The amazing insomniac lawyer gives up sleeping for Lent


Actually, since last Lent. We’re well beyond 40 days now.

For the past year or so, John has only slept in three-hour spates.  Sometimes he sits bolt upright in a panic, fearing being late for work or forgetting something. Sometimes he wakes up and raises himself slowly to loom over me so that he could see the alarm clock and find out what time it was (which, in turn, causes me to sit up in a panic or to dream about someone standing over our bed). Occasionally he’ll just toss and turn. On top of all that, he generally wakes at 5:30am and dozes fitfully thereafter. We can’t even blame Katherine for this, as she sleeps solidly and consistently.

Anyone who has shared a bed with another person for any length of time will appreciate how integrated the sleep habits of two people can become. When one of them modifies their rhythms, the other person either adapts or suffers or, like me, does a bit of both.

We’re not sure precisely what triggered this. Part of it is probably physical; the car accident he was in last year has had a lasting impact on his neck and shoulders. Part is undoubtedly psychological and work-stress related. At this point, a large part of it is also  likely habit.

Thus far we have tried the following:

  • a second alarm clock to forestall the “I’ll be late for work and fired” fear
  • regular exercise
  • decreased caffeine
  • stretching
  • various painkillers, from Advil to Anaprox
  • heating pads
  • mental relaxation rituals
  • elimination of work-talk from the later evening and from the bedroom entirely
  • blackout blinds (in case the light was an issue)
  • increased exposure to daylight during the day (to help the melatonin-circadian thing)
  • increased family relaxation time (including the adult variety)
  • Benadryl & Neocitran (make you drowsy)
  • career counselling for stress (lawyer-specific)
  • in-depth hunt for possible underlying stressors
  • new pillows (including an Obusforme one which was actually  worse)
  • mantras for relaxation
  • earplugs (no-go. He hates them.)

None of it makes any profound difference.

If you have any solutions for two people who haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a year, please tell me. By my best calculation, I’m about 950 hours behind, losing on average two and a half hours a night. Give or take.

I suspect that this is actually a common thing among lawyers and people in high-stress jobs. If anyone has any suggestions, send ’em on. I’m almost to the point now of asking him to try medications of some sort to train his sleep habits back to normal again, but I’d welcome any other thoughts.

Anyone? Anyone?


16 Comments Add yours

  1. rexton says:


    I’ve sent some information from our OHS expert, but a lot of it is related to shift work. Here are a couple of things and ideas I’ve gleaned since I started shift work and had to cope with irregular sleep cycles. I think some of these complement some of the measures you’ve mentioned.

    -No food or caffeine within 3 hours of sleep.

    -In the last hour have a regular getting ready for sleep routine with nothing to excite you or make you more alert. Also try to sleep at the same time every night to set a pattern.

    –Keeping the room itself cool helps you sleep, curled up under the blankets. It helped me a lot.

    -Your blackout curtains are a good idea, and you should also check that there are no light sources like LED displays in John’s field of view. Total darkness seems to make a significant difference to almost dark.

    -Is there any activity going on in the house or neighborhood around 5:30 am that wakes him up? If so, it may be something you can cope with.

    -Some people like White-noise generators to mask furnace noise, etc.

    -There used to be a sleep-disorder specialist in the psych department at MUN; I played guinea-pig for him for one of those $20 studies. Maybe there’s still someone around, in the Med School, or in town who can help.

    Good luck with this.



  2. “When your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it’s always hard to sleep.” – Charlotte’s Web

    First, sympathies, and second, amazement on how well you function regardless. But you’ve got to fix this, it’s not good for you. I hope there’s a way to do a sleep clinic trial or something similar.

    It doesn’t seem like falling asleep in the first place is the main problem; more like how not to wake up at the wrong time, or get back to sleep if it’s not time to get up.

    The panic moments are obviously stress. You’re working on that.

    If pain (even the ablebodied get stiff after lying down for hours) then time-release painkillers? Mattress too soft? Something else changing halfway through the night?

    RE: clock: I actually wear my watch to bed, because without my glasses I can’t see the clock. My watch has a push-button light, so the constant LED clock-light isn’t necessary but I can bring the lit-up watch close enough to my eyes to read if I need to.

    They say tossing and turning in bed trying to sleep is no help. Any way to get out for a bit, sit in a chair, read with a booklight and blanket? And if he falls asleep there, what odds? Might be a cure for the habit part of it. Trade sides of the bed, or change the room layout… something like that.

    What are the dogs’ roles? Do they stir and wake him, or _not_ stir as much as they once did and make him listen for them?

    Does it happen at Exploits?

    By the way, you don’t have to answer these questions, report back on trying any of this, or justify not doing so. Sounds like a terribly frustrating experience. I recall from the trailer days that John was always a light sleeper, or “traveler” as Mom called him. I bet it takes a pretty ideal environment (whatever that is) for him to actually sleep through the night, and a vanished carefree youth to not care how much sleep he does get. Best of luck, and hugs.

  3. r.e.wolf says:

    I would second the “white noise” suggestion – maybe one of those “nature sounds” generators, with something calming like surf or rain sounds.

  4. David says:

    I wish I could remember exactly how this goes, but it was offered by my highschool phys-ed teacher: “Put your finger in a bowl of water. Remove finger. Look for the hole.”

    When I try to analyse this situation, I draw a number of conclusions:
    – placing my finger in the water has some effect; the level rises, my finger makes ripples, etc. Thus my finger has some influence on the bowl of water, at least in the short term.

    – removing my finger reverses the above, but if my expectation is that the water will remain static, ever preserving what I percieve as my effect upon it, I will be sorely disappointed. The bowl of water ‘gets over it’

    Here are some suggestions that may or may not be an option, however the other option is far less desirable:

    – Make a move closer to John’s worksite to remove the commute, and possibly the dread of a recuurence of the accident. (I’ll tell you about my ribs & collar bone(s) some time).

    – Have him do the late night stuff (wash dishes, fold laundry, etc., so you go to bed early, ALWAYS awake early, and have coffee ready. Possibly once he recognizes that he is ALWAYS the second one up….. (waking to the automatic coffee perk is sooooo less personal).

    – Nookey happens in the morning…….

    – More comfortable earplugs — I swear by them when Pat starts snoring. I can send you some of mine — I have 100 pairs.

    – Seperate beds when the occasion arises. Pat hates earplugs, so when it’s my night to be noisy, she retreates to the couch or spare room, depending on her mood.

    – Recognition on John’s part of his effect on your need for sleep. If he is not going to sleep beyond 5:30, he might arise, and do something quiet until it is time for him to bring fresh coffee to the bedroom….. (see a few points previous….)

    – realization that work ‘is’. The likelihood of John being fired for oversleeping is far less likely that of the bank across the hall being robbed. 😉

    – when I’ve been in the position, of sleepless nights, and tossing & turning, I try to recognize what it is that is bothering me (usually job related), and address that particular demon. Usually I finally realize that I can only do my bit, and the other guy has his part to play (or not), and that the world still turns. I have also used the idea of having that ‘happy place’ – the real goals in life; fixing the boat, planning the vacation, wallpapering the bedroom, visiting friends, whatever. It’s a nice place to be as you fall asleep, even at 5:00 in the morning. I spent many nights building a sailboat in my mind. Never actually built the boat!

    – (legal) drugs…… at times, something as simple as a Gravol can take enough of the edge of things to have the effect you need.


  5. sarai. says:

    Echoing Heather’s sympathy and amazement at your coping abilities.

    It seems like eeeeeverybody says don’t drink alcohol if you have trouble sleeping, but it puts me to sleep like a baby. A tablespoon of whisky in a glass of warm milk used to always do the trick for me when I had trouble sleeping. (Currently, I sleep too much, so I don’t do that anymore.) You tried the warm milk – maybe just the whisky? a splash of wine?

    I had better stop recommending the consumption of alcohol.

    The other thing that helps me when I am stressed and can’t fall asleep is to create an absorbing mental change of scene. I daydream, vividly. None of this “calming getaway” visualization: I pick something that would be TOTALLY COOL and has no relevance whatever to my current situation. For me, that is dreaming about having a big old house, and how I would furnish and paint it. Keeps me busy for hours. It can’t be a daydream that might actually come true in the next couple of years, or I will ramp up my goal-setting and stress out about how to accomplish that. Maybe a good daydream would be about living the life of a mind-controlling ninja.

    I do like the new mattress/room layout suggestions. I personally sleep far better on futons than on conventional mattresses.

    Have you explored feng shui? Re-orientation of furniture, placement of mirrors, or just keeping certain doors closed can make a huge difference in the room’s energy. It has made a significant difference to me in a few situations.

    Good luck.

  6. VickyTH says:

    Heather and Sarai – You reach a point where you’re so used to being tired that you forget what it’s like not to be. Did you never wonder why I drink two and a half pots of coffee a day?

    Lately, though, I’ve really noticed that my patience wears thinnner than usual more quickly and that my memory is far less reliable. Also, I tend to fall asleep randomly (sometimes with my eyes open) and I simply don’t feel as “sharp” as I used to. It’s a gradual and cumulative thing. Basically, it has to end because I thinking I’m finally slowly losing my mind (not kidding here).

    Thanks everyone for the ideas. I’m not going to address all of them here, but we’ll try rearranging the bedroom and entirely blocking out all sources of light. We’re due for a new mattress anyway (the one we have was Nanny Taylor’s).

    Mainly, though, it’s a work-anxiety thing. The nights he sleeps best are Friday and Saturday night (no fixed work schedule the next day) and he’s fine at Exploits or on vacation.

    We’ll try Gravol tonight and see how that goes. I think that the big problem is an inability to mentally reconcile the fact that there will always be work he hasn’t gotten to and there will always be someone questioning why it’s not done, no matter how much he does. And habit. Sometimes he wakes up now and isn’t at all stressed. Just awake. Frankly, they’re not paying him enough to work 20 hours a day.

    Anyway, Katherine has promised that she’ll a)stay in the house b) not spill or break anything and c)not touch anything dangerous/electric for a little bit, so I’m going to crash on the couch for half an hour. I don’t usually like to do that, as hell could break out randomly (although she is pretty good about most things), but I almost fell asleep in the shower earlier.

  7. Yikes. That sure doesn’t sound like fun for either of you.

    My husband and I have very different sleep patterns, and he usually goes to bed about 2-3 hours before me and wakes up 2 hours before me. Luckily, I sleep like a rock, though, so he never wakes me in the morning!

    I try to be as quiet as possible when I go to bed, so as not to disturb his sleep, but he’s a very light sleeper and I tend to wake him despite my best efforts.

    Good luck to you and your husband!

    – Jane, Pinks & Blues Girls

  8. blessed1 says:

    *The white noise machine is good.
    *Also no TV’s or activities in your bed except sleep and well you know….what husbands and wives do.
    *No caffiene throughout the day.

    Has he gone to a sleep clinic? I did b/c of my sleep issues and my doctor put me on Lunesta. It’s the TV commercial with the butterfly.
    I am not an advocate for meds, but Lunesta is not a narcotic. It just helps your body to learn to sleep again. It allows you to hit the REM sleep.

    I would have him ask his doctor about it. I only used it for 6 months, then weaned myself off of it. Now, I am by no means cured…BUT…I sleep so much better by myself for the first time is years!!!

  9. Ellen says:

    no real advise for you Vicky, but I hope you can both soon get some sleep.
    other than seeing his Dr. to see what he/she may suggest, the gravol may work for him.

    a few years back I had insomnia really bad and went to my dr he suggested I take an allergy pill, because the ingred. in it is the same as what USED to be a prescription sleeping aide.
    that works great for me as well.

    Good luck.

  10. David says:

    David’s Domino theory of tasks.

    Think of everything you need do as being a domino.
    Imagine them lined up along the edge of your desk.
    As tasks are completed a domino is removed. Sooner or later, new tasks fill the desk space, and they start falling to the floor. By careful placement of your trash can, the cleaning lady takes them away in the night.

    The point is, that if you, your client, or your boss didn’t find it important enough to find appropriate means (including resoueces) to complete a task in reasonable time, then it wasn’t really important. We all have more things to accomplish than time for completion. The trick is finding the balance.

    Also, the Gravol works well at 3:00 AM if restless, and doesn’t prevent hearing the alarm clock.

    Best wishes on good nights of sleep.

  11. VickyTH says:

    To contribute to the pool of information, an acquaintance with a high-stress occupation emailed me the following, which I reproduce here with permission. The earlier part of the email addresses the fact that the position necessitated being at the office before dawn and leaving after dusk (much like John does throughout the winter months)

    The email reads,

    “I bore you with all this information so that you know that I understand the type of work-related stress you’re talking about. Part of the problem for me is that my brain starts spinning on an issue and I can’t shut down. I was struggling to stay awake on the drive IN to work some days. I still don’t sleep consistently — what I have learned is how to cope with it.

    My advice:
    First: A medical checkup that includes a complete endocrine workup. When the results come back, make sure the doctor is referring to the updated guidelines for TSH values. In addition to crushing fatigue and sleep disturbance, every joint in my body felt like there was ground glass inside. My primary doc said I was fine; I insisted on a consult with an endocrine specialist. Result: Hypothyroid AND a Vitamin D deficiency (commonly a problem for those of us that work from before-til-after daytime). After three months on medication, I saw some improvement in sleep and a vast improvement in other symptoms.

    Second: Get up. I used to lay awake, watching the clock, obsessing over the lost hours (If I get to sleep now, I’ll get five hours…….OK, if I go to sleep now, I’ll get four hours…) The brain kept spinning. So I started to get up — BUT, no TV or computer. I would read or work a puzzle and drink a small glass of milk. The puzzle diverted my thoughts and the milk helped make me drowsy. Often, I could go back to be within an hour and sleep until morning.”

    I thought it worth posting here, as it addresses certain medical aspects of long shifts and prolonged stress and might be of help to other readers dropping by.

  12. HollyC says:

    I have had similar problems with sleep habits with my 2 year old twins…now 6 years old. also, my own problems with insomnia, waking up every 3 and half hours.
    1.Try drinking more water during the day.
    2.Liquid melatonin, dosage under the tongue a half an hour to an hour before going to bed.
    3.L-ornithine capsules half and hour to an hour before you go to bed, to reduce ammonia build up in which causes insomnia.

    for some reason milk and chocolate cookies works for me, in combination with the other suggestions.

    If you can only try one thing, first try the liquid Melatonin. Usually found at a good health food store.

    If you can’t do that, try the L-ornithine an amino acid found from a good natural vitamin supplement supplier (possibly located on the internet)

    ofcourse drinking more water through out the day is always beneficial.

    If you have questions about what I have mentioned here. You can e-mail me at

  13. David says:

    So, lent is nearly come to a close, Has the new bed arrived, and is it working?

    Enquiring minds….. are enquiring.


  14. VickyTH says:

    The new bed arrove yesterday and the difference between it and the old is night and day. Neither of us was uncomfortable or creaky when we got up. (Note to self: new beds are a good antidote to ageing)

    Things are gradually progressing. The Gravol helped. I’m not sure if the Melatonin made any real difference, but it’s in mix. Karate is making a big difference in calming his mind and giving him something on which to focus and readjusting his mental approach to work has helped as well. Plus some of the more stressful cases with which he’s been dealing have progressed past the acute worry point.

    So he still wakes up in the wee hours semi-regularly, but never for long and generally has no problem getting back to sleep. Definite progress.

    The new bed is great, though. It’s about eight inches higher than our old one, which means that I actually have to use a stool to get up on it, or jump. The new mattress doesn’t sag and isn’t bumpy, but rather makes you feel like you’re supported from head to toe. A very nice feeling.

  15. David says:

    That’s great to hear. Hopefully the night will become ever more restful.


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