How Throwing Out the Script to My Sleep Routine Helped Cure My Insomnia
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
At approximately 8:30 PM, I say my last good nights to my son and gently kiss him on the head. A minute later, I emerge from his bedroom like I’m stepping onto the stage ready to execute my greatest solo performance of all time. One that I have rehearsed and practiced many times before. It’s my finest hour.
Welcome to My Sleep Routine: Written and Performed by Lauren Barrett.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy this one-hour production.
Act I: THE WINDING DOWN
Scene 1: Dim the lights
Scene 2: Lower the temperature
Scene 3: Tell everyone to shut the hell up and talk in whispered voices
Act II: THE SOOTHING BATH
Scene 1: Turn on the shower to hot.
Scene 2: Make it hotter.
Scene 3: Bask in lavender infused shower steamers.
Act III: THE TURNING OFF OF THE ELECTRONICS
Scene 1: No more social media for the night
Scene 2: No more texting for the night
Scene 3: No more TV for the night
Act IV: THE IMPLEMENTING OF GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE
Scene 1: Darken the room completely
Scene 2: Pop two melatonins
Scene 3: Unfold my weighted blanket and secure my eye mask
Act V: THE GOING TO BED
Scene 1: Lights out at precisely 10PM, so I can get 8-hours of sleep.
Scene 2: Sleep.
I’m not sure when I became so obsessed with sleep. Maybe it started because of an unresolved childhood traumatic incident. One time I was hit in the chest by a softball during batting practice, and my young brain convinced itself that I couldn’t breathe, and that I was absolutely, positively going to die in my sleep, so I spent a hellish week of not sleeping and instead bothering my loving parents who would console and reassure me all throughout the night. It eventually resolved after a week when I realized that I was almost 100% certain that I wasn’t going to die from a softball to the chest. But after that ordeal, I never wanted to experience that kind of insomnia again.
Although I lived mostly anxiety free throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years, sleep was always at the forefront of my mind. I hated the feeling of not getting enough sleep. I had just about convinced myself that I couldn’t cope without getting about eight hours of sleep. I was the first to want to go to bed during a sleepover even if I wasn’t tired, and the first to leave a party to get enough hours of sleep for the next day.
Or maybe my care for my sleep stemmed from getting diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and a brain aneurysm, in my twenties, and it being drilled into my brain that sleep was an absolute necessity to cure the inevitable flare-ups I would have to endure for the rest.of.my.life. I did not take in the full gravity of the diagnosis until I became a parent and relearned the definition of what tired really meant. Sometimes after a day of work and parenting the diagnosis weighed heavily on me. It could leave me doubting my abilities in all areas of my life.
Or perhaps it commenced in the summer of 2021, the summer I was doing too much. To be fair, I never meant to do too much. I have, in fact, always prided myself in being unbusy. I never felt the need to engage in the competition of busyness. I often overhear strangers challenge one another in, each one trying to outdo the other.
But that particular summer, everything collided into one gigantic ball of Doing Too Much. It was not intentional but the busyness aligned at once.
For starters, we were selling our house and with our new house not ready yet, we had to move into my in-law’s house for two months. Additionally, I was juggling being a mom, wife, housekeeper, running coach, high school teacher, blogger, and aspiring social media influencer who was desperately trying to figure out Instagram’s algorithm (spoiler alert – I have not). All of this while managing my chronic illnesses and struggling with secondary infertility. On top of all of that, I thought now was as good of a time as any to publish and market my first ever children’s book and work toward my National Board Certification in teaching.
Oh and the icing on the cake was that the summer of 2021 was the start of the mass return to school for the 2021-2022 school year. For me, this was the first school year that I would be working fully in person since the 2017-2018 academic year. With maternity leave and two years of COVID providing large chunks of the school year spent in the luxury of my own home, I wasn’t fully prepared for what the 2021-2022 school year was going to bring.
Ask any teacher or student who somehow survived last year’s school year, and they could likely lament the woes of the public education system. Teachers’ reputations went from being revered for single handedly figuring out how to educate today’s youth online to being disregarded, and demanded to once again lift up students to where the proverbially higher ups expected they should be at any cost, even if that cost consumed their whole life and soul.
Phew. It should come as no surprise that I stopped sleeping, went into full blown panic, and begged my doctor for help. I’ve had trouble falling asleep before, but this time was different. It was a constant fear that I would not sleep again that spiraled into believing that I wouldn’t be able to work, I wouldn’t be able to be a good parent, I would be committed to the hospital, my husband would leave me, and my son would be taken away from me.
She gave me clonazepam and told me that it would help me relax and sleep. I took it with no strings attached. No Googling side-effects and no researching its uses. And I eventually weaned myself off the pills completely, only needing them occasionally whenever I felt the anxiety of not sleeping start to creep in again before I drifted off to sleep at night. I hadn’t needed to refill my prescription, with a life that now felt more manageable.
I also was no longer Doing Too Much. That was a no-brainer decision after I spent several months in pain from an autoimmune flare-up. The constant flare-ups could have only been caused by one thing. Stress. So… I quit Instagram. I got help in the form of physical therapy for my fibromyalgia, I saw a new pain management specialist, I joined a chronic illness support group, and I developed a new attitude of self-advocacy to speak up for my needs at my job. I felt back to my old self, optimistic, happy, and full of energy.
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I was still not pregnant, but, overall, I was glowing and optimistic about the upcoming school year, and my future, in general thanks largely to being proactive and assembling a large support team. I even posted about my journey to healing on what became my last Instagram post.
Then, a few weeks into the school year, the medicine ran out…
I stopped sleeping. And things got bad. Really bad.
Doctor after doctor told me that they would not prescribe me my old medicine, seemingly chastising me. They explained that it was a controlled substance not generally used to treat sleep. This was news to me. I, straight laced Lauren Barrett, was taking a controlled substance? I hadn’t even ever tried recreational drugs and I was taking a controlled substance? A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE!? I felt shocked, embarrassed, and ashamed.
“But I had the last prescription for a year before it ran out,” I desperately and feebly pleaded to them, “I’m not addicted.”
“Fine,” the ER replied with an ashamed look in his eyes, “I’ll give you a few to hold you over until you are able to meet with your primary care doctor, but I must warn you of the risks,” and he proceeded to lecture on about frightening side effects and the possibility of addiction. But the damage had already been done. I would later find out from a sleep coach that when we take medicine with guilt instead of taking it like we would our vitamins, it stops working as it once did because our brain is hyper alert to the medicine. When our brain is hyper alert, we have more trouble sleeping, so, consequently, we convince ourselves we need a higher dosage, more medicine, or different medicine altogether.
The doctors I began meeting with, or really anyone who heard about my sleeping problems, would provide full monologues about the importance of sleep hygiene. I would come to them bone-tired and wearied eyed with a pen in my hand.
“Ok, let’s see. You want me to no longer read in bed. Okay, I think I can fit that in during Act IV at exactly 9:21 PM.”
“Download the Calm App, you say? All right, yes, I can pencil that in for Act V, Scene 2. The window will be tight for the next scene, but I think meditating will be Sleep’s perfect cue to come onstage and perform.”
“Prioritize sleep? Umm…okay. I thought that was what I was doing, but okay, yes. I see your point. I’ll move everything up by ten minutes. I’ll have to rearrange my son’s bedtime. He’ll only get one book, but I hear you. I must be dedicated to my role. THE SHOW MUST GO ON.”
The next night I executed my Sleep Routine to absolute perfection. I wowed in my performance. I hit all my marks down to the very seconds. And I was awarded with a thundering applause of….
“You’re riding on the elevator to the fourth floor. You gaze down once again at the earth below and you catch a sight of the small –”
“Okay, very cool Jason or whoever you are guiding me through the meditation, but at what floor in this guided meditation do I fall asleep? Because you promised,” I start to weep. “Because you freakin’ promised, Jason, that I would fall asleep within minutes, and I’m not asleep. What is wrong with me? Why is my brain broken?” I start to sob. I shake.
“I give up.”
I grab my phone and click on Instagram, and there in front of my sleep-deprived eyes and insomniac brain, I see it. The holy grail. There lies the answer to all of my problems. Nevertheless, on the app that I had vowed to give up on.
I read every single one of holistic sleep expert Beth Kendall’s Instagram posts and then eventually made my way to her website, reading every single one of her blogs. With each one, I learned a little bit more. Insomnia isn’t the difficulty of falling or staying asleep. It’s the fear of not sleeping. Your brain isn’t broken. It knows how to sleep. Sleep is passive. You were designed to sleep. Medicine only becomes a problem when it’s taken with guilt or when you put all of the power of sleep into the medicine. Our brains can be rewired to sleep again through neuroplasticity. You can unlearn your fear of not sleeping.
Lack of sleep won’t kill you. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that chronic insomnia has any negative health outcomes. You don’t always need eight hours of sleep. Being awake creates sleep. Focusing on sleep creates hyperarousal and when we are hyper aroused, the more we can’t sleep.
Sleep happens when you let go.
Aha! There it was. My problem. My whole masterpiece was my sleep routine and all the little things I did for sleep hygiene were not helping me sleep because I was too focused on wondering if they would help me to sleep. Aye, there’s the rub. The great paradox.
I was relying solely on my sleep routine to create sleep instead of turning to my greatest assets: my brain and my body. My brain isn’t broken. My body hasn’t forgotten how to sleep. It’s actually pretty powerful and will always orient me toward health.
The next day, I made an appointment with my doctor, the one who originally prescribed me the medicine in the first place and the same doctor that truly listens to me and treats the wholeness of who I am.
She prescribed me the same medicine, but this time with fewer pills and instructions to take it without guilt. We made a plan to eventually find a way for me to wean myself off of the medicine.
As I prepared to leave the doctor’s office, she looked at me and said, “And Lauren, be kind to yourself.”
I went home and threw out my work of art – my Sleep Routine. I read in bed, I watch TV, I wear my eye mask, and keep my weighted blanket only for the sheer pleasure of its weight and not because I feel like I have to.
Anxiety around sleep still pops up from time to time, and some nights I still struggle to fall asleep, but I don’t stress too much about it. I either take a pill or ride the No Sleep Train.
But most importantly, I’m letting go and being kind to myself.
And I sleep… blissfully. And Scene.