The best thing you can do for your insomnia is stop worrying about it. Stop letting it rule your life. If you can unleash your passion for your favorite daytime pursuits, your nights should pretty much take care of themselves.
That’s commonsense wisdom from Vancouver author Stephen Altschuler. His long history of job stress as a frontline social worker and mental health counselor never wrecked his sleep as much as cancer and aging did, he said.
In his new, self-published book, “Beating Insomnia,” Altschuler tells the story of how his formerly good rest went bad, all the drugs and therapies he tried, and how he eventually experimented and refocused his way back to a decent, natural night’s sleep. The paperback is available for $9.99 on Amazon.
“Sleep is as natural as digestion,” he said. “You just need to get out of your own way and let your body do it.”
For millions of Americans, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Sleep problems seem about as common as the countless cups of coffee we imbibe — often in a cyclical quest to pick up daytime speed after too much caffeine prevented quality sleep the night before.
Breaking chemical cycles and solving physical problems can be crucial for good sleep, but breaking the mental cycle of stress, anxiety and desperation about insomnia itself may be paramount, Altschuler said.
“I was a good sleeper all my life,” said Altschuler, 76, who grew up in Philadelphia and devoted himself to helping others through a long career in street-level and prison-based mental health counseling and social work. Somehow, that demanding career never affected his sleep. In fact, he said he felt proud of his efforts and mentally untroubled at night.
A sudden diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma upended all that, he said. Chemotherapy saved his life but also shattered his slumber. Altschuler’s fears of decline, disability and death did not help. His unlikely track record of peaceful nights was over.
Altschuler sought the help he needed and came away with prescription after prescription, but difficult side effects were always part of that package, he said. Eventually, he realized he was just as addicted to drugs as his own mental health patients, so he painfully weaned himself off of his sleep medication.
His insomnia raged. His mental state declined severely. Altschuler’s psychiatrist asked him if he had a suicide plan — and he confessed that he did. That was the second time his life got saved, Altschuler said. He made the conscious decision to destroy the rope he could have used to hang himself and to get on with life as best he could.
Retirement, along with relocating from the expensive Bay Area to more affordable Vancouver, turned out to be the right answer for Altschuler. It freed him up to pursue his passion for writing.
He said that pursuit had been eclipsed by an unwelcome new one: his passion for insomnia itself.
“Every waking moment had to do with curing ‘my’ insomnia,” he writes. “I was absolutely obsessed with such thoughts and saw how I was feeding the monster constantly. Furthermore, it was all I talked to my wife about. It was all I talked to my friends and relatives about.”
Altschuler’s obsession even drove some of those friends and relatives away, he confessed.
“I was getting very, very boring,” he said with a chuckle.
“Insomnia is socially isolating,” Altschuler writes, “putting us in a position of defense all the time, of lame excuses, of planning our day like a military battle.”
Fortunately, after exhaustive experimentation with remedies and therapies — from pharmaceuticals to coloring books, from apps to acupuncture, from hypnosis tapes to so-called shaking and tapping therapies, all of which are evaluated in his book — Altschuler found the right sleep doctor. (He recommends in the introduction to his book that you consult your doctor about insomnia, too — and definitely before making any changes in medications you take.)
His new doctor was more interested in coaching behaviors than prescribing meds. He offered commonsense advice about bedtime routines — for example, don’t force yourself into bed when you’re not feeling sleepy yet.
Many of the best sleep practices that Altschuler endorses will be familiar to folks who hunt for good sleep: Keep your bedroom cool, dark and pleasant. Wind down by reading something a bit on the boring side. Don’t take in stimulants, news or violent TV. Rise at the same time every morning.
But Altschuler’s new doctor also urged a much more profound step: take inventory of your life and make new meaning. Since insomnia thrives on attention, he said, the best thing to do is stop paying it attention. Instead, make your daytime life the best and most meaningful it can be.
“To shift attention away from sleep difficulties, you must find something in your life to look forward to waking up to,” Altschuler writes. “It means essentially ignoring insomnia, and in doing so, taking away its power.”
Taking an honest inventory of your life — including whatever bugs you at night and whatever brings you joy during the day — is something we should all do periodically, Altschuler said, even if we don’t suffer from insomnia.
“Finding one’s purpose is not done to cure insomnia,” he writes. “It is done to make sure you are doing things you are happy about doing.”
While retirement was a welcome relief, it also left a big void in Altschuler’s life, he said. Taking his own personal inventory led him back to writing and photography. He’s written seven books in recent years, ranging from a memoir to a spiritual golf guide. He also launched Sacajawea Press, his own small publishing business.
“The more I stopped thinking about sleep problems the more I focused on setting up a new business,” he writes. “Wonder of wonders, my sleep began to improve.”