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Many of My Sleep Problems Are Due to Bad Habits

        Health | Sleep Journal

To the bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed among you who may have ushered in a new year by partying not wisely but too well, I have only this to say: Now you know how I feel virtually every groggy morning of my life. You're getting the idea here, aren't you: Sleep for me is about as effortless and restorative as doing an Olympics-quality pommel horse routine. Many of my sleep problems are due to bad habits — I don't keep to a regular bedtime, for one thing, and I tend to let my mind yammer obsessively when I should be gearing down and trying to doze.

But some of my sleep quirks are harder to explain. For example, ever since high school, I've been treated to this eerie experience: I wake up, try to move and find I'm totally paralyzed. I struggle to roll over, or lift my head or wiggle a finger, but nothing gives. My mind is as alert and lucid as it can be, but my body seems to be made of stone.

Often, while immobilized, I hear stray noises around me: mumbling voices or soft music, sometimes a loud, rhythmic thumping. I tell myself it's all just some kind of waking dream, but still, I can't fight off the rising sense of dread. Dread of what, I can't tell you. All I know is that I am swept up toward some terrifying crescendo, and I'm certain that if I don't break the spell, something terrible will happen. So I struggle even more mightily to move. It takes all my strength, but finally I budge a toe or a finger, and then I'm free.

What would you do if such a thing happened to you? Summon an exorcist? Run to a shrink? Me, I just shrugged it off — the guy who wakes up frozen, no big deal. But at Thanksgiving dinner last year, when I told the story to my family, my sister's eyes widened. "That happens to me," she said, in a hushed voice, then she described all the symptoms in convincing detail. After listening for a while, my oldest brother admitted he'd experienced it, too.

The conversation turned toward strange sleep behaviors. My nephew's wife said she sometimes wakes up screaming, with no idea why. A sister-in-law said she sleepwalks. My brother remembered the time his soundly sleeping 8-year-old son crawled out the back window of their speeding station wagon, bounced down the interstate a car length or two, then rolled to a rest on the grassy median strip. When they got to him, he was scuffed up a little, but otherwise unhurt and, amazingly, still fast asleep.

It seemed that everyone at the table had some bizarre sleep anecdote to relate. So I started prodding friends for more slumber-related secrets. One fellow told me his legs twitch involuntarily as he drifts off to sleep. Another said he nods off each night the second his head hits the pillow, and sleeps deeply until dawn, which seems to arrive in seconds. And a third claims to have long, coherent conversations with his wife while she's sound asleep. Curiously, she often doesn't know him, and seems to be speaking as herself at the age of 10 or 12.

It seemed that everyone I spoke with had some sort of sleep oddity to confess. But what really struck me was the sense of wonder with which they made their confessions: as if they weren't just talking about these things for the first time; but that it was actually the first time they'd really thought to talk about them. No matter how weird or remarkable their nighttime experiences, they'd brushed them aside, as if they were irrelevant to their waking lives, as if they were part of a separate, nighttime existence.

So that's how I've decided to view the realm of slumber: as a fantastic, uncharted landscape we roam each night, but forget when we wake in the morning. The goal of my travels will be to plunge into that murky wilderness with my eyes wide open, and come back with stories to tell.

I'll begin the journey in my next dispatch with a complete sleep study at the Stanford Sleep Center, where the guys with white coats and clipboards will assess my slumber habits and clinically monitor the biological workings of my sleeping brain and body during a typical night's rest.

I'm looking forward to it. Sleep, for me, has always been a ball of confusion. Maybe the sleep study will reveal the physiological roots of my sleepy-time woes, including that very unpleasant waking-up-frozen business. Whatever happens, it'll be good to have some solid, scientific data to work with. So tune in tomorrow, when I fly off to the West Coast, and the famous Stanford Sleep Clinic, where they'll wire me up like a hotel switchboard and search for the hidden glitches that fill my long nights with strife.


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