Last night was miserable, one of the longest I can remember. I made the mistake of thinking I could take an over-the-counter medicine to help with allergy congestion before I went to bed. It worked great at helping me breathe but had the opposite effect on sleep.
I spent the first hour in bed willing myself to fall asleep but it didn’t work, so I shifted into problem-solving mode and tried different strategies. Here’s a record of how it went.
Strategy No. 1: Change positions and get comfortable.
I feel hot and reduce the number of blankets. I feel a chill and add back one of the blankets. I convince myself once I get the combined weight of the sheet plus the blanket just right, I’ll fall asleep. I try putting one leg on top of the blankets and one leg under. Nope. That’s no good, either.
I shift my body in addition to the sheet and blankets. I turn over to my other side. Then I turn onto my back and stare at the ceiling, baffled at how my eyes could still be so wide awake. When I can’t find the answer written on the ceiling, I turn onto my stomach, until I remember the chiropractor said stomach-sleeping is terrible for the neck. I certainly don’t need a neck cramp on top of sleep deprivation. I flop back over and repeat the same tortured series of positions, waiting for one to pull me into slumber.
I glance at the clock and begin what I call “middle-of-the-night misery math”: If I go to sleep right now, I can still get five hours of sleep before the alarm goes off. It’s not great, but I can make it work.
Strategy No. 2: Empty your mind.
I’ve read some research on meditation and believe it’s a great skill to develop. It’s supposed to help you quiet the monkey mind, a term basically meaning unsettled or restless. It’s when your brain jumps from one random topic to the next, chattering incessantly and swinging wildly through the jungle of an overstimulated mind.
But I’m still a newbie at meditation and not always good at making the mental monkey shut up. Okay, you can do this. Just empty your mind. Think of nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
But then something creeps quietly across my mind and bumps nothing out of its way. Pretty soon I’m making a mental to-do list, thinking of the text I forgot to reply to earlier, and imagining things I should have said during important conversations.
I mentally replay a funny dog video I saw on Facebook, which makes me think of dog hair, which makes me wonder how long it has been since I mopped the kitchen floor. Was that last week or has it already been two weeks? Maybe even longer?
I catch sight of the clock out of the corner of my monkey’s eye and calculate another misery math update: If I go to sleep right now, I’ll have three hours of sleep before the alarm goes off. This is insane.
Strategy No. 3: Focus on your breathing.
While I’m failing miserably at emptying my mind, I remind myself meditation also involves the practice of focusing on your breath — only the breath and nothing else. So I concentrate on it, breathing in and then out. In and then out.
Somewhere between the fifth in and out, I notice the sound of Tom’s breathing beside me and how sometimes it sounds like a faint whistle and other times it shifts into more of a Darth Vader sound. Then I think about how lucky he is to be sleeping instead of lying here awake trying to focus on breathing.
Then I think of the dirty dishes we left in the sink after dinner. I hate waking up to dirty dishes. I consider getting out of bed and washing the dirty dishes just to clear them out of my mind as well as the sink, but that seems crazy. Who gets up at 3 a.m. to wash dishes?
I talk myself out of it by deciding the noise might wake up the rest of the house and then we’d all be miserable. It’s fine. I’ll wash them when I wake up, but I won’t wake up if I never fall asleep!
The numbers on the digital clock mock me from the nightstand. If I fall asleep now, I’ll have a two-hour nap before the alarm goes off. How am I going to get any work done on two hours of sleep?
Then I write three or four work emails in my mind, revising them again and again. I don’t open my laptop to write these emails in real life because the light from a computer or phone screen can cause a person to have trouble falling asleep, and I’ve already got plenty of that.
Somewhere between the mental e-mail writing and the self-recrimination for being so lousy at falling asleep, I finally doze off. Less than two hours later, the alarm goes off in what sounds like a cruel joke.
Score one for the monkey hyped up on congestion medicine. Zero for the exhausted writer. Game over.
Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at email@example.com.