I was a very good sleeper. My mom said if I was fussy and tired, I didn’t whine or cry, I just went right to sleep. Of course, we can’t all sleep like babies. My first bout of insomnia was in medical school. If you acted tired or complained about being sleepy, it was seen as a negative, a weakness.
I had a career as an internist, doing intensive care and pulmonary care. I used to run around in an ICU, where alarms went off constantly. Patients needed you at that very instant. And then you had to run off to the next patient. Now I am able to slow down and spend time with patients, not just for a shift but for weeks, months sometimes.
In the ICU, you have to face the fact that often there is very little you can do for someone. [But] most sleep disorders are curable. Watching someone change their life — not just their sleep — for the better is just fun. When I made the change to this career, I became a much happier person. It’s hard to be in a good mood when you are tired all the time.
The most common diagnosis we treat is sleep apnea. Those people are more willing to come forward, whereas people with insomnia are trying to tough it out. And I know insomnia is prevalent because whenever I mention what I do for a living, people tell me about their lack of sleep! I don’t understand that shame, but I think it’s because our culture, until very recently, valued productivity and hours of work more than taking care of ourselves. You still hear people saying, almost bragging, “I only got three hours of sleep,” as if to prove how busy they are. Our society pushes us to do more than we have time to do. Our technology keeps us from letting go. Every time that e-mail comes in, we jump right up. In this town, that’s absolutely a driver. People don’t want to admit to powering down.
If you don’t change how you live, you can’t change how you sleep. To be able to go to sleep, you need to be able to let go. Letting go can be scary. But when people get better about letting go with bad sleep habits, they get better with their ability to let go in life and be at peace with the world. I am a very good sleeper when I follow my own advice. I’m a Caps fan, so there are those weeks when I stay up several nights in a row watching TV. I have a teenager, so worrying can keep me up at night, just like any other parent. I know I am making bad choices — and will pay for it. No episode of “CSI,” no e-mail, nothing will make you feel as good as rest.