Reading: My Sleep Rules

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My Sleep Rules

How To Go Mano-a-Mano With The Sandman

By Betsy Carter

Illustration by Federica Del Proposto/larkworthy.com

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.”

  1. judith coyne

    this is a very charming essay. Fun to read about Betsy Carter’s very personal, very idiosyncratic sleep solutions (even though her solutions don’t seem to work all that well for her). I had hoped for a little more science/real suggestions/sleep tricks, but soon realized this wasn’t that kind of piece. Finally, did the author really mean you should let snow “accumulate at the foot of your bed”?? I get the idea–increase the coziness of your bedroom by opening the window in bad weather–but surely she didn’t really mean let it snow on your bedroom floor.

  2. Tammy B Pennington

    I haven’t found many rules about sleep that work, so it is nice to see someone else tackle the problem. I didn’t get any tips I could use – I could add a few to this essay – but it was still a fun read. I wish women would talk more about insomnia and what keeps us awake. I don’t think it has to do much with mattresses, LED lights, caffeine, weather or pajamas. I think we have too much going on in our heads, and we need to figure out why.
    11 year (11 years!!!) on Ambien didn’t help me learn to sleep. Six months of therapy, and a strict diet of yoga, meditation, exercise and mindfulness (plus Melatonin, but no more Ambien) helped me to get more comfortable with sleep. I’m still fighting sleep until 1am some nights, but I’ve learned that it is OK to sleep when I need to, and not when I think I must.

  3. Althea

    This was a nice, light hearted article. I think this is an important topic for women as many of us are not sleeping well. Our sleep challenges are largely due to our lifestyles, the concerns we carry and how we care for (or not care for) ourselves.

  4. Pamela Baxter

    Very timely article on a topic that plagues most of us. I too have struggled with sleep deprivation from time to time…..too much stress I find is the main culprit!! I find fresh air is a winner when the weather is cool….and air conditioner only when it’s too hot. I too have a heavy breathing ie snoring…….bed partner and find ear plugs do help. Since everyone is different you just have to find your own “magic solution”!!

  5. Karen

    While I absolutely related to this article and suffer the same when it comes to sleep, one thing in particular stood out to me. While Betsy’s husband apparently sleeps like a log, mine wakes up if I even turn my head! Being that I get up to use the bathroom at least two or three times a night, I am constantly waking him up. The significance of that and sleep issues is that once he’s up and he knows I’m awake he thinks the natural progression of that is intimacy not remembering that I’m up because I can’t sleep which makes me exhausted!

  6. Jamie

    I’m reading this after a very fitful night of sleep. Did I sleep 3.5 hours or 2? I agree with Tammy. We should talk more about what is actually keeping us awake. For me, it’s anxiety about what’s to come, what must still be done. I have been using my meditation app 10% Happier during the middle of the night to help me sleep.

  7. Deb Smith

    I can so totally relate to this woman’s sleep identity. Thanks for the suggestion to play the piano before bed… That could work. And the air conditioner temp at 60 degrees made me howl with delight as ours is set to 75 in the summer and I want it so much cooler!! Thanks again for touching my heart and soul with familiarity.

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