Recently, I stopped sleeping. I used to be one of those champion sleepers — you know the type. I possessed the power to fall asleep on a city bus or on a long car ride. I could lie in bed for 30 seconds and immediately conk out. And I needed it, too: Sleep is the only thing that makes me a person and not a wolf in the morning.
I have Nonverbal Learning Disability, and some evidence suggests that those of us with the condition need more sleep than average; NLD usually results in deficits in social and motor skills. But since 2018 conspired to become a mix of personal and less personal tragedies, I stopped sleeping. Instead, I’d sit in bed in the middle of the night, consumed by thoughts of what might happen next and how I could avoid uncertain ruin.
I hadn’t had trouble sleeping since college, when I was heavily medicated for an illness (that I turned out not to have) and routinely ate pizza or quesadillas at 2 a.m. with friends. (Later, I found out I had NLD instead, combined with hypothyroidism and a vitamin deficiency.) But as it turns out, everyone is sleep deprived, and it’s killing all of us (slowly). I’m serious: There is plenty of evidence that sleep deprivation results in an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
We’re supposed to get seven or more hours of sleep. On good days, I’d barely crack six. Apparently if you have a few days when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain thinks it’s equivalent to being drunk. We may all be drunk! So I did some searching.
I tried peppermint tea, a glass of warm milk, banning electronic devices from our bedroom (this one does have clinical benefits — the blue light of your phone or laptop actually works against your body’s natural ability to sleep). I tried going to bed earlier. I tried going to bed later. I removed caffeine and alcohol from my diet entirely. I stopped eating after 7 p.m., because I had heard that digestion can also interfere with sleep. I got a newfangled alarm clock that is supposed to wake you gently by becoming brighter and brighter and eventually filling the room with light and the distant, peaceful chirping of electronic birds. I avoided the TV and my laptop in the two hours preceding bedtime.
Then I got crazy and started looking into other options. I was willing to try pretty much anything.
The so-called military method is supposed to make you fall asleep within two minutes.
It was developed during World War II to enable U.S. pilots to fall asleep under less-than-ideal circumstances, according to the 1981 book “Relax and Win: Championship Performance in Whatever You Do,” by Bud Winter. The sleep method gained popularity last year thanks in part to a post in a men’s lifestyle magazine, then another one on Medium and then on lots of other sites that write about things going around the Internet. Soon enough, the method was everywhere.
So I thought: What the heck. Why not? I tried it. Here’s how it works:
1. Relax all the muscles in your head. Your face alone has 43 muscles. Pretend none of them work.
2. Relax your arms and drop your shoulders. Try one arm and then the other. You can do it in sections as you work down each of your arms.
3. Relax your torso and breathe out. The intercostal muscles — the ones that assist in moving your chest as you breathe: Those are mostly involuntary, but pretend you’re relaxing them, too. Even pretending goes a long way here.
4. Pretend all the feeling has gone from your legs. Thighs first, then calves. (People familiar with meditative body scan might find these familiar.)
5. While you’re doing all of this, try to clear your mind. If that’s not working, that’s okay — repeat “don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” to clear it. You can also try thinking of one of two other images he suggests in the book — relaxing in a hammock in a dark room or lying in a canoe on a quiet lake.
The first few days were brutal. I spent most of them lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, attempting to be in a canoe on a quiet lake. But a lake has water, and I’ve been worrying a lot about our triplex and its many problems, including the way the rain sheets off the back end of the building. So the canoe was out.
The hammock’s imagery failed shortly thereafter. Dark, quiet hammocks felt too claustrophobic. “Don’t think,” I told myself. That didn’t really work either, but it kept my mind from drifting, which meant I eventually fell asleep after a half-hour of practice.
I tried it for a week, and by the fifth day or so, I started to get the hang of it. I felt like it reset my sleep pattern in some fundamentally important way. It actually did relax me and make me feel less stressed before sleep.
Does it work in two minutes? Absolutely not. Hammocks and canoes seem like unhelpful metaphors at best. But there’s something about telling yourself to turn off your brain that feels, well, compelling. And that may be the point of it.
If you want to fall asleep in two minutes, you may be totally disappointed. If your goal is to get to bed at a reasonable hour (I know this is subjective at best), why not try it? And if you can fall asleep in a canoe, tell us your secret. My hat’s off to you.
Emily Maloney is a writer who lives in Evanston, Ill. Her first book, “Cost of Living,” is forthcoming.