on sleep & productive dreaming

What is sleep, and what happens when we dream?

Getting a good night’s sleep should be simple enough, yet nowadays it’s so difficult.

Think about it: your best ideas come when you are most refreshed, which can only happen when you get enough sleep. Let’s stop bragging about how little sleep we need, and just shut up and go to bed instead. As Arianna Huffington said, it’s time women started sleeping our way to the top—literally:

I slept horribly for years, especially after September 11th. I struggled with health issues, a divorce, even a haunted house, among other things. Ever wake up and see a ghost standing next to your side of the bed? Experiencing the paranormal on a regular basis has a way of messing up your sleep patterns. So does sleep apnea.

selfie during my sleep study, January 2012

all wired: selfie during my sleep study

I was diagnosed with moderate sleep apnea on Superbowl Sunday 2012. On average, even without any pesky ghost sightings, I woke up 27 times an hour. I got my CPAP machine—I call it the snorinator—a week or so after that. I feel like a baby elephant using my CPAP mask, but you know what? Snoring, pillow drool, and waking up 27 times an hour is even less sexy than wearing a CPAP mask, especially when the person next to you is asleep anyway.

Besides totally pissing off your “bed partner” (my sleep doctor’s ridiculous term, not mine), sleep apnea dramatically increases your risk of dying from horrible stuff like cardiovascular disease, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes—none of which are particularly sexy, either.

New research, covered by the New York Times and others, has revealed that children who are often misdiagnosed with ADHD are actually suffering from sleep deprivation, including sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. This is especially awful when you consider that ADHD meds are stimulants that make it even harder for kids to get and stay asleep.

I also use these low-tech but brilliant little nose stickers called Provent, which are great when you travel and don’t want to lug your snorinator around in your carry-on. I wish these prescription-only stickers were covered by insurance, but not yet. They cost about $2.25 a night–not exactly cheap, but a better deal than those afternoon coffees you’re buying now to say awake. These little babies are definitely worth the splurge for a good night’s sleep.

the latest in anti-snore devices. stickers for your schnozz (Provent.com)

the latest in anti-snore technology: stickers for your schnoz (Provent.com)

After the first month of using the CPAP, I lost 6 lbs (2.7 kgs) and a half-inch (12.7 mm) around my neck. My throat doesn’t hurt anymore and I actually feel rested–what a concept!–when I wake up in the morning. My energy level is much more constant throughout the day.

Besides all the wonderful health benefits, since using the CPAP I feel happier and calmer—and so does my family.

I now practice what I call good sleep hygiene: by 11 o’clock my ass is in bed, the lights are out and my iPhone is off or on silent.

Best of all, I’ve started to dream again. My childhood dream world is back: gone are the dark, apnea-induced horrors, filled with panicky sensations of drowning or being strangled. My new dreams are vivid narratives instead of nightmares.

On productive dreaming…

Once you get good at sleeping again, here’s an interesting exercise to try: write your waking dreams down as soon as you get up. As you write, look for patterns that come up dream after dream (or night after night). Try to interpret and explore meanings in the symbols or messages you get from people or events that occur in your dreams. They are trying to tell you something.

Repeating symbols and themes are caused by your subconscious trying to send your conscious, scattered “monkey mind” a message. There are countless dream interpretation websites, blogs and books to explore, but dreams and their imagery are so personal that you can figure them out for yourself if you just sit with them a little bit. Trust your instincts.

Lucid dreaming, or conscious dreaming, is when you know you’re in a dream, but you go along with it anyway and explore what happens…similar to “real” life when you’re awake, only without the constraints.

Another thing you can try: tell yourself before you fall asleep that you want advice on a particular issue or problem while you dream, and that you want to remember whatever happens while you’re asleep. When you wake up, quickly write your dreams down. Keep a journal by your bed so you can do this before the memory evaporates.

Sweet dreams!