Life + Health

Insomnia, and how I’ve been dealing with it.

Bruno never has trouble sleeping. I’m a different story.

Several years ago, on my old blog, I wrote about my lifelong struggle with insomnia, and the frustration I feel over not being able to easily submit to an aspect of living that should be effortless. I can remember being 7 years old and lying in bed, unable to sleep, and starting to cry because I wanted to so badly. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, my insomnia was at its worst. I was working at a demanding full-time retail job (sometimes overnight) while attending art school full-time, and I was unable to slow myself down enough to sleep properly—there were periods of time where I would go for weeks on end without getting more than 2 hours of sleep at a stretch. It’s very hard to recover from poor sleeping habits; it took me years to return to normalcy after finishing college and starting to work regular daytime hours.

I thought I would share some of the things I’ve discovered really help me to just go to bed.

1. Get a white-noise machine. I have a Marpac Sleep Mate, and it has literally changed my life. Things I used to fixate on and obsess over (the furnace turning on/off, my own breathing, silence, you name it!) just get lost in the background now. It’s amazing. I can’t sleep without it on anymore! Neither can Evan—in fact, we now have two just in case he has to go on a business trip.

2. If you’re tired, just get ready for bed. I know this sounds obvious, but one of my worst habits is procrastinating when I’m feeling sleepy. I’ll fight my drowsiness just to avoid having to wash my face and put my pajamas on. When I’m tired, the simplest things seem like monumental tasks. If I don’t force myself to get ready for bed, I wind up staying awake for hours just avoiding washing up—to the point where I am absolutely dreading the whole thing. It’s ridiculous, but I suspect this is common among insomniacs.

3. Don’t start a project less than 30 minutes before your target bedtime. Yes, that includes doing laundry, organizing your spice rack, ironing underwear, writing a blog post, or refinishing your floors. Late-night projects are just another way to avoid going to bed, and getting yourself wound up in trying to complete a “job” is just going to give you an excuse to not sleep. Worse still, if you can’t finish the task, you’ll lie in bed and think about what a failure you are for not being able to finish. You might even be tempted to get out of bed and back to work!

4. Don’t sleep late on the weekend. Every article you’ve ever read about insomnia says this, and it’s true. Try to stick to roughly the same schedule every day of the week. It really does make a difference.

5. Get an alarm clock with numbers that aren’t visible in the dark. One of my biggest problems used to be lying in bed, staring at those numbers, watching it get later and later… and then, once I’d fallen asleep, waking myself up periodically and checking the clock to see how much sleep I’d gotten. UGH!

And with that, it’s time for me to wash my face, brush my teeth, collect my Chihuahua (Bruno is already in bed, Fritz is on the sofa with me), turn on the white noise machine, and get under the covers for the night. Sweet dreams!

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  • Reply lau December 9, 2008 at 1:02 am

    i desperately need a clock that doesn’t show numbers at night. what do you use? that’s my biggest problem. i actually get up at night and put something over the numbers uhg.

    also, i know its weird, but if i set an alarm (i have a crazy schedule that, when i work, i am at work until 4am and can’t wind down until at least 5 or 6am so sometimes i just let my self sleep in on the day after – bad i know – i usually sleep till 2pm) sometimes, i get anxiety just knowing that my alarm is going to go off in the morning. just anticipating knowing that i have to get up. its like, if i have to go to the airport very early, i usually will barely sleep at all the night before, knowing that i NEED to sleep and just can’t. horrid!

  • Reply lau December 9, 2008 at 1:03 am

    wow, that whole entry was botched grammatically. i must be sleepy. ironic!!

  • Reply jessica December 9, 2008 at 1:33 am

    Thanks, these are really good tips. I struggle with insomnia too and it sucks. I know that some of these things will help and I just need to start doing some of them.

  • Reply Laura December 9, 2008 at 2:27 am

    Great suggestions! I’ve also found the great all natural patches that are helpful – even if it’s a placebo effect – The lavendar is the sleep aide one…

  • Reply Lynne December 9, 2008 at 4:49 am

    I’ve got a white noise machine too, which helps me sleep, especially as I have tinnitus which drives me crazy if I can’t drop off. I’ve discovered that turning off my computer early does help, and trying to read before bed. For the last month or so, it’s been taking me 2 to 3 hours to get to sleep, but slowly it’s getting a little better.

  • Reply Susan December 9, 2008 at 6:26 am

    As someone who has just come out of a three week insomnia phase I feel your pain, I too have suffered my whole life, including the associate neurosis with insignificant sounds. As a child, apart from waking up my mother to tell her I was unable to sleep, I would put my head at the opposite end of the bed. These days I move to the spare room. I have found that the distinct change of position to be most soporific.

  • Reply ana December 9, 2008 at 7:20 am

    “ironing underwear,”


    I had some periods of no sleep and it helped to have a special light, making a day light in my bedroom short before I have to be awake.

    Nr. 3 – oh so true!
    I just wonder if this machine (white one) disturbes another person in a bed?

  • Reply kristin December 9, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I have the same marpac white noise machine too and I love it. Can’t imagine sleeping without actually!

  • Reply abigail December 9, 2008 at 9:40 am

    lau, when i traveled for work, i started using my cell phone’s alarm and that solved the problem of the glowing numbers. at home i have an alarm clock with a dimmer (got it at target a few years ago) *and* i keep it turned away from the bed.

    i also used to lie awake whenever i had an early flight and i solved that problem by setting two alarms – it turned out that the insomnia was related to fear of missing the alarm and the flight. setting two alarms did the trick for me.

  • Reply attygreen13 December 9, 2008 at 9:42 am

    we bought a marpac when our baby was born (he’s now 6!) and my husband and i literally cannot get to sleep without it. if we go on vacation, it goes on vacation – don’t know what we’d do if we forgot to pack it! 🙂

  • Reply lena December 9, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I agree with all of this. I also started a routine of telling myself I was going to sleep from the feet up when I got in bed. Sometimes I am asleep before I get to my head.

  • Reply nicole December 9, 2008 at 10:51 am

    thanks so much for this post. i know how much this has affected you over the years, and i’m really glad that you’ve been able to find some things that help. once i finally broke down and got a clock that wasn’t displaying huge, bright numbers a few inches from my face, my own sleep issues vastly improved. i have also found that having a book right next to the bed to read at those unfortunate times when i really can’t get back to sleep works like a charm. i can usually only last 10 minutes before my eyelids close.

  • Reply erin@designcrisis December 9, 2008 at 11:06 am

    I cannot live without my white noise machine! It travels with us, too. I used to be a horrible insomniac in high school, but gradually I’ve reformed my habits. It was verrrrrry hard, though. I even went to a doctor who told me it was important to go to bed the same time every night — “magic hour” — and that really helped.

    Good luck getting some shut eye!

  • Reply Adam December 9, 2008 at 11:13 am

    I am good about numbers 1 and 3. My alarm clock shows the numbers but I have conditioned myself over the years to simply not look at it once I get into bed. Numbers 2 and 4 are very difficult for me. I am a huge procrastinator when it comes to going to bed when I am tired and I am a big weekend sleeper-inner! I just cannot make myself get up at 6:15 on the weekends, not matter how helpful it might be to me.

  • Reply heather December 9, 2008 at 11:26 am

    I normally can get to sleep pretty easily. I’ve certainly had times of insomnia though. I also find getting ready for bed really difficult – it’s not just an insomniac’s issue. The whole flossing my teeth and removing make-up thing always seems so huge before I actually start it!

  • Reply Micaela December 9, 2008 at 11:43 am

    TOTALLY agree with the white noise machine. When I first moved in with the bf, he had one and I was just CONVINCED it wasn’t going to be anything but annoying to me who usually can’t sleep with a TV on. It took me one night to just love it! Now I can’t sleep without it. It def. helps because me and C work nearly opposite schedules. COMPLETELY agree!

  • Reply Fiona December 9, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I am not an imsomniac, but I totally procrastinate getting ready for bed. Having a child definitely helped me start getting into bed before midnight! Sleep deprivation (not of your own volition) can really take a toll, so I sympathize.

  • Reply maddy December 9, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    I love the way the photo perfectly illustrates your topic. In a very adorable way!

  • Reply Ceci December 9, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Sleep deprivation….hmmmm. Where do I start! Sex in the City @ 10:30; Family Guy @ 11; Family Guy @ 11:30; Bernie Mac; Bernie Mac….before I know it it’s 3am. I have a Dream Machine that illuminates the room & I find myself checking the time all the time. The latest would be getting up to pee @ 5 when my alarm is set for 5:45. TOTALLY sucks! I have a sounds of the ocean CD that I should start using & turn my clock the other way. I’m gonna try all your suggestions!!

    I found your blog via design-crisis & have been silently following your house transformation. It looks great!

  • Reply kim December 9, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    i’m wondering which model Marpac you guys are all using. i am thinking (because of this post) that this would make a great gift for my boyfriend for christmas!

  • Reply Anna at D16 December 9, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Kim, we have the SleepMate 980A (Dual Speed).

  • Reply melinda December 9, 2008 at 4:40 pm


    I have too experienced chronic insomnia. I am NOT a perky fit person BUT some physical exercise in the day has really made a difference. Those days I skip I cannot sleep. I wonder if in the modern world our use of our brain so outstrips our body, that at bedtime we have an exhausted brain fighting with an under utilized body?

  • Reply Mary-Ellen December 9, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    I, too, have that lifelong insomnia problem. Cured it. No TV in bedroom. No sleeping late on weekends. No caffine after 3pm–this includes chocolate. At least 30 minute activity (like walking). I use a fan turned towards the wall for white noise.

  • Reply decor8 December 9, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    I have had insomnia on and off for YEARS too. I think we have had the same span with it in our teens and twenties. Now in my thirties it is better but funny thing is, when I left the states in August for Germany (where I’ve been based since) I went from staying up every night until the sun came up (literally) the rooster would crow next door and I knew I was screwed…to sleeping! And I am in the city here and in an apartment building (vs. a quiet home in the country) and I sleep here. I usually go to bed between 11-midnight. It’s 1 now but I know the moment I go to bed I will fall asleep instantly. Here I have a cheap mattress from Amazon, in the states I have a hugely expensive mattress. I actually DREAD going home next week to the states because I am afraid the insomnia will return. I will try some of your tips above if it does…

  • Reply stacey December 9, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    yes, this is good. sometimes insomnia seems like a dirty little secret for me, it is nice to not be alone.

  • Reply Design Lovely December 10, 2008 at 4:44 am

    Your dog is too cute! Thanks for the tips.

  • Reply Get Togetha December 10, 2008 at 10:03 am

    You’re dog is a cutie pie! Yes..insomnia….sometimes you can be so dedicated to blogging that it will grab a hold of you….but you have to learn how to strive for balance…it won’t happen everyday…but it’s a goal that should always be in the back of your head…

  • Reply verhext December 10, 2008 at 10:10 am

    ha, i’m reading this because i cant sleep. for me, it’s entirely my own insanity – i lie awake thinking of all the terrible things that could happen to my loved ones. nice. 🙁

  • Reply Tatyana December 10, 2008 at 10:52 am

    I almost cried when I read that you would cry when you were little because you wanted to sleep but couldn’t. I am so sorry to hear (read) that.
    I’ve never had the problem of falling asleep but I do wake up in the middle of the night several times and can’t fall back asleep for large periods of time… so in the morning I feel exhausted because I’ve had an interrupted sleep.
    Lately it’s worse because I work full time and go to school at night and sometimes have so much on my plate that I get overwhelmed and freak out… which makes me wake up more often during the night.
    I agree with your list but I have such a hard time with 2 and 4… For some reason getting ready for bad seems such a chore… I just wish I could go to sleep with make-up and my clothes on curled up on the couch… And not sleeping in on the weekends… I wouldn’t know what to do with myself at 5 am on Saturday or Sunday. Homework, I guess… maybe I should try it. 🙂
    I think not having a TV, and other electronics with little bright lights in the room also helps a lot.
    Thanks for the tips. I wonder if the white-noise machine would be good to keep me asleep during the whole night. (?)

  • Reply coral December 10, 2008 at 11:13 am

    huh, I don’t know whether to be relieved there are so many of us out there, or sad. For me, its the ‘what ifs’ and I can stay awake all night thinking what if that christmas gift I bought online doesn’t arrive on time, what if I lose my job, what if we never finish our kitchen remodel and I live in this house-purgatory forever, what if I never fall asleep again, and it just goes on and on until I’m completely panicked and the alarm goes off.
    A lot of whats been mentioned has worked for me. Basically an evening routine that slows me down and gets my mind and body ready to go asleep instead of running around doing chores or staring at a brightly lit tv and then hopping into bed and expecting to immediately fall asleep when my brain is still all stimulated and active.
    Having a husband that promises whatever happens in our life, we’ll get through it together doesn’t hurt either. 🙂

  • Reply Sarah December 10, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Man, I thought I was the only one who put off the bedtime routine because I was just *too tired* to wash my face or brush my teeth! This entry is very helpful. I’ve never really thought of myself as having insomnia, but I have a lot in common with what you posted about… Including crying as a child because I was so frustrated and tired, but just couldn’t get to sleep. I am going to start looking for a clock without lit up numbers.

  • Reply paige December 10, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for posting those insights Anna. I covet my 8-10 hours of sleep and have always been mildly horrified by the idea of insomnia. Can you tell me what it feels like during the day for you if you’ve only slept for 2-3 hours? If I get less then 6 hours of sleep, my day is a complete write off. I have no motivation. I stumble around. I have a headache. I feel like I weight 1000 pounds. How do you make through 2 weeks like that? Is it constant brain fog? Do you nod off at all? How do you get any work done? And when you finally crash, do you end up sleeping for 3 days straight, or just a regular 8 hours?

  • Reply karina December 10, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I suffered from insomnia all my life, it got better every time I was pregnant but now It is starting to affecting me again.

  • Reply kim December 10, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    great! that is the one i was looking into! what a great gift idea, just in time.

  • Reply Jessie December 10, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks SO much for posting about this… I have been dealing with some similar sympotoms and wasn’t quite sure why or what would help. I even thought about this post last night as I was trying to fall asleep! (As I was trying to talk myself into calming down!)

    Anyways, thanks and I hope you feel better soon – being home while you feel sick is the worst!

  • Reply karly December 12, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear of your trouble, I can’t relate, but I’m sure it must be a nightmare. Have you ever tried meletonin? you can grab it at any health food store and it usually knocks me right out… the fact that it’s all natural and non-addictive is a big plus.

    Also, Sarah Vowell did a great episode on this american life a while back about her insomnia, it was fascinating and the outcome was pretty great, here’s the link:

  • Reply Maggie December 15, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    I have minor sleeping problems sometimes, nothing that could be labeled insomnia. It took me a while to realize how helpful white noise was. We’d been using a fan for the heat, and once it was gone I couldn’t sleep! But I wanted to recommend a tip for those with iPhones. There’s a White Noise application (probably more than one) available on the app store and we put it through the speakers. It has a ton of sounds available and it’s wonderful. If we travel, we just put it between our pillows and it’s loud enough.

  • Reply Ashley M. December 17, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Hello! First, I love, LOVE your blog. I stumbled across it today while looking up bathroom remodeling tips.

    Anyway, I’m a fellow insomniac . . . for as long as I can remember. Once when I was six, I came downstairs very late and my mom asked me what was wrong. I just used to stay up worrying about anything and everything, but I didn’t know why. It’s weird, but over the years, the not sleeping has just become a part of me. Ugh.

    Thanks so much for your suggestions. I especially like the white noise machine, and I’ll have to check it out. I used to sleep with a fan on, and that would help. My husband and I just bought our first house, and it’s so quiet at night! I fixate on everything like, yes, the furnace turning on and off and my HUSBAND’s breathing, but that’s a whole other issue . . . 🙂

    Anyway, one thing that works for me when I’m especially desperate is this herbal child-strength “medicine” with valerian. I can’t remember the name of it, but if you have a Wegmans, it’s in a little dropper in the organic/healthy foods section.

  • Reply Kate December 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Hello! I stumbled upon your blog while reading Apartment Therapy’s Best Homies contest. This post really hit home. I have struggled with insomnia since I was little as well. Its one of the WORST things in the world, because not only does it make you feel so alone (like the whole world is asleep, but you), but it makes the next day’s tasks so hard to deal with since your sleep deprived. Thanks for the tips. If they work for you, hopefully they will for me too!

  • Reply sunny December 23, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I’ve struggled with insomnia as well. This past year I’ve learned little tricks to help get more sleep.

    *No caffeine or sugar after 3 PM. Caffeine will have me awake too late and sugar will allow me to sleep but my eyes will pop open at 2 AM. grrrr…not fun.

    *I stopped drinking a lot of liquids at night..trying to get my water drinking in during the day. Those evening liquids had me up at least once during the night to use the bathroom. Now? hardly ever up in the middle of the night.

    *If I got up to use the bathroom, I’d check my email inbox. (yes..addicted!).. Now I turn off my computer in the early evening and am done. That helped me sleep through the night even more solidly (not sure why exactly).

    *I’m glad you mentioned the getting ready for bed earlier thing. I thought I was the only one. When I’m getting ready for the next day – picking out my outfit, packing a lunch, etc. I step into the bathroom and wash my face, etc. I started doing this because I’d get sleepy while watching TV, then the act of washing my face actually woke me up, I’d get a second wind, and not go to sleep for hours.

    *My latest thing is what I learned when napping with my 3 year old niece. She’s chatty like me and will talk and talk and talk. I had to tell her, “Mimo, just close your eyes and go to sleep.” She’ll say “okay” and then do just that. How simple! So one night I was mulling over everything and anything and had to tell myself, “Just close your eyes and go to sleep.” and that simple command helped me block everything out temporarily and simply fall asleep.

    so getting ready earlier, not drinking too much water before bed, avoiding sugar and caffeine after mid-afternoon, and turning my computer off completely has helped.

    Oh yeah…I could not sleep a wink without a fan in the background for white noise.

  • Reply sunny December 23, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    oohhh..sorry for the lengthy comment.

  • Reply sunny December 23, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    crappy crap. I meant to say – I get ready for bed pretty early, then watch TV or read. And the moment I get sleepy, I stop the TV or put the book down..and crawl into bed and go to sleep. No delay, no doing anything else..just letting my body get the sleep it needs when it says it’s tired.

  • Reply Cass_Cass December 31, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I know this is an old post, but hopefully you see this comment anyway :).

    I’ve had insomnia for as long as I can remember. It probably started when I started High School because my mom said when she’d put me to bed when I was little, I’d fall asleep within MINUTES and the next morning she’d come to wake me up and I was still in the same position as when I fell asleep.

    Now, however, I wake up constantly. I can still fall asleep amazingly quickly, like withint 10 minutes of going to bed…it’s the waking up constantly that’s the nightmare. I hate it. I’ll wake up on average 7 or more times a night. Hate hate hate. Plus I’m a grumpy person when I don’t get sleep, some days are worse then others, but in general, it screws with my patience, I don’t have any, lol. I’ve learned to deal with it because I’m against taking any prescription drugs for it and over the counter stuff like “SleepEaze” made it worse. BUT! My boyfriend did research for me (aww) and found that chamomile tea is amazing for insomnia and so is Valerian root. He’d make me 2 cups of chamomille tea (extra strong) 1 hr before bed and I’d take 2 supplements of valerian, which is all natural, while I was getting ready for bed. OMG. Amazing. It works so well. Try it sweety, you’ll be able to sleep. And insomniacs know what a luxury that can be!

  • Reply Rachel H. January 1, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this… I have a problem, I dont know how to deal with my sleeplessness, but I think a white noise machine will help. I lay in bed listening to my dog snore, my husband breath, the cars driving by and I get anxious. I think that white noise machine may save my life!

  • Reply Herb January 4, 2009 at 1:22 am

    I discovered the Zen alarm clock. I’d wanted one for several years and my wife bought one for me for Christmas, 2007. I don’t know how I got by without it. It doesn’t jolt me awake with an obnoxious, loud buzzing. It’s one chime. That’s it. After about 5 minutes, there’s another chime. 2.5 minutes later, another one. I’m usually up by the time the first one is done.

    The clock itself doesn’t stay lit after you’ve set it, and if it did, you can close the lid of the clock anyway.

    We too use a wave/white noise machine. I’ve had several, but the one we have right now is the best. The waves are random, so I don’t lay there listening to the pattern of the sound.

  • Reply Aele January 10, 2009 at 4:48 am

    I had to post a comment just because I can relate to your memory of crying as a child because you couldn’t sleep. I have a memory of a sleepover with my 2 best friends when I was about 10. My friends were and still are the type to pass out instantly while I lay in bed listening to the whirring of the fan and their snoring for hours. As we moved into our teen years, we added in more snoring and some grinding of teeth. Now as I’m turning 35, I sleep beside my husband whose snores are as loud as heavy metal concerts.

    I am also a procrastinator of washing up. I used to think if I washed my face, the water temperature would wake me up if I was sleepy. I even went out and bought facial cleanser wipes so I wouldn’t have to splash water on my face.

    As I read your post, I purchased a Marpac Sound Conditioner. I hope it helps me! I do have to say exercise really helps me. And trying to have a regular ritual to remind my body and mind that it’s sleep time.

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