I’m good at falling asleep. I can sleep anywhere, anytime. I’ve even been known to fall asleep in the theatre. But that wasn’t always the case for me. As a kid, I would lie in bed for hours, my feet on the slanted ceiling, replaying the day and previewing the next. Things that wouldn’t bother me during the day, grew huge in the wee hours of the morning. I would watch the neon lights of my clock radio, do the math of how many hours I had left before I needed to get up, then triple check that my alarm was set right and that I hadn’t mixed up AM and PM.
I was about 15 when I started to improve my ability to fall asleep. I learned some tricks, and got better at putting things in perspective. I was able to go to bed and fall asleep, to recharge for the next day. Perhaps the biggest thing I learned was to “put my thoughts on a shelf.” If I found myself obsessing about something I would think to myself, like a mantra: Well, I can’t do much about it now; I’ll put it on a shelf until morning. Sometimes I even pictured shooting the problem toward my shelf, like a basketball or a paper ball.
On nights when my mind was especially busy, I imagined a boat in my head. I visualized ocean waves as representing my problems. The boat moved smoothly through the waves. But then I would notice some water (thoughts, stress) washing up on the boat. I would acknowledge the water, and let it run off the boat’s deck and out the scuppers. I wouldn’t berate myself for overthinking. I would acknowledge, maybe even with amusement, then let my boat (my mind) empty again. Counting sheep never worked for me, but the boat helped a lot. I also sometimes used to picture an empty notebook. In my mind’s eye, I would slowly turn the pages, one at a time. This worked well for slowing my mind, but I eventually gave it up in favour of the boat. The sensory feel and sound of ocean waves was a bonus.
Focusing on my breathing was a big step too. Breathing a little louder than normal, drowning out background noise; our breath is a natural white noise machine. Sometimes, I would visualize that each inhalation filled my body with wet, heavy sand. And then each breath out expelled the day’s stresses. Breathing more like I was already asleep (a bit louder and deeper). Fake it until you make it. Hiding the clock helped too. I would turn my clock around and cover it with a t-shirt. Keeping my own word is important to me. So, when I committed to not peeking at the time of night (or morning), I followed through.
I love to read. And it helps me sleep. I mostly read fiction at night. Light reading, page turner kind of stuff. I find it puts me in another world, and lets the part of my brain in charge of organizing my world, relax and wind down. Reading an action-suspense-thriller story to relax my mind seems counterintuitive, but it works. Speaking of counterintuitive, my last trick really fits the bill. I remember watching a movie, A Midnight Clear, and stealing the idea from it. In the film, these soldiers are holed up in a cabin, exhausted, but one cannot sleep. Another soldier advises him to try his hardest to stay awake, to keep his eyes open and to stay awake. Soon after, both soldiers are asleep. This trick seems to only work for me when I am desperate. When I have tried everything, and I’m past tired. But In those times, it always amazes me how consistently it works.
I don’t often need the mind tricks anymore. Falling asleep has become my norm. I’m sure parenthood has helped with that. But, once in a while, like the night before a new school year, or some other big event, I revisit my old techniques and trick myself to sleep.