Friday, June 21, 2013


It has always distressed me that we need to spend half our life unconscious. It's such a waste of good living time. Why could we not simply plug ourselves into a wall socket for ten minutes to recharge? 
For someone as impatient and uneager for sleep as me you’d think insomnia would be welcome, but no. You can't really do anything worthwhile when your brain needs recharging, yet you can't recharge your brain because of excitement, anxiety whatever. There’s nothing as infuriating as being exhausted and unable to sleep. I do a lot of mental writing just before I go to sleep so maybe it's not surprising that I have no trouble evading the arms of Somnus.
    After years of insomnia, I recently agreed to do a sleep study or polysomnography. The idea appalled me: a sleepover in a doctor’s office covered in electrodes? Never in a million years would I be able to sleep that way. Sleeping is so deeply personal and intimate, how could I do it in public while a technician watched? Nobody likes being watched when they’re unconscious and vulnerable.
    But, despite my doubts, I packed a big art supplies carrier bag with my very own pillow, black ninja pyjamas and ear plugs in case there was beeping or buzzing. I also watched a YouTube video thoughtfully provided by a young insomniac.

    Around bed time, I drove over to the dark and deserted medical center, parked and took the elevator feeling a bit like a sleepy burglar. At the doctor’s office I rang a bell on the counter like you would at an hotel. A charming technician hurried out and showed me to my comfortable-looking room, also like an hotel. Who knew all this was right next to the more clinical doctor’s office I’d previously visited? The  sleep study room had a TV and original but horrible art on the walls. The good art was outside in the corridors. A mistake to think sleepers don’t need good art. Good art can sooth and calm, among other things.
    The technician or polysomnolographist was also a soothing conversationalist which was a big help. After hooking me up to a myriad wires (“The electrodes are plated with real gold,” she told me), I got into bed, deployed my pillow, turned on the most boring TV channel I could find (CNN) while she went to another room to check the monitors she would stay up all night watching:

The EEG (electroencephalogram): brain wave activity 
The EMG (electromyogram): face, leg twitches, teeth grinding.  
The EOG (electro-oculogram): eye movements. 
The EKG (electrocardiogram): heart rate and rhythm.
The Nasal Airflow Sensor: breath temperature, airflow, apnea.
The Chest and abdomen belts: breathing depth, apnea, hypopnea.
The Oximeter: blood oxygen saturation through a clip on a finger.
The Snore Microphone.
    The technician returned to say that everything was working fine. “You have beautiful brain waves,” she said. Ugh, I thought, that's
like saying she’d seen my knickers. Which, of course, she metaphorically had, she’d read my mind. An even greater intrusion than the NSA monitoring my phone calls and emails.
    Aware my brain waves were being monitored I felt obliged to think beautiful thoughts which stopped me from sleeping despite the fact that it was way past my bed time and I was very sleepy. Eventually, however, I stopped thinking and fell asleep.
    But, four hours later the technician did something incredibly cruel.
    She woke me up.
    To ask me to sleep on my back.
    I don’t know if the microphone picked up all the cursing after she left the room and the further cursing when she woke me at six am so I could stagger home and stare at my computer screen in a sleep-deprived daze all day.

    The results of all this showed I had no apnea, leg jerking or sleep walking. I just had insomnia. No, really? I subsequently discoverered that these sleep studies are mainly interested in the breathing of the sleeper, not the insomnia.

UPDATE 4/19/15: Here's a book on a programme developed at Harvard that will actually help you sleep well every night if you put in the work: