May 2012


Some of my oldest memories are of lying in bed, late at night, wishing I was asleep: sleep-onset insomnia. I’m happy to say that I have largely overcome this malady. I have a sizeable bag of tricks to help me out with it (read about them here), the most important of which is having gotten over my fear of insomnia, which had become the primary source of sleeplessness. For the last several years I’ve had trouble getting to sleep just a few times a year.

For the last couple months, though, I’ve been experiencing “terminal insomnia,” AKA waking up too early and failing to fall back asleep. Most of my tricks don’t apply here. It sometimes helps to stay in bed until my alarm goes off–occasionally I will fall back asleep. Sometimes cuddling helps, too, but I’ve found nothing consistent so far. It’s become a problem: I’m getting married next week and sleep debt tends to make me clumsy, grouchy, and stupid–not the way I’d like to show up for this event!

So I complained about it to my therapist today and he gave me his hypothesis: I am chronically and habitually productive. Productivity is a way of life  for me and it’s infiltrated my groggy, should-be-going-back-to-sleep mind. He is right. I am on the go all day. It never occurs to me to slow down, much less take a nap, and that was exactly his prescription:

“I wonder what would happen if you cultivated a habit of trying, even to a ridiculous degree, whenever you noticed being really tired , just saying, ‘OK, I’m just going to lie down. I’m just going to quit what I’m doing and lie down.’ Even if it seems indulgent or incovnenient. Just ‘F*** it. I’m lying down, I’m closing my eyes, I’m relaxing. If I sleep, I sleep–it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to relax.’ Look at your tiredness as a sort of enlightened messenger, giving you the gift of saying, “Stop it! Stop working so hard. Just lie down right now and be irresponsibly lazy. Just lay out.’

“And you’ll have to deal with the resistance in you too. The well-trained hard, hard worker in you will say “Now’s not a good time… maybe later,” and the challenge is to say “F*** you. I’m not buying it. I’m lying down. For at least five minutes I’m going to lie down, deep breath, deep relax, and invite myself to doze if it happens.

“It’s the next logical progression of getting over the fear of insomnia: The next step is getting over the fear of being tired. OK, I’m building into my lifestyle being tired and loving myself in my tiredness. If I’m tired, I lie down. Why the hell not?

“I want you to take it on as a spiritual practice. Seriously. A spiritual practice of just interrupting productivity as often as possible in order to be lazy and relaxed and tired and just let the earth hold you up. When you lay down, experience the earth holding you up and receive that kind of support. You are a very diligent, principled and hard-working fellow, Nathen, and we have noticed. We got the message. You’ve got that covered. You’ve acheived that already and can let your pendulum swing back in the other direction.”

He’s right that it won’t be easy. As I’ve been writing, I can feel the familiar tiredness in my face and arms, weighing me down, and I’m choosing to write instead of lie down. Well, maybe I will go lie down and finish this later…

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Darlene Lester on her porch, with flowers, in her work clothes
May 13, 2012

When I find myself in the presence of a new very smart person, my favorite question to ask is,”What is the most interesting question in your field?”* It both makes for great conversation and expands my sense of the envelope of human inquiry.

If you have an idea about the most interesting question in your field, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below. If you are the kind of person who creates and publicizes websites, though, what I’d like even more is for you to create a wiki-style site where folks can go, create a forum for their field or sub-discipline, and propose and vote on most interesting questions. This could generate what I want to look at: a home page that is a self-updating outline of what professionals believe are the most interesting questions in their field. If you want to go whole-hog, you could also let them vote on and link to what they believe are the best pieces of research on their question to date.

And since I posed the question, I should probably tackle it for my own field… I am a couples and family therapist, and I propose that the most interesting question in my field is, “What are the precise mechanisms of therapeutic change in couple and family systems?” In other words, how does therapy work? We know that it is helpful in most cases, and we have endless models and speculations about how it works, but virtually no evidence about the mechanisms of change. The best research I know about on the topic is the qualitative, two-part, “What Clients of Couple Therapy Model Developers and Their Former Students Say About Change,” by Davis & PiercyEdging into that territory from another angle is the research summarized in Gottman’s The Science of Trust.

*I stole this question from very-smart-person Ethan Mitchell.