End Your Insomnia: The New Shift in Sleep

Before artificial light was common, people snoozed for part of the night, got up for a while, then returned to bed. Our writer shows that this medieval pattern yields modern benefits

by Beth Levine
eye mask sleep image
Photograph: Ben Wiseman

3 Make sure my wakeful period, whatever I decide to do with it, is gentle rather than taxing or anxiety producing. For example, I shouldn’t watch political news shows that make my head want to explode.

4 Feel free to nap as usual. “Contrary to popular belief, napping does not interfere with the quality of your sleep at night. It just adds to the recovery and the repair that sleep is supposed to accomplish,” Sisson says.

Wednesday
8 p.m. At the beginning, I get a boost from nature in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which roared through Connecticut right before my start date. A giant fir came down and took out the whole neighborhood’s power, so we have been thrown back to preindustrial times with no electricity, Internet or phones (landline or cell). My husband Bill and I huddle around the light of a few candles, feeling quite Little House on the Prairie–ish. The romance palls quickly, however. In about 10 minutes, I completely understand why our forebears turned in so early. Between the darkness, silence, cold and utter boredom, I can barely keep my eyes open. I give up and crawl into bed.

2 a.m. Aaaannd I’m up. Now this is where I would usually flop around for an hour, but instead I stop trying to sleep and get up. I wouldn’t mind gossiping with my neighbors, but since it isn’t AD 1300, none of them are wide awake. Then a brilliant idea strikes me: There are so many dangerous downed power lines in the area that the electric company has posted executives to sit in their cars for 12 hours at a time to keep an eye on them until they’re fixed. Earlier, I chatted with the poor lady from internal auditing who has been stuck in her Ford Focus outside our house, looking bored enough to weep. Huzzah! Internal Audit Lady will be thrilled to see a fellow human and connect!

I put on a parka over my jammies, grab a flashlight and go out into the cold. Yet sitting out there in the pitch dark is not my friendly lady but some huge guy who looks just as alarmed to see me as I am to see him. Abort mission! Abort mission! I do a U-turn to the house and run into Bill, who has gotten up to see where I went. We climb back into bed and yak for a while. It’s nice. Sort of reminds me of the odd moments we used to steal when we had an infant and practiced no-phasic sleeping. Surprise, I drift gently back to sleep.

Thursday
2:30 a.m. Still no power. When I wake, I grab my e-reader, with its soft glow light, and lie in bed, all cozy and warm, while I knock off a couple of chapters. And then I use up my charge and the reader dies. There’s no way to revive it. Ugh! I am not made for pioneer living.

Saturday
5:30 p.m. The lights return, and we are back among the living. Sort of. While we have electricity, we still don’t have a landline, Internet or TV, which all come through cable. Using a cell phone, Bill and I take turns sitting on hold with the cable company for more than two hours, then give up. Since it’s a 24-hour hotline, I decide I will use my between-sleep period to try again.

3 a.m. Alas, even in the middle of the night, while my call is very, very important to the cable company, the folks there still don’t want to actually talk to me. I lie in the dark on hold for half an hour. Then I realize the obvious: Fighting bureaucracy is not exactly the kind of low-stress pursuit the experts have recommended.

Monday
8 p.m. And the Lord said, Let there be cable! Now the fun really begins. I’m hoping to keep some of the rhythm of the past five days of living off the grid.

First published in the June 2013 issue

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