Even in the cave
of the night when you
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure eight
and lies down in your head…
(From: “Waking at 3 a.m.,” by William Stafford)
I’ve been a victim of sleep disruption for months, tossing and turning on a mattress that overnight, became too firm, exaggerating the minor aches and pains of my aging body. A vicious cycle began. I couldn’t find a comfortable position; I tossed and turned, and soon, my mind alert, a relentless parade of to do lists or worries, coupled with my body’s restlessness, resulted in nights that stretched into forever. I checked the clock. “2:10 a.m. 2:40 a.m. 3:05 a.m.” Sometime before dawn, I might drift off, but I dragged myself through the following day, my sluggishness and fatigue relieved only by a routine of afternoon naps. I admitted defeat at last, and yesterday, my husband and I spent the entire day in search of a new mattress, one better suited to older, sometimes arthritic, bodies.
Minor aches and pains or a too-firm mattress aren’t the only culprits that keep us awake at night. Difficult or traumatic events happen to everyone: job loss, death of a loved one, worries about a child, a parent or spouse, illness. The list is long, and during those times, our sleep may be disrupted for weeks. In Small Wonder: Essays, author Barbara Kingsolver describes her childhood, shortly after experiencing the death of her grandmother. Unable to sleep, she seeks her mother’s comfort.
Mama, I don’t want to die.
You don’t have to worry about that for a long, long time…You don’t know what heaven is like. It might be full of beautiful flowers.
When I close my eyes, I discover it’s there, an endless field of flowers…I will keep that field of flowers. It doesn’t matter I won’t always believe in Heaven. I will suffer losses of faith, of love, of confidence. I will have some bitter years and always, when I hurt and can’t sleep, I will close my eyes and wait for…butterflies to arrive.
Sleepless nights are no trivial matter. Sleep disruption does far more than simply irritate us. It alters the hormonal balance in our bodies. Inability to fall asleep and stay asleep can result in anxiety, depression, breathing problems, fatigue, or headaches—to name a few. Troubled sleep–the disruption of our circadian rhythm—can also affect a person’s cancer prognosis.
According to the research of Dr. David Spiegel and his Stanford University colleagues, breast cancer patients who suffer disrupted sleep cycles may die earlier from the disease. When the hormonal cortisol cycle is thrown off by troubled sleep, cancer-fighting branches of women’s immune systems are suppressed. We now know that a good night’s sleep is an important weapon in the arsenal for fighting cancer, and there are treatments to help those with sleep disorders.
It was easier, many years ago, to fall asleep. I remember my mother’s voice, singing a lullaby to a fretful toddler, or my father’s, his beloved nighttime stories lulling me into the sound sleep of childhood. Now, in my adulthood, I hope that a new mattress will be a panacea for the restless nights I’ve endured. Even then, I know there will be other times, times when my worries or fears will be ignited by some difficult life event, and I’ll have to talk myself back to sleep. I’ve had them before; I’ll have them again. But I’ve learned that there is sometimes solace in a glass of warm milk, time spent writing out my worries (they diminish on paper), or repeating a mantra until I am soothed back into slumber. I try to focus on what comforts me, what things give me gratitude, and when I do, I gradually drift into the welcoming embrace of sleep. There is comfort in knowing that life usually seems more manageable by the light of day.
You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast
and as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right. And you sleep.
(William Stafford, “Waking at 3 a.m.”)
Write about sleep—or the lack of it. Perhaps you feared that imaginary monster in the closet when you were a child. What gave you comfort and helped you go to sleep? When have fears or worries overtaken you, and how have you found comfort in the dark hours you’ve lain awake as an adult? Write about a time you had trouble sleeping.