How do you sleep at night?

It’s 3AM on a random Monday night.

“Mama, mama?” the young boy calls from the other room. He has a room of his own, with two adjecent kingsize beds, of which he occupies (almost) one. His mother quickly rises to comfort him back to sleep, while quickly dozing off in the second bed. It’s quiet… Could he? It almost seemed to go too smooth. He could not possibly have gone to sleep immediately…

“More,” he continues. “Papa!”

There you go! Daddy’s here! By now it almost feels like a disappointment when he only calls for his mother. I’m always happy in some way that he remembers me when he wakes up at night. Of course I’m always number two. Nothing beats mama. But that’s alright. I am fine with my place in the lower ranks of the pecking order. I rise, stumble through the darkness, dragging along my blanket under my arm. I first find my way to the toilet. I sit down and empty my bladder. I stopped flushing the toilet at night, as not to disturb the downstairs neighbors – they seem not to like noise, especially at night. Can’t blame them. Disgusting though, the not flushing part. I’m thirsty too, so I take two steps to the bathroom sink, open the faucet and have a few sips of water. My parched mouth starts to rehydrate a bit. I’m almost ready to move to the double double bed. My son’s already back to sleep. I turn my blanket into a nice cocoon, getting ready to resume the second part of my night’s sleep. Warm and snug.

Except there’s one small problem.

I’m wide awake. I spend the rest of the morning thinking about things that are irrelevant, or do not even exist.

I never had issues sleeping until about one year ago. I could sleep anywhere, anytime. It would take me no time at all to get to sleep either. The minute I touched the mattress, I was in another dimension. Only in some very caffeinated exceptions, I have struggled to fall asleep, but never without reason. It was also rather a problem of getting me awake in the mornings. Never the opposite.

That all changed.

In the past year, I have had multiple bouts of horrible horrible insomnia, some lasting for up to four days in a row of no real sleep at all. Insomnia is horrible. You’re constantly tired as hell, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t fall asleep. The more you try, the less it works. You really turn into a proper zombie. It feels like that state where you’re in between drunk and hungover. You’re too tired to do stuff, and I think the brain slowly starts to turn off functions. Which is why after four nights of no sleep you just crash out of utter exhaustion. It is quite amazing how long the body can still drag on without proper recovery. Horrible, but amazing. Also pretty dangerous, but that’s another tale.

In my case, it is a matter of not being able to shut down. I can’t turn of thought. Especially in overwhelming times, my monkey mind keeps chattering like a maniac. And it’s not much fun talk. The moment I’m horizontal and dwelling in ‘pre-sleep’ my thoughts turn demonic. All the horror that you can imagine? It will happen to me. All at once. Most likely tomorrow. At least, that’s what the monkey mind wants me to believe. Of course non of that really ever happens, but the monkey mind is stupid and doesn’t learn. It will repeat the same procedure again and again. Of course the monkey mind never sleeps, it is also there during the day. However, during the day I usually can shake these feelings rather easily, and often even laugh about some of the ridiculous mind patterns. But at night, this mental racing drives me nuts. I am a highly sensitive person, and that especially pertains to too much brain clutter and thought. I get overwhelmed easily. When I’m overwhelmed, the only thing that really helps is proper rest. Proper rest… I can’t even remember what that feels like. So it turns into a negative spiral easily.

I also get bored quite easily. That doesn’t help either. I struggle with saying no to things often because I get enthusiastic about them easily. I somehow like complex stuff, and doing everything at the same time. It’s my vice. But it is so difficult to combine it with the sensitivity. On the one hand, the complexity of the systems I work on is what drives me and is what kept me in academia. On the other, the sense of overwhelm that I get from all the administrative crap, the countless meetings, the teaching, the constant pressure to perform, it can easily get out of hand.

For a couple of months, all was good though. I seemed to be able to juggle it all quite well. I was overwhelmed regularly, but I could also wind down at the end of the day (writing seemed to help to that end, too). It is somewhat ironic though, that in the middle of my holiday, where I literally need not have anything on my mind, I’m not getting back to sleep again after the usual nocturnal paternal procedure. Is this my mind getting bored again? Or did my usual writing serve as a form of journaling or processing? I may have been writing too much about lovely stupid flowers, instead of about the tougher realities of life.

If you have ‘grandma’s secret recipe’ for sleep, or turning back to sleep, let me know in the comments below. (Before you ask, yes, I do meditate, and I drink one espresso around 7AM, and no more caffeinated beverages after. I really almost quit 😉 )

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of one but almost two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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