On The Fly: Meet My Elusive Friend, Sleep

I sleep like a baby, which is to say I sleep in short spurts throughout the night and wake up abruptly at inconvenient hours feeling kind of cranky.

For years now, I have fallen asleep easily but rarely am able to stay asleep. I wake up at the slightest noise or light. I wake up when my husband moves the top sheet a millimeter. I wake up when the dog's paws twitch as she chases squirrels in a dream. I wake up whenever a leaf falls to the ground six states away. I just wake up, OK? And sometimes, the lack of sleep makes me grouchy. Today, I am grouchy.

I remember the last time I had a solid eight-hour sleep. In order to get it, I also had to have a colonoscopy and be knocked out with general anesthesia. I begged the nurses to leave me hooked up to the IV and just let me snore away on the gurney after the procedure was over. But instead they yanked that sleep-giving wonder drug from my craving body and mumbled something about hospital rules and Michael Jackson. Whatever. I was thrilled that I was still sleepy enough when I got home to pass out on my bed for eight blissful hours of rest.

Eight uninterrupted, undisturbed hours of shut-eye. Do you have any idea how good sleep feels? Of course you don't if you are post 50. You don't know because you are also wide awake half the night. Let's text tonight, OK?

Not sleeping well is common among middle-agers, say a bunch of experts who I'm too tired to call right now and quote by name. But had I been alert enough to actually talk to one of them, they would have said that as we age, our brains secrete less melatonin -- the substance that regulates our sleep cycle. We spend less time in the deepest stage of sleep, which means we all become light sleepers who wake up easily. I can attest that there were many many leaves falling six states away last night and each one woke me up.

Anxiety also keeps us up at night. Middle-agers have a lot on our tormented minds, and that contributes to our uneasy rest, say the experts I am too tired to call. We worry about our kids, our parents, our retirement, our ability to stay employed. We also tend to worry about how wiped out we know we're going to feel the next day.

In my house, as in the home of many mid-lifers, there is also the combination of hot flashes and night sweats (that's me) and an enlarged prostate gland (my husband's). They combine to make our bed a virtual hop-on, hop-off tour bus all night long.

Like millions of others, I have "tried everything" in my quest for a good night's sleep. But all too often I just lay there with one eye on the clock, considering whether reading a book or playing Words With Friends online would be akin to waving the white flag of surrender in the battle for sleep.

I recently brought my sleeplessness to the attention of my doctor. I tend to be hyper-sensitive to drugs and remember the time I took an Ambien for a long overseas flight. I popped it in my mouth while we taxied on the runway at LAX. When I awoke, we were on the runway at Heathrow and I thought we were still in California. I'm told there was a medical emergency involving the woman in the seat in front of me that I slept through. A fellow passenger used the "When Harry Met Sally" diner scene line of "I'll have what she's having."

I just want to sleep, not be put into a nightly coma. "I think Ambien should be administered by an anesthesiologist," I told my doctor, as he started writing a prescription for it. So instead, he gave me a few samples of Lunesta and advised that I try them over the weekend when I didn't have to get up early the next day. I drove home with the fantasy that I would not only actually sleep, but that I might sleep late.

I can say this about Lunesta: It sure is quick-acting. In the time it took to swallow the pill in my bathroom and walk to my bedroom six feet away, I almost nodded off to sleep. And I stayed asleep -- for about my usual three hours. And then a damn leaf fell to the ground six states away and I was wide awake.

Lunesta threw another monkey wrench in how I felt the next day: What's up with that metallic taste it leaves in your mouth?

Next up in my medicinal sampling arsenal is a test of Intermezzo, a drug which a friend dubs "Ambien light." The doctor says it has the same knock-out punch -- again, not what I need -- but "won't last as long." I'm just hoping it tastes better.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Improving Your Sleep