Autumn, Sleep, and the Writer

Triple DoorIt’s been a long, hot summer out there. Much of the state burned while Seattle just had heat and smoke, so it could have been a lot worst. But for those of us without air-conditioning (meaning most of us), it was a slog, and sleep was hard to come by in those hot nights, tossing and turning in knotted, sweat-soaked sheets.

Getting through a regular work week when you’re under-slept is rough. A week when you’re trying to write, edit, promote a book, generally do anything other than collapse at the end of the day is a special kind of trial. But you do what you have to do, fight your way to tiny fists full of sleep until the heat breaks around 4am and then maybe 3 good hours until you have to get up for work.

You survive. It’s what you do, because vacations in cooler climes or nice apartments with air conditioning is for other people.

So it was a great relief when cooler weather and rain started swept into the city, apparently to stay for a little while. The smell of rain, the hiss of tires on wet concrete, the tapping of heavy drops on my kitchen’s fan vent–it was enough to bring a tear to this old writer’s eye.

But here’s the thing: I have a history of not doing well with sleep. I call it the Hamster Wheel phenomenon.

Ten years ago when I was living on my own again and really had no life other than work and writing, I would put the coffee on at any time of day or night and just stay up and write whenever I wanted to. I could get by with a few nights of 4-5 hours of sleep and then catch up and it wasn’t exactly a bad thing. I set some really unfortunate sleep habits. But hey, it wasn’t like I had a lot of traditional self-destructive author vices. I barely drank and even then not to excess. I didn’t smoke and never cared for drugs. A little Bohemian self-indulgence, staying up to satisfy my muse, that seemed acceptable. I was also prone to the trap of staying up to what sounded like a reasonable bedtime rather than listening to when I was actually tired.

It wasn’t a huge problem. Except for the nights when I wanted to sleep but couldn’t, tossing and turning with a racing brain, cat-napping through the night. Turns out it’s a neuro-science thing that’s been shown with brain scans. The brain waves when you’re in a creative space are not the brain waves you need to be working with for sleep and relaxation. And I got too used to cycling my brain up at night time, a constant barrage of active mental engagement rather than letting go and sinking into an Alpha state.

My sleep suffered. As a result, my health suffered. So I had a bit of a breakdown a few years ago to just listen to my body. If I was tired at 7pm, by damn, I was going to go to bed at 7pm. There was no shame in it. And I more tightly regulated when I’d write or be creative in the evenings. One, maybe two nights a week. The rest of the time it was morning and afternoon.

And it worked. It helped. My sleep evened out. But last year I knew that with NaNoWriMo coming, I’d be writing more frequently in the evening, and I knew sleep was going to be a problem. I got my doctor to prescribe me Ambien, and with occasional use, I was able to get my bad sleep under control. But doctors are careful not to let patients rely on Ambien, so I got a refill or two nothing since maybe January. And other than the heat wave, it’s been okay. I’ve gotten the sleep I needed.

The heat has broken. Rain is pounding on the windows. And my sleep patterns are broken again.

See, it wasn’t just the heat keeping me awake this summer. I had two books come out, and I was crazy busy with editing and promotional things and thinking I needed to be working on what was next.

I don’t know the last time I finished something. My story in the just released Selfies from the End of the World, probably? And that was in the Spring. I’ve started several books. All have run aground somewhere short of 25k. I don’t think I’m going to finish two of them. I stopped one after the first chapter and I’m going to take a run at the rest of it once I outline it–maybe in December. A shorter piece I just started last weekend I need to finish laying out, but I hope to get it finished in September. But at this rate? I don’t know. I have a short story I want to write for an anthology that’s due mid-December. It might happen. I have two different projects outlined for November, which I should be able to power through under the auspices of NaNoWriMo, my 10th year since writing Greetings from Buena Rosa in that shitty basement apartment in the U-District while I rebuilt my life.

My brain is a coked up hummingbird in a cage of meat and bone.

I go from a night of broken but acceptable sleep to a night where I can’t cycle down, can’t fall asleep until 2 or 3am and go to work exhausted. Then that night I get to bed right after dinner, as early as 7pm, sometimes with an over-the-counter sleep aid, and I sleep for 11-12 hours solid. And then the cycle repeats. The Hamster Wheel is spinning so fast it’s starting to smoke. But it’s spinning in place, producing nothing.

I need to find a solution–something sustainable that isn’t medication. Will be trying reading before bed, maybe some focused meditation the next week. With luck, that will help me get ahead of this. If not, it’s going to be an interesting Autumn.

4 thoughts on “Autumn, Sleep, and the Writer

  1. Ugh. The falling asleep at 3am on a worknight is the worst. Are you careful to abstain from caffeine after 10 or 11 am? That helps me a lot. So does a hot bath or shower before bed in the cooler months. And I couldn’t live without my white noise machine. I love that thing. Try melatonin if you haven’t (personal experience: it helps me get to sleep but often wakes me up in the middle of the night.)
    I also really try to calm my brain and thinking down. Zone out in front of some rerun, or scroll aimlessly online. Reading or watching something new actually isn’t helpful because invariably my brain becomes too engaged. It’s the zoning out I’m after.

    Good luck NC.

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