Warm wasn’t working. Not the warm, silky smoothness of a frothy bubble bath. Not the warm, soothing comfort of heated milk in a mug. Not even the warm afterglow of great sex. For that matter, not prescription or over-the-counter medications, either. Not meditation; not relaxation. Counting sheep? They all fled the scene as soon as I slipped into bed. Sleep was as elusive as those flighty sheep — it just wouldn’t come.
“Yawn,” you’re probably thinking. “Who can sleep these days?” One estimate puts the number of adult Americans with insomnia at sixty million. Read on, my friends, for what is different about this tale is not the problem, but the solution.
It had been over a year since I’d caught enough Z’s in one night to make the effort worthwhile. My low point was a twelve-minute nap, after which I was up for the day. It was time to take action. I started with a hypnotist — not some hocus-pocus charlatan, but a licensed practitioner who found me quite suggestible and guided me to a fairly deep trance in the very first session. Problem was, it wasn’t bedtime! Sure, in her plushy recliner and hushed office atmosphere, it was easy to let go. Factor in two twitchy dogs and a husband who could not maintain the same position (ramrod rigid) long enough for me to drop off, and my nighttime efforts met with dismal failure. I heard mice scratching in the walls. I felt every fold of the bed linen. I knew when a gnat landed on the roof of our barn across the street.
The hypnotist recommended a certain CD, which featured a woman’s gentle voice telling me how nicely I was drifting off to dreamland. By the third night I was reciting the script right along with the narrator. What I wasn’t doing was sleeping.
I was referred to a Brain Training Center and sent out-of-state for a quantitative electroencephalogram (fancy EEG). Never could I have predicted the results of that test, but they certainly explained my difficulty sleeping! I have very high beta activity throughout my brain – what they call in layman’s terms “busy brain.” Though there are no obvious physiological manifestations, my brain is hyper-alert all the time. It does not rest. It does not filter. It takes in everything. No wonder wakefulness was so normal for me.
I began doing neurofeedback in April to retrain my brain. For two one-hour periods each week, I am hooked up to electrodes at various points on my head. I then do exercises on the computer, in which I control the activity on the screen via my brain. Alpha, beta, and theta waves are affected during the treatments. I can’t tell you, practically speaking, how I do it. If that sounds strange, consider this: a few times the therapist has had me look at a number on his screen and “count it down” – in other words, think the number lower. I watched it drop and thought, “Okay, I get it! The number is changing automatically, and I am being led to believe that I am doing it.” So I stopped. And, to my amazement, it stopped too. I was counting in my mind only, so there was no way for the therapist to match the dropping numbers to my pace. I tried the stopping gimmick a few times, and without fail the number on the screen froze at the same time. So it really was my brain controlling the process!
Ever so gradually, I began to sleep. Maybe only forty-five minutes, followed by an hour or two of wakefulness and another half hour of sleep. Since I was all over the place with my dozing, my next step was a consultation with a PhD Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine for some practical management techniques. He has set my bedtime at four in the morning, and the alarm (which I cannot ignore) goes off precisely at eleven. All clocks are covered, as I must be unaware of the time for these seven hours. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which advises insomniacs to get out of bed if twenty minutes pass and they are still up, I am required to stay in bed. I may use a small, clip-onto-the-book light to read a fluff magazine or some other dull material; I am also allowed to watch TV – but only shows I have seen before, so I know the outcome in advance and my brain has minimal stimulation. (If all else fails, and I absolutely, positively will not nod off, I can get out of bed and do something else until I feel tired again.) I keep a sleep log faithfully. How, you’re wondering, if I can’t know what time it is? I estimate the times. Over the last several weeks, my sleep periods have lengthened and my time awake has lessened. I am now getting between five and eight hours of shuteye most nights, with only a few brief periods of consciousness during the intervals.
But none of this explains where I’ve been. Beta activity in the brain signifies a “wide awake” state. The normal range is 12-38 hertz. Needless to say, I was higher. (I have no history of anxiety, which is commonly associated with high beta.) When training at 11-13 hertz wasn’t producing the desired effect, we began to drop into the lower numbers. I was warned that I might become incoherent, confused, or weepy. During sessions, I was asked if I felt irritable. As it turns out, I was quite comfortable at 4-7 hertz, which is where I am working at present. The only downside is that, during this course, I have lacked the higher cerebral functioning necessary to be productive as a writer. And this is why I have been among the missing here.
Currently I am learning how to change the state of my brain to a more – or less — restful state, and with this technique the words will come. This has been an amazing journey, and one that I would highly recommend to anyone for whom traditional sleep inducers have failed.
Now I just need to round up those renegade sheep and return them to the farmer.