Best Night’s Sleep Ever

Photo: Sarah Kunst

I have one superpower: I can wake up without an alarm. I set a time in my mind to wake up and I can pretty much hit it. I love that it’s something I’m weirdly good at that other people find wildly impressive. But the truth is I’m a really bad sleeper. I can wake up easily because I’ve barely slept throughout the night.

The Power of Dreams

I’ve always had a conflicted relationships with sleep. When I hit my first Get Go crisis (site three months past due), I would have dreams so vivid and real. In one, I felt hands tightening around my throat, and I woke up gasping for air. It felt so real. In a later sequence, I was in the countryside with my sister in a field of sheep. What seemed initially bucolic and even adorable quickly took a turn: a stench filling my nostrils, an awful funk literally waking me up. Through the fog of sleep and dreaming, I was aware of asking myself, Is that you with the horrible BO? Is it the sheets? The pajamas you’re wearing? When I fully came to consciousness, it was just a dream.

I didn’t need a therapist or a dream interpreter to tell me my dreams were a response to self-induced pressure.

The mind is so powerful. It can make a dream feel so real. Our minds function on patterns and habit. If we plant seeds of worry, fear and pressure during the day, our minds keep running the same loop into the night.

Life as a Functioning Insomniac

Sleeping terribly has plagued me since childhood. My parents’ dubbed me the Princess and the Pea. When I was napping, no one in my house dared make a sound. My father couldn’t turn the page of a newspaper in the kitchen down the hall from my bedroom without me hearing it. At daycare, while all the other children napped, I had a baby panic attack amidst all the other napping children and locked myself in the bathroom.  At my first sleepover, I became hysterical and threw up after being the last one awake hours after the others had fallen asleep.

In college, I took Valium to fall asleep. In my 20s, I had a lot of fun so never bothered with much sleep anyway. In my early 30s, I sought herbal remedies and acupuncture for relief. Ambien was a backup. When I became an editor-in-chief, my mind never stopped racing and I moved onto Ativan to quiet my mind before bed. Other strategies: Work and workout relentlessly to physically exhaust myself, going to specialists galore to learn visualization and relaxation techniques. I organized drawers in my mind, relaxed each part of my body and counted to 5 before moving to the next body part from my toes to my head. I imagined clouds of colors around my body.

The harder I worked at it, the more sleep eluded me.

I’ve been exhausted my entire life.

Sleep Breakthrough

The other night, I retired to bed early. I had had a busy week and the day was non-stop productive. I was going to bed satisfied. My sheets were crisp and fresh. The air felt dry so I reached for some lavender oil on my nightstand and smoothed some on. Instead of changing into my pajamas, I rolled into bed in an oversize cashmere sweater and some rather large sweatpants. My pillows and comforter were fluffed like a cloud. I settled in. It all felt so good. That night, I slept a dreamless, delicious sleep.

I woke up feeling amazing. I have never been able to go to bed early and go straight to sleep. Why was this night different than all the rest?

That night, I had looked forward to crawling into bed. A perfect storm of temperature, textures and other sensory triggers. I’d spent my life trying to force myself to sleep and practice my way into better sleep. As with everything else in my life, I wanted to be good at it. But the pressure I put on myself and the frustration I felt at my nightly failures only added to my nighttime anxiety. What if it were actually simpler? What if I stopped fighting with sleep and started looking forward to it as something to enjoy?

In order to enjoy anything—a meal, vacation, sex, and sleep too—you have to let go. If you worry about the calories it spoils the fun. If you can’t stop thinking about work, a trip becomes anxiety over falling behind. If you worry about how you look naked, you’ll be too distracted to get swept away. If you can’t stop obsessing over the clock and the ticking hours, or how much REM sleep you’re getting or missing, you’re definitely not relaxed and not going to get any precious Zzs.

It requires a mind shift, small but meaningful. Giving yourself a break, the Get Go way. Give it a try. Here are a few other things that also help my mind and body relax into rest.