhone, whatever. In 8 years when the springs start popping out the side, you might be able to get a new one free.
I’ve heard that foam beds are hard to… procreate on. I’ve never bought one, I don’t really know. I like giant, squishy but not too squishy pillowtops.
Having a good bed is a big deal, and having a good bed-frame can be important, too. Right now we have a barely-held-together craigslist bed frame, and probably need to trade it in for something more supportive and stable. If I feel like I’m on an incline or if there’s a weird aberration in the bed, that’ll keep me up. Like I said, a princess.
Having a good pillow is key. I like big squish-able down pillows, because I sleep on my stomach or side. IKEA has a great selection for cheap, so you can try them and not feel guilty. Buy extras.
My sleep doctor’s advice is to keep the bedroom as the place you sleep, don’t watch TV there or play on your devices or read books. I’m not good at following advice, and pretty much do all of these things. If you’re having trouble, it could be something to try. Meditation and breathing exercises work for a lot of people, I haven’t had success with it. The force is not strong with this one.
Having a partner who gets that you’re lying in bed going crazy every night is a big deal. For a lot of people sleep issues aren’t something that ebb and flow, every night is a battle. It can be really hard to be responsible for stuff early if you tossed and turned for hours the night before and only got 3-4 hours of unhappy sleep.
My wife has the ability to fall asleep anywhere. She’s fallen asleep during conversations with me, while playing games on her iPad, I think she could probably sleep standing up. I’m incredibly jealous of that ability.
Some couples who aren’t able to deal with sleep problems, especially snoring, sometimes sleep in separate bedrooms. I get that it’s a solution, but it seems kind of unfortunate. When we travel I find that we only really fight over the covers, so I always call downstairs and get an extra comforter sent up, and we use two on our bed at home. The bonus there is that hers has a warmer fill and mine is lighter, so we’re both happy with temperatures. This isn’t the TV sitcom ideal of mom and dad in the perfectly made bed straight out of the catalog, but it works for us.
I usually get my best sleep, almost lucid-dreaming style, after my wife’s gotten out of bed in the morning. That means that most of the time she takes care of the baby and gets the household going. That’s a big deal, and I really appreciate it.
I was raised to hew to the rugged individualist ideal. Drugs are a crutch, you came out of the womb the way you should be, etc. Eventually my wife convinced me to talk to my general practitioner about it, and she prescribed be something called clonazepam. It’s a great little drug, and for the first time in forever, I felt normal. I’d just sort of drift off to sleep, no muscle twitching or anything. Alas, it’s habit forming, so it isn’t prescribed for long-term issues. Eventually when I started going to the sleep doctor he had me try zolpidem (you might know it as Ambien), it’s probably the most popular option and is available in a generic. It has a long half-life, though, and it made me feel groggy in the morning. Eszopiclone (Lunesta) gave me a weird aftertaste. Eventually we settled on zaleplon (aka Sonata) which has a much shorter half life and is lighter. My doctor says he uses it if he wakes up during the night and can’t go back to sleep. The only downside is for those days when your brain’s really going and you have a big presentation or early meeting, it’s pretty much useless.
Food is a killer, and late night eating from sleep issues is a big reason why people gain weight. It’s really comforting to have a filling snack after laying in bed for 3 hours, your blood goes to your stomach, you get the itis, but it’s terrible for you. Late night eating is one of the things that concerned my doctor the most. I’m not sure if I have much advice here, except that we don’t eat things we don’t have. That leftover fried chicken isn’t lasting till morning, but if the chicken isn’t there, it doesn’t get eaten. I don’t drive to the store at 3am, I just go back to bed.
Travelling can be tough when you can’t sleep, but often the increased activity can make it easier to fall asleep. Don’t forget your meds, like I did on my trip to PyCon. I felt like a zombie all weekend. If you don’t know about the hotel chain and have space, pack a pillow. Hilton’s pretty good at it, as are most boutique hotels. I always crank up the AC when I go to sleep, both for the noise and for the cold. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford nice hotels. When I was in Paris several years ago we booked the cheapest hotel we could find, and when we got to our room the bed was actually broken. I think we’ve stayed in a few places in Mexico where the beds were almost literally an exercise mat on top of concrete. Vacations are expensive, book a nice hotel if you can.
If you have sleep issues, you’re not alone. There are sleep doctors, and some good options. There’s no magic bullet, though, so if your partner has sleep issues, give them a little slack and support them. It’s a tough thing to live with, and it can make living a normal life really hard.
If you have some tips or tricks, please share them in the comments. If there are a few, I’ll add them to this post, if there are a bunch I’ll do another one and link it from here.
This post originally had a different opening and title. I was curious how people would react to it, as I’m stretching myself more as a writer. I think the general reaction was ‘”That’s probably spam,” or “Good grief, I really don’t want to read that.” Whoever would have gotten the joke probably has, so I tweaked the intro to be more on point. In any case, here it is:
I’m a Little Princess
I’ve always known I was different. I know regular people. I see them all the time on TV and in movies. They talk about their normal lives, their simple problems that seem so solvable, and I just can’t relate. I wonder if they know how lucky they are, to be exactly who they need to be, to not be plagued by this.
I’m lucky too, I guess. I have a job that lets me work from home and pass for normal. My wife’s very understanding, probably more than a lot of women would be. I know other people share my secret. I read between the lines in their tweets, or see their living situations. I’ve seen doctors, and taken medications, and it helps a little.
When I finally moved out of my parents house, I made some bad decisions. I thought I could get a cheap fix, just some slapped together left over parts, but it was awful. Finally I had a run of good paychecks, and I went to the store and plopped down more money than I’d paid for anything but a computer or a car to buy the ultimate solution… this:
2 thoughts on “Meditations on Sleep”
God I am so with you on all of that. I bought a reasonably nice mattress and added a pillowtopper to it and it is pretty comfy, but I am still very sensitive to noise and light. I snore; it’s embarrassing, but what’s even worse is that I’m a light enough sleeper that other people snoring will keep me awake all night. Which I can do on my own just fine, thank you.
I use Ambien now and again, never tried Clonazepam but I may do so–Ambien works pretty well, and I really need the knockout punch effect it has. Lunesta and Sonata both often fail to actually make me sleep. I also seem to be kind of resistant to painkillers (ask me about my throat surgery for sleep apnea) so maybe it’s just a general resistance thing, I don’t know. I don’t get Ambien-drunk the way some people do and have never called any exes or other behaviors they warn you about on the label.
The late-night eating really is a huge hurdle, since you might be awake long enough that you haven’t eaten in six or eight hours depending on when dinner was and your body is fairly sensibly telling you to get on that. I’ll drink milk sometimes if I have it, that seems to help soothe hunger for me.
Anyway I am sorry that you suffer from insomnia and I am super-jealous of your work at homeness, though my bosses don’t care much if I nap in my office a little.
Great post, Jeff! While reading this I thought “hey, this could be me talking”. Your tips are right on the money. Have you done any reading on segmented sleep or ‘second sleep’? I know I tend to be a night owl, and feel like my brain works better at night. Debugging that evasive bug, designing that cool interface, etc. At night it seems more fluid, whereas during the day it feels like work (regardless of how many cups of coffee I’ve consumed). The problem of course, is that one can easily get into a habit of working all day and night, which of course is not healthy either.
If you can help it, steer clear of zolpidem (Ambien) — it’s an EEEVIL drug. Especially when you try to wean yourself off of it. That combined with the night eating and weight gain = bad times.
What’s helped me sleep better? In addition to all the great things you mention, the one thing that has really helped me is daily exercise. If your schedule allows, it I highly recommend getting away from the keyboard for an hour during the day (lunch hour?) and getting outside and going for a long, brisk walk. Not only does the vitamin D from the sun help, but what I find is that all the stresses and anxieties that usually keep me up at night can be worked out in my head while I’m walking along to some good tunes in my earbuds. I find that my best work gets done while I am out hiking. And if the walk/hike is challenging enough, I guarantee you’ll sleep better at night.
Thanks again for the great article. And sweet dreams right back atcha 🙂