I wrote this blog some time ago but didn’t publish it, until now, because you might think me weird. In this series of retirement blogs I have written previously that my postings are designed mostly to be amusing but that some of them are intended to be serious and helpful. This blog is in the serious, and even helpful, category although, as you read on, I have no doubt that you will come to believe that I am having a laugh. Thing is, I’m not. I mean every word I write. But I warn you it is going to sound very strange in parts.
Information from the US national Library of Medicine has this to say about sleep and the ‘elderly’ – I use the word broadly. Sleep problems are common in the elderly. In general, older people need 30 to 60 minutes less sleep than younger people. Their sleep is less deep and more choppy than sleep in younger people. A healthy 70 year old may wake up four times during the night without it being due to disease. That’s a relief then.
Later in the article as a ‘treatment’ for sleep problems, it recommends ‘Sleeping in a quiet place and drinking a glass of warm milk before bed may improve the symptoms. Other ways to promote sleep include following these healthy lifestyle tips: Avoid large meals shortly before bedtime. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine. Get regular exercise early in the day. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. (Don’t take naps.) Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity. OK!
Finally it states, ‘If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity such as reading or listening to music.’ All very sensible. Mrs Summerhouse is a yoga teacher and when she cannot sleep she gets up and does her yoga exercises – stretching and meditation, these mostly work well for her and this is again eminently sensible, but they do not work for me. Nor do its close cousins, deep breathing, counting sheep etc. They do not engage me and hence don’t help. Putting the light on (these little lights that attach to the page of the book are good) and reading works apart from the fact that, when I start to feel sleepy, I automatically feel the need to pee and so have to get out of bed to do so and, by the time I get back, I’m wide awake. Listening to the radio, through headphones, of course, works quite well but if I fall asleep while listening and leave the radio on, it usually wakes me up again shortly afterwards. But all these strategies work sometimes and for some people.
Effective strategies differ slightly depending on when in the night you wake up. Sometimes, it’s best just to get up. Strangely, and this whole blog is strange, the thought of getting out of bed, can get me back to sleep. A passing thought here is why do I fall asleep 10 minutes before I’m due to get up when I’ve been tossing and turning for hours previously? I haven’t quite worked the psychology of this out yet. Might be useful if I could.
OK, that’s the end of the sensible advice. I want to see if I can go beyond the sensible stuff. I have to say, right up front, that I have less trouble falling asleep initially than I do when I wake up in the middle of the night as I inevitably do wanting, in old age, to pee more regularly than in the past. Of course I try the old trick on not opening my eyes or putting the light on in the bathroom but unfortunately this often means peeing on the floor or, worse still, down one’s pyjama leg. So that’s not so good.
Some advice just this side of sane, if you wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, try some of the following – make yourself cold, lie with no covers on (this works best in winter) or just the sheet, endure this then pull up the duvet, blanket whatever. Incidentally, although this is straying into the wacky side of things, I find blankets psychologically comforting. I can spend quite a long time imagining the colour, texture etc of a blanket wrapped around me, especially if I imagine myself outdoors.
Make yourself uncomfortable, sleep naked (I hate sleeping naked, I find it deeply uncomfortable but that’s just me) then put your pyjamas / nightdress whatever on – needless to say choice of sleeping attire is critical, cotton, winceyette, long or short trousers / sleeves? Choose your sleeping garments with as much care as you would your day clothes although with somewhat different ends in mind. In desperation, as a way to make myself very uncomfortable, I lie on the bedroom floor with no blanket or pillow. After the floor getting into bed is a relief and I often fall asleep, The goal then is to make yourself cozy physically and therefore mentally.
But I want to go beyond even such strange advice as this, so far beyond that, if you come with me, you’ll think you’re never coming back. I’m going to share some of my thoughts on sleeplessness and you will find them bizarre, but I speak from the experience of many years and I want to say something different on the topic, so here we go.
First thing to say is that with me it is usually bad thoughts that keep me awake – nothing new there I suspect. In the middle of the night my mind is like a big, bouncy, puppy dog. It’s going – come on, let’s go, let’s play, I want to go for a walk – no, I’m tired, I don’t want to play, go to sleep, you go – no, I can’t I’m just a puppy, I can’t go without you. Oh, for heaven’s sake alright. You get the idea? You don’t, well better stop reading because it gets worse.
If your problem is something physical then this is not the advice for you. It is impossible, in my experience, to stop these thoughts, no matter how often you tell yourself they’re pointless, that it is self-defeating, upsetting to have these thoughts. What you must do is replace the thoughts with other more relaxing, sleep-inducing thoughts. Then the question is what thoughts? Well here are some that have worked for me. Not guaranteed, but pretty good.
Here’s an admission, it’s a kind of hobby. I collect scenarios, visual scenarios from places I visit, benches in the woods, exposed moorland, windswept beaches and so on that I can use later. I note evocative, descriptive passages from books or locations I see on television which I can slide into when bad things threaten. I make a point of watching ‘Most Haunted’ just at the beginning, because the rest is crap, just to collect images of ghostly places. I watched Countryfile recently because it said it was about lighting up a forest, could be a few nice images there, I thought, as it turned out there weren’t but could have been. Favourite settings are ruined castles, old (the older the better), damp, cold churches and cathedrals, tunnels, corridors (don’t ask me to explain), old railway stations, log cabins in the snow, cold, slightly scary places that I can make warm, cozy and safe through the power of my imagination. All these I collect for later use when needed.
Weirder still, I collect images of benches, chairs, tables, desks, filing cabinets, books on shelves (books are big in my imaginings) all outside or in somewhat threatening situations. It’s difficult to explain but as close as I can get is to say I have to construct a protected set. The desk is in the middle of the moor, it’s cold I have to imagine what I need put around me to feel safe. To the desk, add a chair, what kind of chair? A big, high-backed chair, with heated seat. Add bookshelves (being surrounded by books is an essential part of the ‘fantasy’ and old bookshops are another scenario) and cabinets all designed to surround and protect against the environment.
Lighting is vital (as in lighting a forest), what kind, where is it placed? If it’s outdoors then is the lighting nearby or out there in the wood? Incidentally I don’t think much about what exactly is ‘out there’. That can be very scary and that’s not the effect I am after at this point. Another key decision, am I alone – usually not, but who is with me? Family members, friends, professional soldiers and so. Does transport, of some kind, figure in the scene. Land Rover, bicycle? I often construct barricades using more than one vehicle. A favourite for me is to include, if outside of course, being on horseback or having a horse and cart or carriage pulled by horses. All offer a degree of vulnerability to hostile forces but also an amount of protection. It’s the scene in Dracula films where the coach is speeding through the forest whipped up to top speed by the coach man frightened of being out after dark. The passengers are protected but vulnerable. I can recreate in my head, the smell and look of the interior of the carriage, how many people, who they are, how many people are on the carriage but outside? I know, I know, well I did warn you that we were going beyond in this blog.
For me, it is the process of creation that is engaging, the detail (the smell, temperature, touch, feel of the setting) of the process. This is what is engrossing and engaging, this is what pushes out the negative, sleep defeating thoughts. Corners (really don’t ask me to explain this), passageways, attics, cellars are all favourite indoor settings.
I imagine wide open, hostile places that I can make safe. I construct fences, walls, barriers against what is out there. If it’s an old castle I spend time thinking about how I will ‘renovate’ it. Make it water-proof, insert windows in the holes, put in central heating, lay carpets, fit a kitchen, hang pictures, books and so on; everything it takes to make an abandoned, unfriendly environment into a warm and safe one. These are not exciting thoughts, not stimulating, they roll easily through the mind.
Incidentally (and I’m nearly done) the weather is a vital part of my creation of imaginary scenarios. Even in summer I imagine it cold. Rain, snow, sleet and fog are my mental friends. I do have a ‘hot’ scenario that engages me. It’s the oasis in the desert, the Arabic courtyard that I fill with plants and running water. It is based on the same premise of hostile outside world which I have to protect against. So hot scenarios do work but I’m definitely a cold weather fan. I just find it more relaxing.
I think that will do, if you haven’t got the idea by now, well that’s a shame but, maybe not surprising. It’s pretty weird stuff. Probably the weirdest blog I’ve written so far. All I can say is my intentions are pure. It’s designed only to be helpful by sharing my strategies for helping a person get to sleep. Simple. And this is what retirement has opened up for me, an opportunity to write weird stuff without being declared insane.