My Sleep Rules
How To Go Mano-a-Mano With The Sandman
Sleep. Even the word looks dozy with those double ee’s you can sink into like a hammock. Unless you’re one of us. Then those double ee’s are like a fortress, an ogre baring his teeth, warning Keep Out.
It’s always been that way for me. As a child, I was afraid of my recurring nightmares: cats clawing at my legs, being kidnapped, concentration camps. (The usual.) So I’d fight off sleep rather than tempt the demons.
My father understood this and started me on a ritual. He’d kiss me goodnight and say, “No nightmares tonight,” the theory being that if you said it, it wouldn’t happen. When he was no longer around to say it, I’d say it myself.
As I got older, the only time I had real clarity about my pimples, popularity, and boys, boys, boys was around midnight when I was alone in the dark. It probably didn’t help that I grew up sleeping on the coarse and scratchy linen sheets my parents brought with them when they came from Germany. While I tossed late into the night wondering why I didn’t get tapped for Pep Club, the linen sheets became hair shirts imprisoning me in my adolescent misery. Not much sleep in those years.
Then there was college, and life, and work, moving to a big city, marriage, divorce, and another marriage. Do I really have to tell you that any one of these things can wreck a gal’s 40 winks?
I got my first noise machine in my mid-twenties. Then came the sleeping mask, the ear stopples, blackout curtains, various medications. And while each of these things helped now and again, I’d still get into bed the way most people get onto the subway: defensive, anxious, and ready for a fight. Not conducive to sweet dreams.
Of course, I read the sleep experts and followed their advice about caffeine, no caffeine, not using the bed for anything but sex and sleep, no LED lights, etc. They were helpful, but not perfect.
So I came up with my own sleep rules, which, in the name of science and sisterhood, I will share with you now.
Let’s start with the basics. A firm mattress is a must. Blankets must be made of cotton. No unnatural fibers. No feathers. No quilts. Mattress pads must also be made of cotton. Same goes for nightgowns or pajamas (short sleeves are essential). The body heats up at night (well, this one does, anyway). Only cotton breathes enough to let it naturally cool. Layers are important so you can peel them off during the night. Always sleep with two pillows: one to rest your head on, the other to put over your face should any light penetrate the blackout blinds.
A word about the weather. Ignore it completely. Unless it is below freezing outside, always keep the air conditioner going. Its hum is reassuring and has a nice techno lull to it. It also ensures that the room never gets much above 60 degrees. In case of snow, it’s nice to leave the windows open just enough so that some snow accumulates at the foot of your bed, making you feel nice and snug under your blankets.
Should you choose not to sleep alone, pick your partners wisely. Sleep experts advise against sharing your bed with pets, but I find it comforting when my dog lies under my arm and breathes her gamey breath into my face.
I love my other sleeping partner inordinately and find his large presence next to me reassuring. However, the man also breathes: startlingly big, heaving, walloping breaths. He tells me to give him a little shove and wake him when that happens. But it turns out that little shoves do nothing to silence this man. He is a professional sleeper, as firm and committed to his slumber as he is to his waking hours. Thank god for the ear stopples and the rumble of the air conditioner.
What you do before you go to bed and what time you do it is also essential. My pre-bed warm-up begins at 10:08 when I start to practice piano. I find this relaxing (though I can’t speak for my neighbors). It demands full concentration, and there is always the possibility that I might retain some of what I play if I sleep on it.
At 10:37, I start preparing for bed by telling myself that sleep is my friend, not my enemy, as I wash my face, floss, and brush. For some reason, that’s when I become extra chatty and tell my husband all my thoughts from and about the day, all the while foaming Crest. Nonetheless, I am in bed by 11 and ready to read. Reading matter can contain no murders, no kidnappings, no clawing cats or concentration camps. That leaves fashion magazines.
Lights out no later than 11:40.
If, by 12:30, my head is filled with recriminations for past sins and cosmic questions like how do they heat Grand Central Station and why can’t I see the ozone layer, I pick a long word like “concentration” and see how many words I can make from it, or I choose a shorter word and play the anagram game, seeing how many words I can morph.
Sometimes that works, but when it doesn’t and song lyrics from 20 years ago start playing in my head, I will get out of bed for 10 or 15 minutes and look out the living room window. Because I live in a big city, there’s always something going on out there: buses, cars, the lights of other insomniacs across the way. Their presence is a comforting reminder that I am not alone.
Again, I tell myself that sleep is not my enemy, that the night is my friend, before I tiptoe back to bed. By then, the dog is lying on my pillow, and the husband is sound asleep. I crawl into my allotted space, reassured that the room is well chilled and that I have solved my own problems and some of those of the universe. If I’m lucky, then I will fall asleep. No nightmares.
And those are my sleep rules.
Are you still awake?
Betsy Carter is the author of three novels and a memoir. Her novel, We Were Strangers Once, was published last fall.
For other Covey articles on sleep see: “It’s 3 AM. Why Are You Waking UP?” , “4 Weird Sleep Tricks that Work“, “The One Beauty Treatment Every Woman Over 40 Needs.”