Sunday, June 7, 2009

Insomnia, or Lack Thereof

The Proper Bostonian is busier than usual these days, proofreading chapters of the rather dry, scholarly, archaeological book her husband is rushing to finish and get to press by the end of the month. I find it very difficult to read his (well-respected, well-reviewed) brand of archaeological writing without yawning, which makes the author, seated a few feet away, chuckle as he watches me practically dislocate my jaw. He chuckles for perhaps the first ten times I do it, then does his best to ignore the hundreds of agonized yawns that follow.

My sleep-inducing task has me thinking about insomnia. (Actually, my mind is wandering in all sorts of interesting directions between absorbing such juicy prose as "the south door of the east mud-brick wall, looking northwest..." If only I had time to write more blog entries.)

Last winter, I wrote an article for a health magazine about sleep disorders, and I heartily urge you to do the same if you suffer from sleeplessness. There's nothing like researching and writing about insomnia to send one's head crashing onto the keyboard. But if you aren't so inclined, here are my personal tips for improving your sleep, which I was unable to include in my article, because I am their only source.

1. If it ain't your mattress, it's probably your pillow. My insanely expensive Swedish mattress is deliciously comfortable, but my pillow can be a problem. It's an easy one to miss: you sleep with the same pillow for many years, so you assume you're used to each other. Sleep disorder specialists rarely get into the finer points of pillows; probably because it's such an idiosyncratic thing. 
    But pillows deteriorate over time — even insanely expensive white Siberian down ones (that come free with expensive mattresses). After a few years with one of those, I developed neck trouble, and it didn't just hurt, it made me feel dizzy and weird. It took a visit to a neurologist to determine that I needed to change my posture and my pillows (at that point, I was sleeping with two pillows). The neurologist recommended a Japanese pillow, a narrow sack filled with buckwheat hulls. But those hulls crunch audibly whenever you move, and since I seem to gyrate 360 degrees in my sleep many times a night, I couldn't see this working out.
    Instead, I planned to get a similarly super-soft down pillow like my favorite, but the salesperson at the Cuddledown outlet, up in Freeport, Maine, stopped me. She asked my how I slept and whether I had any problems, which was astute of her. (Most likely, I looked unusually bleary-eyed.) Then she told me I had to stop sleeping with two pillows and that I needed a medium-to-firm pillow, not a soft one. 
    And she was right. I slept soundly and had very few neck problems for a long time. But now it's already time for a new pillow. I find myself pummeling it a few times every night to get it into a supportive position. I like Cuddledown in general, but I think a pricey pillow should last an awful lot longer than 2 or 3 years.

2. Don't sleep with a cat on your head.  Our cats sleep all day so they can keep us up all night. I can usually sleep through things breaking, howled feline songs and speeches, hairballs being hurled, and other cat noise. But when a 10-pound cat takes over my cozy, warm pillow by curling up on my head and purring loudly, I have no defenses. I must be instinctively polite because I never push her off. I just move further and further down the bed until she has my whole pillow and I have my head to myself, but I'm scrunched up, awake, and listening to her snoring.
   Actually, that can't be true; I'm not that nice. When I hear a cat about to throw up on the bed, I can locate the perpetrator and send her sailing through the air, past the carpet and onto the floor, before my eyes are open. I hate spending afternoons at the laudromat washing and drying the comforter. So I must just have a soft spot for pseudo-friendly purring directly applied to my ear.
   Anyway, as much as I love sleeping with cats, I have to admit that I spend a lot of hours not sleeping because of them. Maybe you have a similar problem that you can tackle more successfully than I ever will. (I could also discuss the problem of the noisy human bedfellow, but I'm not.)

3. What they say about caffeine is true.  It's rotten luck, but drinking coffee, tea, or Coke past the middle of the afternoon can definitely keep you up at night. Even if it didn't help you wake up when you drank it during your 4 o'clock slump, it's going to get you later.
    What I can't understand is why, when I took No-Doz caffeine pulls to pull an all-nighter in college, I'd often fall soundly asleep about an hour later. I'd wake up the next morning, in my chair, or on the floor, without a term paper. I'm half tempted to try it as a sleeping aid now. (But I have archaeology instead.)

4. Exercise helps but Jon Stewart does not.  Your daily habits make a difference when you go to bed. If I take long walks or get decent exercise, I find it easier to conk out at night. Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day also helps. If I stay up past 12:30, I will often be awake until 3 or 4. Watching news shows often keys me up too much to sleep. Watching disturbing movies even early in the evening does it, too. (But I slept through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the theater. Did it have a happy ending?)

5. If you can't sleep, read scholarly books that describe countless piles of ancient rubble (or pot sherds) in meticulous detail. This works every time, I promise. Your library will have these, probably in pristine condition. Mutual fund prospectuses are also pretty good, especially if you aren't an investor. Or I could send you my article about sleep disorders. 

Time for a nap....

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