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Diary Of An Insomniac: How I Survived The Wee Hours

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My seven year period of sleepless hell started in the fall of 1991 on a meditation retreat. I took a six-week leave of absence from my publishing job to indulge myself in peace: 17 hours a day of meditation, an hour sitting, an hour walking, meals in between. The setting was western Massachusetts, and the center abutted a nature conservancy where if you sat motionless for a few minutes birds landed on your head and arms and chipmunks ran circles on your lap. Turmoil erupted on the second day: I wasn't sleeping more than 10 minutes at a time. I lasted only two of the four weeks I was meant to be there.

Trying to get back to work wasn't easy. I was dead tired by 4 p.m. every afternoon and could barely keep myself upright at my desk. I took to sneaking out of the office and leaving the light on hoping no one would notice I was gone. A few months later I took a job in San Francisco hoping a change of venue from New York would put me back to sleep. The insomnia followed me to the West Coast and by 1994 had worsened. Pretty soon, the pattern was set--sleep at 11 p.m. wake up at 2 a.m., fall back to sleep from 6 a.m. to maybe 7. I didn't want to become addicted to sleeping pills, I didn't want to go on anti-depressants--I was feeling quasi-psychotic from no sleep.

The biggest challenge became how to pass the time while awake and alone in the middle of the night. Even though I was married by 1994, there's nothing more lonely than lying next to a peacefully snoring sleeper.

The Early Years

I was lucky enough to be a part of the launch of Riverhead Books, but the company was in New York, so I worked remotely from San Francisco, traveling to New York one week per month. Having my office at home proved to be a dangerous thing, as boundaries between the work day and my personal time blurred. My ex-husband was a light sleeper and so instead of worrying about waking him, I went downstairs to my office, did business in Europe and looked at faxes from other insomniacs saying they were awake and ready to work. It was nice to feel connected, but it wasn't necessarily the most productive way to spend the time. I was even more tired and stressed the next day, and I often had to re-do the work I produced during that time. Two to six a.m. aren't necessarily the best hours of clarity when you're already exhausted.

The Middle Years

I decided to try to stay in bed, but with that came its own particular torture. Tossing and turning was out of the question (my ex woke up grumpy and that wasn't fun), so I grabbed my Walkman (pre-iPod days) and listened to music or teachings on meditation. That worked just fine until the tape reached the end and the contraption shut off with a "snap." Then we were both awake and that defeated the purpose.

Respite Years

I set up my own insomnia refuge retreat: installed computer, cable, VCR and internet in one of the guest bedrooms. I re-lived my childhood through "Nick at Nite", recorded "Star Trek" and for the first time got in to "Columbo". Peter Falk cut my insomnia hours often by 25 percent. Oh, and I played with those Chinese iron balls that chime when you roll them in your hands. They were supposed to stimulate some acupuncture points that would make me relax and go to sleep. Didn't work. Neither did melatonin.

Renewed Torture Years

I found myself shivering uncontrollably at night. There was almost nothing I could do to warm up, so the guest bedroom was now loaded with space heaters and we received as a gift a spun silk comforter from China that is way warmer than down. I was beginning to have what I thought were panic attacks at about five every morning (turned out to be digestive distress from a wheat allergy). Got back into yoga at Satchidananda's Integral Yoga, so I started doing that in the middle of the night. Took to hanging upside down from the ladder to the sleeping loft in the guest bedroom. I can't say that I went back to sleep any faster, but I did feel a touch more relaxed.

The End

Began doing meditation practice in the wee hours instead of waiting for my work day to begin. I was so tired that I couldn't focus so it wasn't so productive. But it was listening to the webcasts of Tibetan Lama Gelek Rimpoche in the middle of the night that began to shift things for me. He was speaking about the stages of developing great compassion. The first stage was to recognize that everyone equally wants and deserves happiness and doesn't want suffering.

I started to think about all the other insomniacs like me who were sitting up feeling lonely, depressed, stressed out and wondering how they would function the next day. And then I didn't feel quite so lonely or worried about not sleeping. I started to think further about all the people who were awake in the middle of the night for much more difficult reasons--dire illness, fear of crime on the streets, nowhere to go, starvation, abuse, mental illness, a million reasons that put my yuppie anxiety to shame.

According to the compassion meditation instructions, I started to pray that my suffering might replace theirs. And from Gelek Rimpoche's webcast, I learned that there's a method, called tonglen, in which you breathe in the suffering of others in order to destroy your own self-clinging and breathe out your happiness in the form of light--it reaches other people and turns into whatever they need.

The Dalai Lama says something like if you want to make others happy, have compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, have compassion. It was true. When I shifted my focus away from myself, things got a lot easier. For the first time in all the years I didn't sleep, I had found a productive use of the hours. And it wasn't long before I started sleeping almost like a normal person again.