I have memories of lying awake at night as a child. They’re not exactly scary or sad memories; I was always too busy thinking. It was like my mind didn’t know how to turn itself off. My mother would ask me, “Is something wrong?” I told her no. It was true. I wasn’t sad. I was just awake.
As a young adult, my insomnia took a darker turn. I remember becoming so tired that I faked myself out. I would feel myself falling asleep, but it had been so long since I had wandered effortlessly into that sleep state that I would almost be afraid to jump over the threshold. After a night like that, I was exhausted of trying to sleep.
I’ve often had to trick myself into sleeping. I usually fall asleep to an audiobook to distract me from my own thoughts. It has to be perfect; nothing too dark (listening to this before bed pretty much eliminated sleep and any happiness in my life for a month). It has to distract me from thinking about sleep, but be uninteresting enough that I don’t want to stay awake.
Having suffered from insomnia for so long, I’ve always found sleep advice to be lacking. Set up a routine to get your body in the mood, avoid electronics for an hour beforehand, don’t drink coffee after 3 and do something relaxing, like take a bath. BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.
I have some better advice. Teach us how to set the stage for sleep, yes; but then teach us how to actually fall asleep. Like a meditation class. We don’t spend the entirety of yoga class talking about the proper clothes to wear, the right mat, how to lay out your mat and have bare feet. We do yoga.
Have you ever noticed the exact moment you are falling asleep? I have. Maybe it’s different for you, so let me know.
Let’s say you’ve done the whole sleep routine and you’re in bed; this is where the real “work” begins. Your goal is to not think about sleep while inducing it. Read a book or do something relaxing.
Here’s the kicker: when you finally feel tired enough to close your eyes, start to think about pure nonsense. Fantasy, curiosities, childhood memories, the most random thing that can enter into your brain.
I remember reading somewhere that the part of your brain that monitors whether something makes sense is turned off during dreams. This explains why something completely inappropriate can be happening (like you’re taking a bath at the mall) and it doesn’t feel wrong.
When I’m suffering from one of my insane bouts of insomnia, I know I’ve reached the finish line and am entering into sleep when my brain starts filling with images of sparkly whales blowing chocolate pudding out of their blow-holes. Seahorses falling in spirals like helicopter seeds. When something completely fantastical, unexplainable and phantasmagorical happens, I know I am finally asleep.
So when I have trouble falling asleep, I try to jump start that part of my brain by thinking the most random (and colorful) thoughts that I can. Whether it’s actually working or I’m just adequately distracting myself, it doesn’t matter to me. It works. In fact I try to talk nonsense with my four-year-old before bed. It’s pretty easy to do with her.