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The 2am Club

These are dark times we live in, literally and figuratively. The collapse of the National Grid for the past few weeks, accompanied by the exponential…

These are dark times we live in, literally and figuratively. The collapse of the National Grid for the past few weeks, accompanied by the exponential rise in the price of diesel in Nigeria has left majority of Nigerians in darkness. These, combined with the inflated airfares, high cost of fuel (petrol now sells at N250/litre, officially or not, you can’t tell me otherwise) and rising cost of food and services have succeeded in eliminating the middle class. 

It was not surprising therefore, when my insomnia reared its ugly head back, a few weeks ago. I have always battled with sleep, since childhood and only fully understood my relationship with it a few years back.

So, when Raliya* came with similar symptoms a few weeks ago, I could definitely relate. She was a 43-year-old civil servant who was finding it difficult to sleep. She had difficulty falling asleep and when she did, she usually woke up between 1am and 2am. Shikenan, sleep had finished. Raliya confessed that even when she could sleep, she had very vivid dreams and often woke up feeling not refreshed- what we call non-restorative sleep. It bothered her, this poor sleep and frequent awakening as it further worsened her anxiety. She would lie in bed, not sleeping, imagining all sorts of scenarios, plotting and planning. The next day, she would go to work feeling tired and sleepy. Sometimes, after work, she would have a 30 to 45-minute nap which was peaceful. However, at night, insomnia would set in.

Digging deep, I gathered that she usually had these symptoms on and off for the past 15 years. She hardly slept for more than four to five hours at a time. The quality of the sleep varied according to her daytime schedule, deep and dreamless when she was exhausted, light and fitful when she was sedentary. 

Welcome to the 2am club, I said.

In his famous book ‘The 5 AM Club’, Robin Sharma writes about how “5 am is the time of least distraction, highest human glory, and greatest peace.” Waking up at 5 am every day can work wonders to avert failures and make success a natural habit. When we wake up at 5 am, we have more time on our hands than others. Besides, this is when we have minimum interruptions and maximum powerfulness of the mind. 

Experts generally recommend that adults sleep at least seven to nine hours per night, although some people require more and others require less. A recent National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America poll found that adults (ages 18-54) sleep an average of 6.4 hours per night on weekdays and 7.7 hours on weekends. The poll showed a downward trend in sleep time over the past several years. People sleeping less hours tend to use the internet at night or bring work home from the office.

March 18th is celebrated annually as World Sleep Day and this year’s theme is ‘Quality Sleep, Sound Mind, Happy World’. Sleep is a foundational pillar of health, and the quality of your sleep can impact not just your physical energy in the morning but your mental and emotional health, too.

Not getting the proper amount or quality of sleep leads to more than just feeling tired. Sleepiness interferes with cognitive function, which can lead to learning disabilities in children, memory impairment in people of all ages, personality changes and depression. Additionally, people who are deprived of sleep experience difficulty making decisions, irritability, have problems with performance, and slower reaction times, placing them at risk for automobile and work-related accidents. 

There are different types of sleep and also different types of insomnia. What Raliya had was primary chronic Insomnia. Primary because there was no known cause like a life stressor or significant event and also because she had had it since childhood and chronic, because her condition had lasted well over 6 months.

The temptation to resort to the traditional method of treatment with education on sleep hygiene and medication was great as I had many other patients to see, but I persevered; for no other reason than I identified with her struggles.

Traditionally chronic insomnia is managed by educating the patient on sleep hygiene practices: Have a regular sleep routine. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature (In this country???). Avoid daytime naps. Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes. Don’t watch TV, use the computer, or read or use your phone in bed. Drink caffeinated drinks with caution. Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. Get some exercise. And so on and so forth. These tips are usually accompanied by prescription medicines which may or may not be habit forming depending on the degree of insomnia. 

The truth is, this method works, but only for some people and only for some time. True members of the 2am club know that it is only a matter of time before their body reverts back to its former state: a state of perpetual alertness. 

After reading Sharma’s book, I realised that not all of us are destined to sleep for 6-8 hours at a stretch. I have since come to the conclusion that, for some of us, 4 to 5 hours is all we need. The problem is we do not know this and so worry about the lack of sleep. This worrying ultimately leads to a lack of sleep creating a vicious cycle of insomnia. Lack of sleep-worry-lack of sleep. Rinse, wash, repeat.

So instead of worrying about her insomnia and telling Raliya what she already knew from her several hospital visits, I told her to embrace her sleeplessness. While others were sleeping, God had given her extra time. Use that time judiciously. I remember a story in Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to stop worrying and start living’ about a man who suffered from insomnia. While others were sleeping, he used that time to study the stock market and so by 12am he knew which stocks were selling fast and was therefore ahead of others by a good 6 hours. Today Warren Buffet is one of the richest men alive. The key lesson in that book was to turn lemons into lemonade.

We discussed at length with Raliya- what was her day like? What more activity could she incorporate into her routine? Did she exercise? What could she do during the daytime to exhaust her? Could we turn the night into something more productive? night prayer? studying? meditation? By the time we were through, both of us had come up with a thorough timetable of how we were going to make proper use of our nights. Insomnia be damned.

Not all of us are blessed with the bliss of sleep. The ability to slip into unconsciousness when our heads hit the pillow. Some of us lie awake, close our eyes while our brain continues to churn out ideas and theories on why Bianca Ojukwu slapped Mrs Obiano.

Our village people will not win. We must find the secret to blissful sleep!

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