I read a study over the weekend that I planned to pick apart today, but I don’t have the mental energy to write about it.  I’m prone to occasional bouts of insomnia, and the past few nights I’ve been thoroughly bouted.  Friday night I slept perhaps a half-hour.  I went to bed, took what amounted to a brief nap, then popped awake.  That’s usually how it starts.  I tried to convince my brain I was still sleeping by lying still with my eyes closed.  My brain didn’t fall for it.

So I went downstairs and worked on a programming project until about 10:00 a.m.  Then I finally fell asleep and stayed asleep until mid-afternoon.  Saturday night I fell asleep around midnight and slept until noon.  Last night I tried to sleep, couldn’t, and gave up.  I crawled back into bed at 6:00 this morning and woke up five hours later.

This has happened on and off for decades.  I’ve tried without success to spot a pattern, but apparently there isn’t one.  I’ve had insomnia on low-fat diets, low-carb diets, and when not dieting at all.  It’s happened when I haven’t had a drink for months, and it’s happened after a night of drinking beer or wine.  (That’s the worst:  feeling loopy and wide awake at the same time.)  I’ve gone to bed hungry and had insomnia.  I’ve gone to bed feeling full and had insomnia.  I’ve stopped drinking caffeine in the afternoon, but it hasn’t helped … which shouldn’t have surprised me, because I once I gave up caffeine completely and that didn’t help either.

All I know is that on some nights, my brain refuses to shut down.  Sometimes I’m thinking about a specific problem — programming challenges when I’m in the middle of a project are pretty much a guaranteed sleepless night.  You’d be surprised how often the eureka! moment comes at 3:00 a.m.  When it does, I don’t really have any choice except to go downstairs and try the solution.  If it works, then I usually sleep.

But on other nights, I’m relaxed, happy, not feeling any pressure, yet my mind seems to be a conveyor belt of random thoughts.  I watch them go by almost as a neutral observer.  “Hmm, that one’s interesting.  I haven’t thought about Doug Watkins since fourth grade.  I wonder what kind of guy he turned out to be.  That was cool when his mom took us the dolphin show.  Amazing.  Too bad his parents had that awful poodle.  That reminds me, the girls don’t want a boxer anymore.  What was that breed they said they liked?  I’m not getting a dog without a fenced-in back yard, though.  Hey, when was the last time the van had an oil change?  Was it Christmas?  We really should clean out the garage so we can park the van in there on hot days.”

Usually this goes on for a night or two, and then I’m over it.  However, in my mid-twenties, I once went five days without sleeping, save for brief naps.  Towards the end of that week, I was walking home from a diner two blocks from my apartment — I was too tired to cook — and stopped at the corner of Clark and Fullerton, a busy intersection in Chicago.  I looked to my right and saw a WALK sign, then responded by stepping off the curb onto Fullerton.  Someone behind me grabbed my belt or jacket and yanked me backwards just as a car zoomed past.  The car missed me by perhaps 12 inches.  I turned around and mumbled “thank you.”  To this day I can’t tell you anything about who saved me … male, female, young, old, nothing.  My brain had stopped processing information.

If there’s such a thing as an natural night-owl, I’m one of them.  I know paleo types believe in waking up with the sun and falling asleep well before midnight, but that’s never seemed to fit with my natural body clock.  I do most of my creative thinking at night.  Always have.  If I’m tired during the day, I start to feel better when the sun goes down.

I was perfectly happy with my sleep schedule during my days as a traveling comedian, when I rarely went to bed before 3:00 a.m.  If I finished a show at midnight and was within 200 miles of Chicago, I’d just drive home.  Once I drove from Nebraska to Chicago after realzing I wasn’t going to sleep.

This could be a bit genetic.  I’ve had a few bipolar relatives on my dad’s  side of the family.  Perhaps I caught a touch, but just enough to be occasionally unipolar.  I get wired up at times and can’t sleep, but fortunately I don’t get the depressions afterwards.  I just go back to being more or less normal.

I suppose the upside is that I’m capable of working around the clock if I have to.  While editing Fat Head, I was facing a deadline to deliver a sample cut to a distributor, and my computer decided to torture me by crashing several times per day.  (This was before I bought a Mac Pro with Final Cut, so you Apple fans can relax.)  I ended up working for three days and nights, leaving my office only for coffee and food, plus two quick trips home for a shower.  I delivered the hard drives to FedEx a half-hour before the last deadline, then went home and slept for 18 hours.

At times like this, I’m hugely grateful to be self-employed.  When I had office jobs, I had to just suck it up and go to work without sleep.  If the boss says working hours are 9:00 to 5:00, that’s what they are.  Now clients hire me to write programs and deliver them some weeks later.  They don’t know when I work and don’t care, as long as the software is finished on time.  So if I pop awake at 2:00 a.m. and know I’m going to be awake all night, I just go downstairs and work.  If I end up sleeping away most of the next day, no big deal.  My wife suspects I may be part vampire, but she’s understanding.

Anyway, I’m going to relax tonight, stay away from the programming so I don’t discover any problems that need solving, and try to fall asleep by midnight.  Wish me pleasant dreams.

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53 Responses to “The Insomnia Bug”
  1. Mike Miller says:

    Tom,

    I saw fathead about a month ago. I’m still pissed off, but i’m down more than 35 pounds and get to see my doctor in about 3 hours to get the A1c checked again. I’m not sure if I should give him the Conquering Diabetes book or hit him with it. Anyway, if you’re still reading the comments for these older posts, I have a suggestion to repay all the good advice and info you’ve given me. I also used to get insomnia from time to time because my brain was racing. I downloaded an audio book and listen to it over low profile headphones (so they don’t hurt my ears if I roll over when asleep) on the lowest volume for my mp3 player. As I listen to the same book over and over again, it seems to give my brain something to focus on then my brain turns off since it’s heard this spiel before. It’s bait and switch for the brain. About a year in and just one episode of insomnia once on an overnight trip when I forgot the headphones and the mp3 player charger.

    That sounds like a good idea. I like audiobooks.

  2. deMuralist says:

    I will also add my 2 cents as I was a chronic insomniac for years, since toddlerhood really. Once I had children they seemed to have sleep issues as well then our pediatrician suggested something for my kids and that is how I got started on it…I created an exact sequence pattern for before I go to sleep and once I get in bed. ie. put on p.j.’s, wash face, moisturize, brush teeth, take meds., etc. then once in bed I also listen to my iPod on headband earphones, but I listen to a variety of sleep meditations I got free off the internet. My favorites are called binaural beats, although I don’t believe all of their hoopla the sounds are soothing to me. I have a fan for white noise and a very dark, cool room. I also keep a pen and pad at my bedside table, so that if I think of something I can jot it down, without turning on any lights, and check it out in the morning (I cannot ever read them in the morning, but thinking that I have written it down helps let it go at bedtime).

    If I wake up in the middle of the night I go back and repeat the routine. Not always the whole thing, it depends on how awake I am. If it doesn’t get me back to sleep within 30 minutes, I get out of bed and occupy myself with something that will not rile me up and then try again at what I presume to be the next go round of the circadian rhythm, mine is about 90 minutes, so usually an hour after I have gotten out of bed I start the routine again.

    Not had a problem in a very long time. Hope you find your solution, I know how horrible it is to be up at all hours, it really saps the creativity.

  3. James Birdsall says:

    Tom, I am also like you. When I was a kid, 8-9 years old I would read under my covers with a flashlight because my parents wanted the lights out. Then I would listen to Cuban radio on my shortwave. Then it was Herbert W. Armstrong, I was desperate. Then I would build something with my erector set. Sometimes I would fall asleep at 4 AM ON my erector set. School was a blur. 9:00 PM was when I woke up. In later years I could be barely able to find the bedroom I was so tired but once I laid down I was wide awake and being pissed off that I had to stay in bed, there was much to do but everyone else was sleeping, the lazy slobs! About ten years ago I was having trouble keeping the 9-5 schedule my job required and I started taking Trazadone at night. Now I lay down and go to sleep and there are no side effects. So, I say if your job can accomodate your nocturnal habits, go with it. I wish I could do that as I do love to be energized late at night. Try not sleeping for four days straight and do hard physical work the whole time on coffee and hot dogs. A group I belonged to in the 70s did that every month or so. Sleep Thursday night, get up and go to your job, then work until Monday morning building houses or restoring antique cars, then go to work Monday all day. Then go to IHOP and see if you can not stop laughing at the perception of your own world. Hard to take anything very seriously after a couple years of that. I’m fine now.

    I haven’t had true insomnia in quite some time now, but yes, I work around my natural night-owl schedule.

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