Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Insomnia Game

I've struggled with insomnia as long as I can remember. I go through phases, and I've never been able to detect a real pattern except that it does seem tied to anxiety. Is it a cause, effect, or simple correlation? I don't know. But I do know that when I wake up and stare at the ceiling at 1 a.m., what keeps me from falling back asleep is my mind. Chewing on itself.

Like last night. The wind woke me up, moaning through a crack in the window. It sounded like a hurt animal. I hopped out of bed and slammed the window fully shut, then crawled back under the warm covers and watched the shadows formed as the neighbor's security light (always on) backlit the trees swaying in the wind. My brain began to attack me, as it always does in the middle of the night. Memories of dumb things I've said. Worries over people I might have accidentally offended. Fretting over my schedule, too packed, too easy to forget vital appointments. Then the real fun begins, as I begin worrying about my kids, imagining awful things happening to them, helpless to prevent it. By now my fingers are clutching at my sheets and I'm tossing around, as if the location of sleep is somewhere on my bed and I have merely to find it.

At some point, depending on how alert and mindful I am, I remember that there is a solution to this. It's not to drink less coffee or turn off the telly early or start popping melatonin. (Tried all of that.) It's simpler and more effective. I call it the Insomnia Game. Ready for the rules? It's pretty simple ...

Just alphabetize things.

Car makes: Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Dodge, Ferrari ...
Band names: AC/DC, Beatles, Cowboy Junkies, Dead Kennedys...
Food: Apples, bananas, cabbage, dates, eggs, fish ...
Three-syllable words: anagram, banana, contagious, diagram ...

And so forth. My latest trick has been to list countries of the world: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chile, Djibouti ... the idea is simple but the trick is to come up with a list that has most letters represented (states in the US doesn't work very well for this reason) yet isn't so hard you get frustrated and your mind wanders. Most of the time I will fall asleep before I get to Z; if the list gets too easy and I always make it to Z, I know I've got to find a new list, or a twist in the old one. I got very fast at the countries thing and began to exclude European countries to make it a little harder. Then I memorized the capitals of countries and began to include those in the list: it made the game harder, more interesting, and more educational.

So you see what I'm doing here, right? I am counting sheep. Only who the hell counts sheep? How boring is that? Alphabetizing may be boring (that's part of the point), but it's less boring than counting. The Insomnia Game is about giving the mind a task. The mind is like a toddler. If you don't want it playing in the toilet, give it a job to do. Only it has to be a job the toddler-mind is willing to stick to: too dull or too difficult, and you're right back to the toilet. Once, when I was able to get through two lists all the way to Z and I was still awake, I gave my brain the job of memorizing countries by continent, then listing them back to myself, envisioning the continent as I did so. South America worked really well for this: I would work counter-clockwise, starting from Colombia (capital: Bogotá), and I was usually asleep before I got to Venezuela (capital: Caracas). It takes only a couple minutes to think of and repeat these to myself — with the capitals — but that's apparently enough.

If I begin memorizing Africa, you'll know I'm really desperate
I'm sharing this because it's both a little weird (therefore, I hope, interesting) and because everyone I've shared it with who's gone on to try it has found it remarkably effective. The only hard part is being mindful enough to do it. My kids, my mom, and a few friends have tried it and reported back excellent results, but my spouse, who struggles at least as much with insomnia as I do, won't even try. I suspect it's because he wants to keep thinking about whatever is keeping him awake; I know, because I also have trouble stopping the thought-cycle that kicks in at 1 a.m. Even if it's unpleasant, or downright miserable, it's hard to stop ... it's like rubbernecking your own mental traffic accident. It takes a surprising amount of willpower to pull oneself away from that mess and redirect the attention elsewhere.

There are other sleep-hygiene practices that can help one achieve the full 8, of course: not over-imbibing alcohol, maintaining a highly predictable sleep schedule, exercising daily and exercising hard, not watching any kind of lit-up screen while in bed, and not eating too big a meal too close to bedtime. But assuming you're already doing these things and you're still having trouble sleeping, this simple little game may help.

Do you ever struggle with insomnia? What are your sleep-tight tricks?


  1. My insomnia doesn't seem to be tractable in anyway. It has allowed me to read a lot of books, on the positive side.

    1. That can be an upside of sorts, assuming you don't have a spouse in bed who fusses at you if even your e-reader is shining. Or if you don't mind getting up and going elsewhere to read. (I do.)

  2. I now suspect the geography texts I used in school were written by insomniacs.

    1. This actually made me laugh out loud!

  3. I do not suffer from insomnia as a general rule but I know someone who does and I'll be passing these tips on to him - thanks!

  4. Determination overcomes a lot of challenges, but it sure doesn't work when I'm trying to fall asleep: the more determined I am, the wider awake I become. Grrrrrr. Being unable to sleep is a kind of torture. Gonna try your method, but first I'd better place an atlas next to the bed.

    1. Kerry, it will not surprise you that I did exactly what when I first started with the countries. That, and the wikipedia list of capitals.

  5. 'So you see what I'm doing here, right? I am counting sheep. Only who the hell counts sheep? How boring is that?'


    This is cool, Steph. For some reason I pictured you in a long Laura Ingalls Wilder kind of a nightgown when you got up to close the window. Funny, huh?

    Shawn woke me up last night getting in bed at like 2 in the morning. I'd gone to sleep at my regular ten pm. I'm a real old lady about it. I think that's how I get my eight, religious about bed time. Anyway, last night, I get woken up. At first, it's the interstice but then I'm fully awake. But somewhere between the interstice and fully awake--slicin' it up by degrees, here--I tried time traveling. I visualized my bedroom at 14 because the window is in the same spot in this bedroom so I tried to pretend I was there again. It might have worked if Shawn had left the fan on because that's what sparked my experiment. I always had the fan on in my bedroom as a teen, with the window open. But lumbering husband got up after about 20 mins to turn it off. Then he banged into the bathroom. Then he lumbered back into bed. Kinda lost my focus (since I wasn't sharing my bedroom with anyone at 14.) But for a minute there ...

    Anyway, cool game and killer topic for a post.

    1. I love your story about your time-travel experiment. When I was little I used to do all sorts of imaginary tricks during my insomnia bouts, since reality often feels loose at 1 a.m. I could expand my mind to fill the universe, for one thing, which is a cool party trick I lost around the time I hit puberty. Less excitingly, I would tell myself stories. One might almost speculate that insomnia is *the* reason I became a writer.

  6. Insomnia - yes. I've tried tricks like this - naming all of the states, for instance. But as you did with the countries, it got to be too easy. Sometimes I do number games - perfect squares in sequence, for instance.

    But there are nights when nothing works. They don't happen to me too often but they are maddening.

  7. I also have struggled with insomnia for a long time, but it's not nearly an everyday thing, though. It occassionally creeps up on me when a week gets a bit stressful. It was really hard to deal with, especially the fact that you wake up groggy and you have to go to work the next morning. On a positive note though, I keep myself efficient and see to it that I use the "extra" time to dive into my hobbies. Take care! :P

    Kayla Evan


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