Got Sleepless Nights?

If we frame “parenting” as having a caring attitude toward not just our own children but each other and the world, then even when our kids are sleeping soundly through the night, our own sleep troubles can pose a major parenting challenge.

A reader inquires:

“I read your sleep post with interest. My kids are long past that now (teens), but the issue of sleep caught my attention in general.  That, largely because I have a sleep disorder that has been managed well for many years, but completely out of control for a number of months now.  I’m lost in the murky territories of extended and extreme sleep loss.  At least I know what it is, but it is debilitating, and no light at the end of the tunnel at present.

Certainly, it isn’t as difficult as it was when my kids were younger but it is difficult.  There are many things to do, and I cannot do them, or can only do them in the most limited fashion… How to not make it worse by breaking down in front of a child, and frightening him?  How to live with the guilt and the anger and not let it spill out?

I know I’m still managing to be a decent parent, but it hardly seems enough.  And the mask is heavy.  I’ll continue to wear it as much as I can, but it’s heavy, and getting harder to hold up.

I know, relatively, this is a small thing.  It could be so much worse. But I need to finish my job properly, somehow manage to do that. And it’s getting harder and scarier because physically I’m spiraling down, fast.”


Slogging through a day when we haven’t had enough sleep is bad enough (unless we’re still in college or early twenties and generally possess more resilient bodies to compensate for our blithely immature minds), but when sleep-deprivation becomes chronic, when words like “insomnia” give way to labels like “sleep disorder,” it can be miserable in the way vampires used to be portrayed (before they became sexy teens)—as a sort of non-living anxiously between worlds, an agony of nether-dwelling that leaves us perpetually drained (and potentially draining to others, particularly children who we are supposed to care for and nourish).

It’s hard to imagine a sophisticated reader with a sleep disorder coming across these words and not already having been told to do their “sleep hygiene”—things like having a regular bedtime, not using bed for TV or work, regular exercise, avoid alcohol and caffeine a couple hours before sleep, and not staying in bed if you can’t sleep (go to another spot and wait until sleepy to go to bed), etc.  These are the baseline beginnings, but let’s go a little deeper in the hopes that we’ll come up with something helpful to throw in the mix.

In my view, sleep is inextricably interwoven with issues of basic trust.  A young child needs to be nursed and soothed consistently, not to mention psychically held in mind by caregivers, in order to develop basic trust.  If there has been trouble at the beginning (i.e. an adoption, a mom with post-partum depression or mental disturbance, a threatening environment) it is possible that some deeply held fear is still in the way of sound sleep.

Helping children sleep through the night hinges on helping them build the trust and security that parents will still be there in the morning.  Long after this developmental stage, sleep can still tap into feelings of abandonment and/or harm (i.e. many people who have been abused, molested in their beds, or witnessed violence on the other side of their walls might have fearful associations around sleep).

When it comes to anxiety, it can be helpful to think of it as the un-metabolized fear of the past projected into the future.  Try to trust that if fear is in play (even the fear that you will face yet another sleepless night), what you fear has already happened; we may have to painfully come to terms with our wounds, but we can also open the possibility that the future will not look like the past.  Down this road, beyond fear and desire, comes freedom.

Perhaps envisioning your so-called “inner child” as a newborn and imagining soothing and calming him or her can bring a deeper sense of calm, even if the adult self remains awake.  The validating message of, “Yes there was a time when you were hurt and could not trust, but now is not that time and I am here with you and will never leave you or allow you to be hurt again” is a way of self-building our bowl of self.  These are the moments of quiet angst when we must drop the mask, cry our tears of anguish, sorrow and rage… and bear loving witness to ourselves.  Doing this for the benefit of our children, and our world helps our inescapable suffering be at least productive suffering.

And while we’re on the subject of talking to our various aspects of Self, we might also have a little chat with our cage-rattling Shadow, that seeming villain who chases us through our dreams and accosts us in our sleepless beds.  This is a chat better suited to the afternoon, or perhaps our “morning pages” if we’re following that “artist’s way,” path.

Shadow chats might follow along the lines of, “I realize that you are a part of me and that if you wanted me all the way dead I would be dead.  So, having beaten me up for years, I am ready to discuss.  What is it that you would have me do?  Or know?”

Often the Shadow needs to be recognized for holding our power, long ago it simply tried to hand it over, but if there was too much hurt and aggression about, a person might naturally dodge one’s own power for fear of becoming brutal like the bad examples on might have witnessed (from narcissistic to outright abusive).  After years of frustrating failure to deliver one’s power, the Shadow has a way of becoming rather surly.  Often, if we manage to grasp the message, the need for the inner torture subsides and sleep may be ours for the having.  Not saying this will work presto-chango, but may be worth a try.

Our inner sleep-depriver may want us to write a novel, start a company, make a fortune or take them on a trip.  We can listen without making any promises about what we will actually do; and we can also work to serve the deep Self (which is rarely concerned with worldly things, like money, sex and sleep—it tends to be all about individuation, becoming more our total selves by gathering up every discarded shard of the psyche we may have tossed out of the car while racing down the highway or swept under somebody’s rug).

Breathe in love, breathe out fear and desire.  Breathe in for 20 seconds, hold it for 20 seconds, breathe out for 20 seconds (this is also an excellent cure for panic attacks).  Do it until you are so calm that you don’t give a damn if you fall asleep or not.  This too is a good prescription for dealing with angst and despair of all stripes, whether the beast leaps up out of the midnight shadows or attacks in the Bergmanesque glare of winter light.

And while you are not sleeping, you can also lay with your legs facing up the wall which is a restorative yoga pose of which some yoga teachers say 20 minute compensates for an hour of sleep gone missing (this is a good thing to do while not sleeping in foreign cities in the grip of jet-lag).  I personally like to do two or three yoga poses with some mindful meditative time just before bed; this invariably improves my sleep and is an excellent return on an investment of five minutes.

Finally, a bit of science.  The body has two complementary nervous systems; one governs fight-flight, the other calming back down.  In our stress-overdrive culture we live perpetually in fight-flight which means we are loaded with adrenaline that we do not burn off by running away from mammoths or fighting cave bears, adrenaline that soon turns to cortisol and exhausts us (and causes accumulation of plaque and thus heart disease).

We often get nowhere trying to talk to our over-anxious brains.  This is why I am always suggesting that we breathe.  If we breathe deeply for a little while, the brain is trumped into realizing that there must not be a mammoth or a cave bear at present.  Only when we activate the calming nervous system do we activate digestion and proper immune functioning… not to mention the feeling of safety required for a good night’s sleep.

So, let’s dedicate today to breathing in love and breathing out fear and desire—in the service of better sleep for all, and in honor of all our collective children (an embrace that must widen to include our sleep-deprived fellow parents and all those who do give a damn).

Sweet Dreams & Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Got Sleepless Nights?”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Thanks for this one Bruce. So much going on in my world it gets difficult to turn the light off in my head.

  2. tb Says:

    another great piece– thank you.

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