Not that I wasn’t eager to trade in my bad nights for better nights. I’d struggled with bouts of sleeplessness since my teens. Stress at work or anticipation of a challenging day ahead could keep me wound up until 2 or 3 in the morning, and occasionally all night. A few bad nights could usher in a cycle of insomnia lasting three or four weeks.
But knowing in advance what CBT-I would entail — restricting my sleep every night — was a deal-breaker for me. Subject myself to a series of short nights that were sure to make my daytime symptoms worse? Prolong my exhaustion, my bad mood, and my trouble thinking, on the slim chance that sleep restriction would turn my problem around?
The prospect was not just distasteful. It was also scary. What if during my sleep period the Sandman never showed up? The fear of it tied my stomach in knots. While CBT-I might help others, it was not for me.
But I laid my apprehensions aside and decided to try it as part of my research for a book about insomnia. CBT-I was every bit as difficult as I’d anticipated. Restricting my time in bed turned me into a zombie the first few days. I shuffled along with mush for brains, forgetting where I put my keys and barely able to compose a paragraph. Which made me cross: why such punishment to achieve something that should be effortless?
But it was at night when the sleep issue came to a head, forcing me to confront my fear of sleeplessness face to face. How else to explain the freak show those early nights of treatment became? No matter that I had to march myself around the house to stay awake until 12:30, my designated bedtime. As I was heading to the bedroom, fear ambushed me in the doorway. I panicked at the thought of not sleeping and how rotten I’d feel the next day. I was much too aroused to fall asleep.
Treatment protocol required that I avoid the bedroom until I felt sleepy, so I turned away and sat down to read until I felt myself drifting off again. But when I went to the bedroom to lie down, fear seized me again, and then a third time, and a fourth. I got up, I lay down. Lay down, got up. How long would the torture last?
I battled my fears for three nights and slogged through three miserable days. If I hadn’t been determined to see the thing through for the sake of my research, I might easily have given up. But at 12:30 on the fourth night I collapsed and slept until the alarm woke me at 5:15. I’d been shot cleanly through the goalposts without a moment’s wakefulness.