Technology vs my lifelong insomnia

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A year and a half ago I went to the doctor because I was afraid I was going to die. I’m not a hypochondriac. I have a pretty intense phobia about seeing doctors, but this was starting to feel serious. I was periodically dizzy, weak, confused, and stumbling in a way that really worried me. My mother has many health issues, and the one that escaped our notice for decades was that she was having mini-strokes called TIAs that now make her brain scans look like a cratered planet.

Suddenly I was feeling similarly off-kilter. And I couldn’t ignore it. With my heart in my throat, I worked my way down my list of symptoms to the new doctor: dizziness, aches, lack of focus, complete exhaustion. Was I headed down this same road and was there any way to turn back?

She listened quietly. She took notes. She delivered her diagnosis. “You have a severe sleep deficit and you need six months of good quality sleep to fix this.”

OK, great that I’m not, you know, dying imminently or suffering sustained violations to my brain, but how in the world do I solve this? That’s like saying “Oh, you’re hungry? Here’s a plate of steak. Eat it. Problem solved.” If I could sleep like a normal human being, don’t you think I would have by this point in my life?

Sleep is one of the few things that someone can’t help you out with. I’m hungry: Here’s food I made you. I’m too sober: Fixing you a drink right now. I’ve got a fever: Here’s some aspirin. I’m lonely: Here I am.

No one can sleep for you. Yes, they can give you sleep meds, but that’s just a bandaid for a big, deep, raw wound. I joke with friends and my husband when they ask if I need anything: Yes, could you sneak up behind me and shoot me in the neck with a tranquilizer dart? I am only half joking. I found myself actually looking forward to a couple of surgeries last year because I knew I’d be forcibly knocked out for an hour or four. That’s not healthy and I am well aware, but I don’t know what else to do.

I resist sleep medications because I can’t deal with the groggy aftermath the next morning, but I’ve tried every other herbal supplement under the sun. They work sometimes—for a while—until they don’t. There’s “sleep hygiene” as well—a phrase I’ve always found hilarious. I imagined having to enter a decontamination chamber and being hosed down with all sorts of antiseptic nighty-night chemicals before being escorted into a sterile, white room with a white bed with a noise generator playing I dunno, whale sounds.

As a food fanatic, I keep an ever-updating list of the best dishes I've eaten and restaurants I've been to in the same way that a music obsessive maintains a desert island album list, or a sports junkie files away miraculous plays. As a sleep-starved human, I file away the circumstances of my best rests in the hope that someday I'll get to replicate them. Near the apex of my list is an evening spent unconscious in the Zero George hotel in Charleston. Yes, I was exhausted after a day of travel, I'd had a cocktail or three, and there was the impossibly plush bedding, but the X-factor, I'm fairly sure, was the sleep machine. In full, it's the Sound+Sleep Adaptive Sound Sleep Therapy Machine and since finally shelling out the $84 a few weeks ago to have one in my own bedroom, my sleep has improved demonstrably.

Sound + Sleep
| Credit: Photo via Amazon

What usually happens is that the slightest shift in sound—the bus going by, drunk folks stumbling out of the bar a couple doors down and serenading the street, my dog rushing to the window to save me from them, the upstairs neighbors doing a late-night catwalk show to model their new cement-bottomed shoes—causes me to awake in heart-pounding panic, and starts my brain spiraling into mental math. If I fall asleep NOW I’ll maybe get enough hours and minutes to make it through tomorrow. What am I doing wrong? I am being bad at sleeping! Oh no, did I ever respond to that email? OK, get calm, get calm, what’s the matter with you, you’re not getting freaking calm! OH CRAP! It’s so late. Now you’ll never get enough sleep and tomorrow is gonna suck and maybe if you sleep now… now… should I check Twitter? OK, now…

The Sleep Machine (this isn't sponsored, I just like it that much), preempts that problem by generating thick blanket of sound that I can set to mask sudden creaks, yelps, snores, shouts, stomps, engine revs, and howled Journey songs from the street below. I can select from a variety of repetitive, soothing nature, travel, and city sounds—a crashing ocean is currently in rotation, but I may soon opt for a summer meadow—and select the level of complexity that would be most conducive to my rest. Would an occasional seal bark or gull scream send me deeper into slumber? At the press of a button, I can find out. I can also select a setting that adjusts the volume to match any sudden outside noises. If the revelers outside segue from Faithfully to Don't Stop Believing, the waves dash more forcefully against the rocks to drown it out. I fear that if we opt for the rain setting, my husband and I will have to get up to pee a dozen times each night, but I will accept this imperfect solution for now.

I don't love having to outsource my calmness to a machine, but every exhausted cell of my body craves rest. They’re screaming out for it, and this is the best way I've found to feed them. I know I need to make some changes and I need to make them before things get even worse. If you have any suggestions for me, I’d be grateful to hear all about them. And then I’ll sleep on it—if I possibly can.