I’ve had trouble falling asleep ever since I was a teenager. I turn out the light and just lie there, worrying. I worry about things I don’t worry about at all during the day, or I worry doubly hard about things I do worry about during the day.
I worry about money, about work, about money at work. I worry about my health, my mother’s health, my cat’s health. And I worry that I won’t ever fall asleep or that I will doze off just in time to get up again.
I do usually fall asleep before morning. There’s only been a handful of times that I stayed awake all night, or what feels like all night. It just takes an hour or two.
That’s why I never say that I suffer from insomnia. To me, insomnia is never falling asleep. Taking a long time to fall asleep doesn’t count.
The worst was the summer between high school and college. By day, I was a normal teenager working and getting ready for the next chapter of my life. But by night, I was a mess of nerves and fear. I was convinced that I was going to miserable with homesickness, hate my roommate, fail all my classes and have to come home (which would at least fix the homesickness part) and work at Fayva Shoe Store for the rest of my life.
And while I was miserably homesick at first (until my mother sicced a priest on me, but that’s a blog post for another day) none of my other worries came true.
I was reading “Learning to Swim” by Sara J. Henry last week and she wrote a passage where the lead character wakes up in the night and starts to worry. (Apologies for not quoting it exactly. I loaned the book to someone.) The character said that she just waited until the morning because everything is worse at night, in the dark.
I guess that’s why all the bad things that could happen pop into my head when I’m trying to go to sleep.
Over the years, I’ve come up with many different ways to trick myself into falling asleep. Most of them involve keeping my mind busy, but not so busy that it keeps me awake.
First there’s the classic counting sheep. But that never worked for me. I could picture the sheep jumping over the fence, and I could count, but my mind wandered back to my worries instead of concentrating on the sheep.
So I began picturing different ways sheep might get over the fence. The first one jumps, the second one uses a trampoline, the third one is shot out of a cannon. Cannonball sheep is my personal favorite.
When I get sick of sheep, I sing ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, with the same twist. I would image the different reasons a beer bottle might fall off a wall. Someone bumps the wall, someone shoots it with a slingshot, a bird flies by and hits it.
Then there are the alphabet games.
My use of the alphabet started that sleepless summer when I taught myself how to say the alphabet backwards.
I would lie in bed and think A. A B B A. A B C C B A. Until I could go all the way through. And then I practiced just backwards. I can still do it today, almost as fast as I can say it forwards.
I use the alphabet in other ways too. For instance, my most recent trick was going through the alphabet and coming up with a word for each letter that was at least four syllables long. A = anticipate, B = behavioral, C = characterization, and so on.
I also do that old song we used to sing when were little girls, maybe it was a jump roping song but I’m not sure. A my name is Anna. My husband’s name is Andrew. We live in Albuquerque and we sell apples. All the way to Z.
Or I play a reverse version of scategories. I pick a topic like flowers or bands or authors, and go through the alphabet naming one for each letter. AC DC, B-52s, Chicago.
Some nights I get all the way through the alphabet and have to start over with a more specific category like 80s bands or children’s authors.
If I’m lucky, I’m asleep before I hit M.
Another tactic I employ is reciting song lyrics, usually from musicals.
Rent is the one I use most often, because I know it the best and because it’s entirely sung so there are a lot of lyrics.
“December 24th, nine pm, eastern standard time. From here on out I shoot without a script. See if anything comes of it…”
I also will recite Guns and Roses lyrics, although those aren’t exactly relaxing, or whatever song happens to be stuck in my head.
My last resort is the name game. That’s the one where you start with a name of a famous person, Barrack Obama for instance. Then the next name has to start with O (from Obama) so it could be Oscar Wilde.
It’s surprising how long you can play this game without repeating a name.
Sometime I make this one more difficult too by limiting the types of famous people I can use. Only musicians or actors. Only men or women. Or I don’t use famous people, only people I know. Just for the record, I don’t know anyone whose first name starts with Q.
Sometimes I wish that I was one of those people who falls asleep the moment they close their eyes. Whenever I share a room with someone, at a conference or on a trip, I always lie there in the dark, listening to them sleeping and I’m jealous.
But if I fell asleep instantly I wouldn’t be able to say the alphabet backwards, so I guess a few hours of sleep is a small price to pay for that talent.