Until about my mid-forties, I slept like a champ. Fell asleep easily, slept through the night, and woke up feeling refreshed. I thought insomnia was something only neurotic people had.
Then came perimenopause and menopause, knocking me off the lofty perch of the well-rested and into crazy-making midlife sleeplessness.
Sleep is elusive
when estrogen starts to wane.
Man, am I crabby.
But it’s not just women who are affected. According to the National Sleep Foundation, changes in our sleep patterns are a normal part of aging for both genders. We have a harder time falling and staying asleep because our production of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep/wake cycles, declines.
As a result, older folks tend to get sleepier earlier and wake up earlier. That explains the popularity of the early-bird dinner special in Florida. And why I often nod off by 9:00 p.m.
So while I usually fall asleep reasonably well, staying asleep is another matter entirely.
Oh, to sleep eight hours!
Three a.m. awakenings
are for the damn birds.
When I do wake in the wee hours, it’s usually because I need to pee. Or I’m drenched from a night sweat. Or one of the cats is throwing up. Or my husband is snoring. Or all/none of the above. Once I empty my bladder/cool down/clean up the vomit/poke my husband/mentally exclaim “Oh, s**t, not again,” then comes the moment of truth: how long until I fall back to sleep?
On a good night, it’s within a few minutes. When it isn’t, I launch first-round get-back-to-sleep tactics: deep breathing, relaxing my muscles in sequence from head to toe, counting backwards from 100, composing the lead for an article that’s due, mentally listing things I’m grateful for, or tapping out haikus. Anything to keep from obsessing about the fact that I. Can’t. Sleep.
In case I get a flash of inspiration, I keep a lighted pen on my nightstand so I can write in the dark without disturbing my husband (and because I sure as hell won’t remember whatever I thought of when the sun comes up). Unfortunately, most of these middle-of-the-night musings suck in the cold light of day.
After I’ve been awake for at least a half-hour, the weird thoughts begin. The New Yorker’s Roz Chast captured it brilliantly in her “Insomnia Jeopardy” cartoon. It depicts the game board with such category headings as Ways in Which People Have Wronged Me, Diseases I Probably Have, Strange Noises and Why Did I Say/Do That?
I’m strangely proud to say I’ve swept most of her categories quite handily. Plus I’ve come up with several more for the Double Jeopardy round:
- How I’d decorate previous apartments with current furniture and accessories
- Guys I wish I hadn’t slept with
- Things that scare the crap out of me
- Things I wish I’d said/smart rejoinders I wish I’d made
- What I’d do if I had only six months to live
- If I knew then what I know now
- What I’d save if the house caught on fire
- Worst-case scenarios (further categorized with headings like travel, finances and work)
- People I know who have [insert name of disease]
- What I was doing at this time 10/20/30/40/50 years ago
- What I’d do if I won the lottery
- If I could keep only 10 items of clothing, what would they be?
- What I’d do if someone broke into the house
- What I’d do if a tree hits the house (reserved for windy nights)
- What is that person’s name?
I usually fall back to sleep after about two hours of mental meandering. But there are those nights/mornings when it just ain’t happening, so I get up and start the day bleary-eyed and cranky. I understand why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture enhanced interrogation because on these days, I’d tell anyone anything they want to hear, just for a good night’s sleep.
I’ve tried melatonin supplements, I gave up caffeine years ago and I rarely nap. I hate taking drugs, but if I have two sleepless nights in a row, I’ll cave and take an OTC sleep aid or half a Xanax.
I’ve learned that my beloved chardonnay makes middle-of-the-night awakenings worse. Regular aerobic exercise and earplugs help me sleep more soundly. So does staying off the computer and iPhone for at least an hour before bed—and NOT keeping the phone on the nightstand to use as a distraction when I wake in the middle of the night (the blue light from these devices suppresses melatonin production and further disrupts sleep/wake cycles).
The experts advise if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, go in another room and read (a real book, not on an electronic device) until you feel sleepy. Seriously? On a Maine winter night, the last thing I want to do is get out of bed. I’d have to bundle up and/or turn up the heat, ignore the cats who think I’m getting up to give them treats, then settle on the couch with my book, a blanket and the cats.
If I start getting sleepy, going back to bed revives me, so I’m right back where I started. And if I fall asleep on the couch, I invariably end up with a stiff neck or back. So staying in bed and playing Insomnia Jeopardy seems the better option.
There’s an Irish proverb that says, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” At this age, the laughing part comes easier. The long sleep, well, I’m working on it. Nightly.
What about you? Are you plagued by sleeplessness as you’ve gotten older? How are you dealing with it? Got any “Insomnia Jeopardy” categories to add?