Will I Ever Sleep? Sleep In Year One

By Stephen M. Lange, Ph.D.

tired woman with eyes closed

The first year of sobriety is incredibly stressful, and if you are maintaining sobriety you deserve all the self-praise you can muster.

During this first year, you may struggle with roller-coaster emotions including many that are painful — sadness, shame and anger, a sense of loss as you separate yourself from the people, places and things associated with addiction, fear of what the future will look like, fear of sex without drugs, and frustration adjusting to new and different relationships with family, friends and coworkers. Craving is common, expected, and learning to cope with cravings without relapsing is an important and difficult goal. It is also typical for people to want to rebel against instructions or suggestions given by others, such as persistence in counseling and psychotherapy, or participating in 12-step or other recovery self-help groups, and it is important to stick with recovery even if you resent people telling you what they think is best for you. You try to remain sober in a world soaked in drugs from beer commercials to friends or family who still use. In short, you, your body, your mind, and your soul are working non-stop on Mission I: Staying Sober. Not only is Mission I incredibly painful, it is exhausting. Regardless of how tired you are, you might toss and turn in bed as your mind refuses to wind down. “Will I ever sleep?” wonder so many people in the months after their last use.

When working this hard, it helps to eat and sleep well. You may have already learned the acronym “HALT,” which is shorthand for the risks to sobriety of hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness.

Establishing the basic daily routines of life from rising, eating, working your body and mind, resting, and sleeping becomes an important tool for health and recovery. When our routines follow the natural cycles of dawn, daylight, nightfall, and night followed again by dawn, this tool becomes sharper and more powerful. As helpful as harmony with natural cycles is, adjusting to natural day-night cycles is very difficult, and insomnia is very common. Addiction and sleep have a complicated relationship: Children who cannot sleep, who have trouble calming themselves down, and who become frustrated easily have very high rates of addiction as they mature.

Now, in your first year of recovery, those old problems may still be with you, complicated by years of alcohol or other drug use, and the chaotic experience of early recovery.

Nighttime sleep in early recovery is difficult, to say the least. First, your brain and body are adjusting to a new chemical environment, and this takes time. Second, in active addiction, alcohol and other drugs can prevent deep, restful sleep and dream sleep, also called REM sleep. Later in this article, you will read about “REM debt,” the result of dreamless, shallow sleep. The disruptive effects of drugs on brain chemistry do not wear off immediately.

When we are frustrated, tired, and impatient, time seems to drag and we can feel very  hopeless about ever sleeping again. Third, humans are diurnal — that is we are designed to “hunt” during daylight. We are designed to be cheetahs, the daylight hunting cat. However, in active addiction, people start their days when others are winding down. The active addiction lifestyle is nocturnal, a life of nighttime hunting. For shorthand, think of yourself in active addiction as having lived as a bat instead of the cheetah you are becoming.

Jet-lag is a minor inconvenience compared to addiction-lag from living many years like a bat. Not only were you upside down, but your days and nights were too. Finally, if your life in active addiction was a mess, now in early recovery you might well have debts to pay, amends to make, relationships to repair, and the internal chaos of uncertainty and ambivalence about your sober future. At night, when we relax our defenses and have less to do, our struggles and conflicts come back as the thoughts that keep us up at night. My favorite song to remind me of this is “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Google it, if you’d like.

Dreaming is another early recovery sleep issue. It is very common for people in early recovery to have vivid, dramatic, and frightening dreams. You might feel afraid that you are crazier sober than you were when you were using. You are not crazy or alone if you experience intensely disturbing dreams. These dreams are the result of your brain paying off a REM debt from years of dreamless sleep.

It is important to know — right now — that your sleep will improve as time progresses from  your last drink or other drug, and your brain and body will heal. Do not get caught in the all-or-nothing thinking habit of using the words “never” and “forever.” As well, remember how impatience is a quality that you might share with many other addicts in recovery and those still suffering from active addiction. It is difficult to practice patience when you are exhausted and not sleeping. Time crawls in the dark. Unfortunately, patience is required when it comes to sleep. It will not improve on your schedule; it will improve on  a schedule determined by your individual biology and chemistry, and by the length of time and amounts you used, and not by your self-will. You might decide to consider sleep one of the first lessons in developing patience. In a way, powerlessness over our bodies’ schedules for healing is a powerful First Step. Even so, understanding powerlessness over our biology and chemistry is not the same as saying that we cannot practice recovery principles and make healthy choices that help us heal. That is the puzzle of all great First Steps.

So what can any of us do to develop harmony with the natural day night cycle and sleep?

Consider these 12 lessons from sleep science about the healthy choices we can make:

1. Wake up the same time each morning. We all look forward to days we can sleep in,  but it is healthier to rise each morning at the same time. Anytime we establish a routine that puts us in harmony with natural day-night cycles, we are helping our sleep to improve.

2. Sunlight is medicine. I have a favorite song for this too, the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun,” maybe something else to Google. Our brains have internal clocks that respond to sunlight. If you like brain science, it is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. It is located deep in our brains where the evolutionarily oldest parts of our brains lie. That means we had this brain-clock long before humans had the brainpower to find it or name it. Living and working indoors in artificial light that is disconnected to the natural day-night cycle confuses our brains and it is difficult to tell day from night. In contrast, when we expose our faces to the sun, keeping in mind to wear sunscreen and take whatever precautions our physicians recommend, we signal this internal clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, to prevent us from producing melatonin, the sleep hormone. This promotes daytime alertness and primes our brains to recognize twilight, when our brains should start producing melatonin in preparation for bedtime. Sunlight between breakfast and lunch will help you feel alert today and to sleep tonight. A bonus of sunlight is that it also acts as a natural antidepressant. It is one of nature’s buy one-get one specials.

3. Our bodies and minds need daytime work. In order to feel healthy and to regulate our sleep-wake cycles, we need to work our minds and bodies. Before modern machinery, when our ancestors labored physically as well as mentally from sun-up to sundown, there were probably few people with insomnia. Now, many of us work with our minds, often sitting for long hours in front of screens, and do not get the moderate physical exercise we need to feel alert during the day and to signal our bodies when it is time to rest. Moderate physical exercise, especially between breakfast and lunch, will improve your alertness today and your sleep tonight. Like daylight, moderate physical exercise is another of nature’s great buy one-get one deals. It, too, is a natural antidepressant.

4. Naps are sleep killers. We have a budget of how many hours we sleep in any 24 hour  period. If we nap during the day, we deduct this time from our nighttime sleep. We also stray from the natural day-night cycle which can leave us feeling off balance, and can confuse our bodies and brains. Do not spend your daily allotment of sleep during the day by napping.

5. Use insomnia to learn about yourself. After a sleepless night, think for a moment, “What was I thinking about when I was trying to fall asleep?” You may have been thinking about a conflict you need to solve, a relationship you want to repair, or other unfinished business. If you have not shared these struggles with your counselor, sponsor, therapist, or Higher Power, maybe you should. Struggling alone is tough, especially at night. Consider your nighttime thoughts a gift of important insights about your struggles that “keep you up at night,” and that you might want to work on during the following day.

6. We need darkness at night. Just like our ancestors performed hard, physical daily work and experienced sunlight during the day, they had the gift of darkness at night. Before Thomas Edison, the day ended when the campfire burned down to embers, a candle burned down to its base, or a lantern emptied of oil. Whether under a night sky or in a shelter, home was dark. Just like daylight signals our brains to rise, stay alert and awake, darkness signals our brains’ clocks to produce melatonin and make us drowsy. As the sky darkens, we should gradually darken our homes until we head to bed in a dark room.

7. Cool down. As the sun went down on our ancient ancestors, the air cooled. Our brains and bodies adapted over millennia to sleep in a cool environment. In the 21st century, this  means that we need cooler temperatures and cooler activities at night. If you need to argue – think of that as a “hot” activity — save it for daylight. If you like video gaming, watching the news, or anything else stimulating, limit these hot activities to daylight. At night we need “cool” activities like listening to restful music, reading something calming, or doing something repetitive like knitting. Don’t laugh – knitting is therapy. Our body temperatures need to cool as we approach sleep too, so a hot shower before bedtime and a cool, dark room to sleep in can help. Use evening, the time following dinner, to cool down physically, emotionally, and mentally.

8. Avoid caffeine. Caffeine and other stimulants, including the nicotine in tobacco, are sleep killers, especially after midafternoon. If you do not feel alert during the day, substitute a healthy snack, a change of task, sunlight, or a walk to enhance alertness.  Especially avoid “energy” drinks. The only sources of energy our brains and bodies use are foods that provide calories. This means that beverages like milk and orange juice provide energy – calories — while “energy drinks” provide caffeine intoxication. This can feel stimulating, and like so many highs, you will eventually crash. Then you will crave. And if  you repeat the cycle, you will crash again. And then crave, and so on. You know too much about intoxication to want anymore.

9. Use your bed for sleep and sex. Using your bed to work or play, especially with  electronics, conditions us to remain alert in bed. Keeping our bed as a space for sleep and sex conditions us to sleep and have sex when we climb into bed. Not a bad trade-off!

10. If you have been in bed 20 minutes and have not fallen asleep, get up. There are few things more frustrating than lying in bed not sleeping. There are few things that kill sleep  as powerfully as frustration. If you cannot fall asleep, sit in a chair and read, pray, meditate, journal, listen to restful music, knit, or otherwise relax until you feel so sleepy that you wonder if you will make it back to bed. Then lay back down. Repeat as necessary.

11. Practice spirituality as a cooling evening activity. Prayer is a great nighttime ritual, if it is part of your belief system. If it is not, think about rituals that are in harmony with what you do believe. Anytime we establish evening routines that are times for contemplation, and are times for reflection and gratitude, we are creating spiritual spaces, whether or not we believe in G-d or another Higher Power.

12. Know that you are becoming healthier every day you are sober, and that your sleep will slowly improve. Slowly means that we count time in months, not days. However slowly that might seem, avoid a bad case of “never” or “I can’t!” Optimism is medicine, too!

Steve Lange is a grateful family member of amazing women in recovery. He is also a psychologist who works with those in active addiction and recovery. Steve has appeared on radio and in print as an expert in mental health, addiction, and child development. He is an
avid admirer of Bill and Lois W., and Dr. Bob. smlangephd@gmail.com