I sleep well, almost every night.
Let me give you a moment to process that and really appreciate how amazing, powerful, and life-changing that is.
I sleep well almost every night.
Ever since I hit my head in January of 2014, I have struggled with sleep. Usually it goes in cycles – months where I can’t get to sleep, or can’t stay asleep, mixed with weeks were it all goes well and life proceeds normally. For the past few months, though, I have been consistently sleeping… through the night… most nights.
I’ve written so much about this challenge, over and over again, in draft blogs I (apparently) never finish. The irony being that since I’m not sleeping well, I don’t have the energy to write a complete blog about not being able to sleep well. And so a review of my recent blog posts show that I haven’t published anything about my sleep difficulties.
Sleep comes up again and again in my (draft) writing, because it is so miserable when I can’t sleep. It’d be miserable for anyone, true. For someone recovering from an mTBI, it’s something more. One night of poor sleep, and I don’t have the energy to garden. Two nights of meager sleep, and the next day I can’t drive three miles to the store for some milk. A week of waking up repeatedly and not getting back to sleep, means I am irritable and liable to explode at Mary for no real reason. A month of crappy sleep, and my life just keeps getting smaller and smaller. I’m certainly not improving, my intellect is not returning, life feels overwhelming, and the slightest problem can have me yelling, desperately wanting to throw or crush things, and crying as though my heart is breaking in the space of three minutes.
So, FYI. Sleep is important to me. Extremely important.
Pre-injury, sleep wasn’t a “thing”. It wasn’t a problem or an issue or even worth talking about. I’d go to bed, close my eyes, and fall asleep within 20 minutes. I’d sleep through the night and wake up at around 530 am ready to jump out of bed and enjoy the day. There would be times, maybe three or four times a year, where I couldn’t get my brain to slow down or I was really upset or worried about something and couldn’t sleep. But, as I said – 3 or 4 times a year. Whatever.
Post injury, there are some sad truths that Mary and I have had to accept and adapt to.
Any movement in bed or nearby can wake me up, so sleeping with someone through the night just doesn’t happen.
I toss and turn and twitch a lot in my sleep now, per Mary’s report, so it’s hard for her to sleep next to me.
Any noise, any light, any strange ache or pain can be just enough to keep me from being able to sleep. So I close the windows to decrease the traffic noise. I close the shades to keep out the light. I have an eye cover for when I want to sleep past 4 am in the summer or 7 am in the winter. I take ibuprofen when I have an achy hip or sore shoulder, to give myself one more chance at good sleep.
Adapt, adapt, adapt. That’s what you have to do when circumstances change, right? When my needs, reactions, reality changed, Mary and I have both had to adapt. Eventually, we had to acknowledge that this isn’t going to change soon… so Mary bought a proper bed of her own and we sleep apart every night. Every night. Maybe it will be this way for another year. Maybe for five. Maybe forever. Can’t know.
But, back to the good stuff. I’m sleeping through the night now, and it is a wonderful thing. It feels good to wake up in the morning having enough energy to be excited about the day. Waking after a good night of sleep, I feel a little internal lift when I think about the future, about life, about the first few steps of my day.
I have tried a number of things over the years. Some worked. Some didn’t. I haven’t taken any prescription medication, though, nor any sleep aids. Sleep aids don’t allow you to have a natural cycle of sleep… and the natural cycle is important for healing, particularly the first hour when all the brain repair happens. The prescription medication offered was a daily, low-dose SSDI depression medication that just wasn’t a path I wanted to walk down. Neither of those options seemed like long-term, healthy, winning ideas to me.
So here is what I do instead:
Proper Prior Planning
Eliminate stimulates and reduce stimulation before bed. No chocolate or other caffeine after 4 pm. Really. No sugary goodness after about 7 pm – it usually makes me feel crappy anyway. Stop any videos, tv watching, phone use, computer use at least two hours before when I want to sleep.
I’ve been drinking tea to help me sleep for the past five or six months. I use a variety of nervine herbs. Nervines are herbs that specifically support the nervous system, often as a tonic to improve overall health or as a mild sedative to decrease stress and anxiety. Like most natural remedies, it isn’t a direct – drink it and *bam* be asleep in 20 minutes. It works more systemically, holistically, gently. In the short term, the tea makes me feel pleasantly tired, more aware of my tiredness and how nice it would be to lay down in a warm bed. In the long term, these herbal allies have gotten me to where I am now – able to sleep well, most nights.
- My tea blend includes:
- Chamomile – a classic
- Lemon Balm
- Any of a number of other mild nervines, as they are available, including oat tops, linden, passionflower, lavender, and catnip. I have found stronger nervines like valerian root and skullcap are simply too strong for me and leave me feeling tired the next day.
- Boil water, steep for at least 7 minutes, then drink slowly as you relax for the evening.
- Be aware of where your herbs come from – quality is important. I’ve been lucky enough to grow most of mine. Your local Coop or Mountain Rose Herbs are excellent alternatives.
- My tea blend includes:
I like to do a little something before I go to bed, to relax my mind and fill it with something other than the worries of my day. My current soothing activity is filling out numbergrids from printable-puzzles.com. Numbergrids have no words to deal with, and no math is required. I, of course, print the puzzles, settle down with my tea – alone – and relax before bed.
After tea and puzzle, I take one 5 mg, extended release melatonin pill every night right before I lay down. I feel it’s nudge towards sleep about 20 minutes later. Again, a gentle nudge, not an aggressive push.
Ever since my injury, I find that it takes longer for my body or my mind to catch on to a change, and to adjust. I have to clearly, bluntly, directly signal my body and my mind, repeatedly, that it is time to go to sleep. I do this through the routines I follow – brush my teeth, make tea, drink it while I do my puzzle alone, make a hot water bottle if needed, then bed. Once I’m in bed, I take the time to tell my brain what I want it to do. Instead of crawling into bed being enough to signal to myself that it is time to sleep, I prompt myself directly.
It goes something like this. As I lay in bed, comfortable and warm, I imaging a large chalk board in my mind and I write the word “SLEEP” on it. At the same time, I tell myself to sleep.
Every time I realize I’m still awake and thinking about something, I take myself back to that mental chalkboard, draw the word “Sleep” again, and tell myself it is time for me to sleep and relax. Then I deliberately take three deep, slow breaths to stop any stress response in my body, and then think about the chalkboard again. Sleep. SLEEP. sleep.
My philosophy is that my body and mind want to help, they want to do the right thing. However, the messaging centers between my parts has been damaged so it takes longer for different aspects of myself to realize what is going on. Whether it’s time to drive, or write, or go to bed – I need to tell myself multiple times and allow space and time for that to sink in and for my spirit to fall into alignment with my intentions. Eventually it works. And I wake up to either the sun rising or to my alarm.
So, for now, I have a stable foundation to build the rest of my day. With my body getting the regular rest it needs, I am slowly feeling better and finding that I have more energy in the morning and after my nap in the afternoon. Instead of clarity being the sole province of the early morning hours, I sometimes have a second round of clarity in the late afternoon and early evening. Another gift.
For all of those recovering from an mTBI who experience sleep problems, give some of my ideas a try. If trouble sleeping is a regular affair, talk with a doctor. They can help you identify any holes in your sleep hygiene, and help identify if something else might be going on, like sleep apnea. I am not a medical professional. This advice is based on my experience and may not work for you. Always consult a medical professional before starting any herbs or other supplements.
So, friends, celebrate with me. Right now, and hopefully for the coming years, I have found a complex and involved dance that gets me what I truly want – a good night’s sleep. I hope as time goes on and I continue to heal, I won’t need to be quite so careful in preparing for bed. Perhaps, someday in the future, I’ll be able to lay down with impunity, with the woman I love, and sleep easily through the night. That, my friends, is where I plan to be before the end.