“Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night” William Blake
You don’t have to be an addict to have problems with sleep. It is said that around one in four people have real trouble getting to sleep. I have always found falling asleep extremely difficult. As a child I drove my family to distraction. They attempted to help. They tried everything. For example, telling me to close my eyes and think of a desert island and all the things I could do there. This only succeeded in stimulating my mind even more. As soon as my head hit the pillow, with the light turned out and no distraction, my mind would come to life. A thousand thoughts and ideas would appear, spinning chaotically around and around my wide awake mind.
Later in life when exploring Buddhism, I read of the chattering monkeys. Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching and chattering endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamouring for attention. When we lie in bed and close our eyes to try to sleep they come to life.
More about sleep
There are two kinds of sleep, both equally important in recharging our body and mind. Rapid eye movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave is the first phase of sleep. It recharges our physical body, preparing us for the day ahead. Sleep walking has been found to be associated with slow-wave sleep. REM sleep is when we dream. There are innumerable books available on dream interpretation. There are many learned theories going back to the superstitions of ancient man, but only you can truly understand or make sense of your dreams. They are a metaphor for our lives; the place where we work through our problems, anxieties and fantasies. We can experience recurring dreams until that particular worry has been quieted or resolved.
If our sleep patterns are interrupted we fail to achieve both of these crucial parts of sleep. Neither our minds nor our bodies are recharged. When I was using alcohol I would drink until unconsciousness hit. But this would only last a couple of hours until I came round and the cycle would begin again. It was not sleep; it was unconsciousness. My exhaustion grew and I did not dream. Depression is beginning to be seen as a sleep disorder. Many people suffering with depression sleep too much and subsequently have too much REM sleep. Lines blur.
Lucky with sleep
Many recovering alcoholics have severe problems with sleep. But I am lucky. After the initial, nightmare period of withdrawal I have slept like a baby. I still only sleep for around six hours but it is deep and uninterrupted. I dream. In the early stages of recovery I experienced countless dreams about alcohol. They were not about actually drinking, but frustrating dreams about trying to obtain alcohol or attempting to hide the evidence. I was dreaming about the game. Now I very rarely dream of alcohol or drugs. As Anthony Hopkins once put it, I fall asleep instead of passing out and wake up rather than come round.
If you do have problems with sleep, there is substantial evidence for the following advice: Set your body-clock by rising at the same time every day; avoid daytime sleep or napping; get some exercise; avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol after six o’clock; make your bedroom a bedroom, not an entertainment centre: no television, computer etc. If you are not asleep within half an hour get up and perform your least favourite chore – do not reward your monkey mind. Mindfulness or meditation is also a powerful tool to combat elusive sleep.
My fundamental piece of advice for restful, regular sleep is the same as my advice for life in general. Be busy. Fill your life with action. Reward your waking brain with challenge, stimulation and fun. With a life full of these essential components, your mind and body will need a good night’s sleep.