IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Abandoned My King-Size Bed And Slept Outdoors For 5 Days To Get Rid Of My Life-long Insomnia

Publish date:
July 15, 2014
insomnia, sleep challenge, getting enough sleep

Please indulge me as I talk sleeping habits and nighttime rituals. For me, an average night routine looks something like this: I avoid caffeine, booze and CNN after sundown. I consume only light things in the hours before bedtime (chamomile tea, Nora Ephron essays, re-runs of "The Office"). I rub lavender-scented lotion into my skin and try to think happy thoughts. And I leave my smartphone and laptop outside the bedroom, because (like you) I’ve read those articles about how light-emitting electronic devices like smartphones, tablets and TVs are evil sleep destroyers that lead to something called junk sleep.

Obviously, I do sleepytime right, so how could I NOT enjoy a long, delicious night of sweet, restful slumber? Mmmm, slumber.

Cut to a couple hours later on my hypothetical average night of sleep. I’ve tossed and turned and finally abandoned the bedroom. Now I’m hunched over my laptop in the living room, the artificial light casting an ugly glow into the night. Minutes tick by. Then, somehow, hours.

I pace the house, feeling tired but not sleepy. I’m awake and alert enough for light-duty stuff like checking and answering emails, but not focused enough to get real work done. I move through the night hours in a sleep-tinged daze, zoning out on Netflix and thumb-scrolling my way through a couple day’s-worth of Tweets and xoJane articles. Suddenly, it’s 2 am. I can feel the under-eye bags and shaky nerves setting in.

Basically, my nighttime routine is a weird blend of self-care and self-delusion. It starts off promising (“Tonight I will sleep like a god!”), and eventually veers off track (“Is it 1 am already? I guess I won’t be getting up for that 5 am jog . . . Again. ”).

I’ve been (day)dreaming about a perfect night’s rest my whole life. I want to someday fall asleep early on plush organic bedding and dream of friendly, magical unicorns that frolic across my Pinterest-perfect backyard, which is also home to a pair of majestic white peacocks, an orange grove in full bloom, and a waterfall cascading crisp white wine. I dream of having sweet dreams. I haven’t decided yet if that’s whimsical, or just kind of sad.

On these sleepless nights, good “sleep hygiene” eventually gets chucked right out the window. I turn into an unabashed, bleary-eyed tech sloth. Laptop? Check. Smartphone in bed? Hell, yes. Some mornings, I wake up with the phone plastered against my chest, or tucked next to my thigh ... right next to the remote control. Usually, I crash out sometime around dawn, waking up groggy, tired, and slightly ashamed of myself.

I am a night owl who on many occasions has wanted to be a morning person. I grew up in a family of early risers, and though my family never really sleep-shamed me, I couldn’t help feeling like Eeyore in a land of shiny, bouncy Tiggers. Sleep deprivation doesn’t look or feel pretty. And falling asleep at your keyboard is frowned upon in most offices (so I’ve heard).

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Pop an Ambien and call it a night for crissakes.” I’ve tried many sleep aids (not Ambien ... yet), but most leave me foggy and groggy. I hate taking pills, or downing a bedside shot of ZzzQuil. But I do it when I have to, because it’s still better than falling asleep at 4 am when you know you have to be up in a few hours.

Recently, I read about a study that found camping can reset your internal body clock, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder stuck eight night owls in the woods without their smartphones and tracked their sleep patterns for a week. The study found that the night owls, on average, fell asleep two hours earlier than normal.

According to this article, "With the glow of a campfire as the only allowed light source at night, the volunteers sleeping patterns were synchronized with sunrises and sunsets after one week."

Whoa, really? A week in the great outdoors sounded good to me. So, I camped for five nights to see if I could reset my sleep clock. The study participants camped out a full seven nights, but my schedule—and love of air conditioning—could only withstand five full moons. Here’s how it went down.

Night 1

I head into the tent at sundown. As I lay me down to sleep, one thought rises above all the others: WHY THE HELL DID I CHOOSE TO DO THIS IN JULY? I’m one of those people who is always cold and I’ve learned to cope with the desert heat fairly well, but still. I’m also one of those people who, when they get an idea, feel the need to execute it right away. Instead of, you know, being patient and waiting until summer is over.

I console myself with the thought that homeless people do this every night, and they don’t have a snazzy tent with cross-ventilation windows. It’s monsoon season here in the Arizona deserts. The nights are breezier than normal, which helps a lot. I point a battery-powered fan at my head and stare out the mesh window. The moon is almost full and surrounded by a gauze of clouds. It’s absolutely lovely. Thunder strikes in the far distance. I feel lucky for this awesome view. But even the sight of the moon and the soothing sound of the wind can’t put me to sleep. After what feels like forever (or, about two hours), I go outside, plop myself on a dusty log and read a book with my flashlight. Yeah, I cheated. Eventually I start nodding off and straggle back into the tent. Total sleep time: maybe three or four hours. Sweet magical unicorn dreams: zero.

Night 2

It’s breezy again, and the desert is glowing with moonlight. I wonder if all this bright moonlight will mess with my sleep clock? I lie down and close my eyes. Nothing. This feels like a repeat of night one. I write in my journal. The sensation of writing in the near dark is strange and interesting. I can’t see if I’m writing on the lines, but somehow I trust I am. Every sense feels sharpened. This must be how Thoreau felt when he went to Walden Pond! This is the last sleep-deprived thought I have before drifting off. Net sleep: maybe five hours.

Night 3

NO SLEEP TIL BROOKLYN. I’m nowhere near Brooklyn, but I can’t get this song out of my head tonight. Haven’t even listened to it in months. Camping out in July is making me go crazy. I pour some ice water down my shirt to cool off. There is little wind tonight. Finally, I get so bored I turn on the flashlight and read. Sleep total: around four hours.

Night 4

I’m really looking forward to going back to the king-size bed my boyfriend and I just bought. It’s such a nice bed. I’m looking forward to ugly glowing devices and junk sleep. And pizza. I really want pizza. These are the thoughts lazily moving across my heat-weary brain sometime after midnight inside the tent.

Sleep total: between four and five hours.

Night 5

Another breezy night. I’m tired from a full day of hiking, sightseeing and snapping pictures in the heat. The moonlight is so bright, you can almost read with it. The combination of physical weariness and a heavy dinner is enough to put me out early. I wake up from the heat and a mosquito attack in the middle of the night, but fall back asleep. Total sleep time: around six hours. Is this starting to work?

I’ve been sleeping better since the camping experiment. But I can’t say there’s been a radical shift. It’s hard not fall back on old habits. Clearly, being able to fall asleep early will never be second nature to many of us. But sleeping outdoors made me more conscious of how easy it is to plug in and numb out with technology. It also made me much more conscious of air conditioning and its role in making me sweat a lot less at night.

Obviously, you don’t have to go camping to try to turn your sleep clock back a few hours. You can black out your bedroom, wear a sleep mask, and avoid artificial light before going to bed. Getting lots of natural light first thing in the morning is supposed to help, too.

I’m curious about other people’s sleep habits and rituals. Anybody out there have any success with light therapy? What weird things do you do when you can’t sleep? Does camping help you sleep better? Does anyone else fall asleep clutching their smartphones?