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How I Finally Got Some Sleep

An insomniac’s guide to getting relief when everything else has failed

Sheep wearing nightcap and headphones
The Arrow/JamieChung/Trunk Archive

I was tossing and turning — tossing my pillow, turning into a wide-eyed poster boy for Insomniacs Anonymous.

It was 3 a.m. Too late to have any shot at a decent night’s sleep, too early to start the coffee maker. Thrashing and obsessing — “I’ll be a wreck tomorrow!” — just made it worse.

I wasn’t alone. Aside from my wife, serenely zzz-ing on the sane side of the bed, I knew there were millions of other men fighting for sleep every night. “Up to half the population has sleep problems at one time or another,” says Susheel Patil, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at Cleveland’s University Hospital Sleep Center. “For up to one in three or four of us, it’s a chronic issue.”

An estimated 30 million of us deal with sleep apnea — often undiagnosed — but that wasn’t my problem. Neither was fatal familial insomnia (FFI), a rare condition with only a few dozen cases worldwide. People with FFI cannot sleep. After panic attacks, hallucinations and escalating paranoia, they go crazy and die.

That’s the kind of thing you research at 3 a.m. 

I had tried the usual cures. A hot bath before bedtime. No drinks after dinner. Half a milligram of melatonin. Nothing worked. Bathed, sober and gently mela-toned, I huddled under a weighted blanket, wide awake.

Some sufferers swear by a technique called 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale deeply for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds. I tried 4-7-8, felt more relaxed and spent the next thousand seconds studying the ceiling.

Other sleepers start with a polar-bear facial. Ducking your face into a sink full of ice-cold water can activate the body’s “diving reflex,” which draws blood from the limbs to your vital organs, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure to syrupy, sleepy levels. But bobbing for ice cubes can be invigorating! I felt ready to lead a sled team to Nome.

A friend who played football suggested thumping my forehead against a wall. “Not too hard — just enough to make your head swell a little.” That didn’t help either, but at least I had a punch line ready when my wife woke and asked, “Why are you hitting your head on the wall?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

Then there’s the modern version of counting sheep. Sammy Margo, author of The Good Sleep Guide, urges insomniacs to visualize a peaceful setting like the beach at sunset: “Hear the sounds of ocean waves, the smell of moist sand, see the endless beauty of the infinite ocean.” Flashing back to my one contribution to literature — getting former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to write a poem for Golf Magazine — I pictured a golf course.

“I remember the night I discovered, lying in bed in the dark,” Collins’ poem began, that a few imagined holes of golf worked much better than a thousand sheep.” In the end, “I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.”

But he’s a better golfer than I am. I smelled the moist sand of a bunker and three-putted as usual.

Finally, utterly out of ideas, I went rogue.

Mind racing, I reached for my phone. Some doctors tell you to put your devices away a half-hour before bedtime. Distractions can act as a stimulant. Anything with a screen is forbidden. But that night, instead of Facebook or Twitter, I tried a podcast. Shoving the phone under my pillow, I listened to Bill Simmons go on and on about NBA matchups. 

Six hours later, I woke up. My phone was dead, but I felt renewed. I tried it again the next night — Joe Rogan this time — and dozed off to a rant about vaccines.

Several months later, my phone is full of pillow talk. Many late-night listeners prefer apps like Insight Timer, with its free meditations and soothing sounds of all sorts, but give me a podcast any night. The BBC has a vast sonic library of history, science and current events including Melvyn Bragg’s brilliant roundtable, In Our Time. You can’t go wrong with Freakonomics Radio, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Stuff You Should Know or Bill Simmons’ guy-movie reviews on The Rewatchables. I hardly ever make it to the end of an episode, dozing off with the phone just loud enough to hear, the way I once fell asleep listening to ballgames with a transistor radio under my pillow. 

And it’s educational! After hearing the first parts of so many podcasts, I’m a little better informed and a lot better rested.