The author found getting to sleep to be one of the toughest adjustments she had to make.
By Trish Russell
He flipped off the lights and we were immediately plunged into darkness. I reminded myself we were in our room; I knew all the nooks and crannies. There was nothing to be afraid of; however, the noises started.
The late-night small arms fire training.
The whistle of an RPG flying in.
Then the television turned on. Relief swept through my body.
More than 10 years later, and darkness still brings me to my proverbial knees.
Sometimes I think my nightly routine to prepare for sleeping is extreme, over the top, and a little weird. Then we have a moment like last night and I decide if my bedtime routine is a little eccentric; then so be it. At least I am able to sleep when my husband is home.
Restless sleep is pretty common, and finding ways to cope so that you get a sound sleep is the holy grail. I still remember the first time I slept through the night after my deployment. A year and a half after returning home I woke up and sat there. Then in wonder said, “I slept. I didn’t think that was possible.” I finally felt safe. I finally felt as if I could rest. The nightmares were still a part of my nighttime routine but at least I was sleeping. The magical moment happened two weeks after moving in with my husband.
I remember sitting there in total shock, absorbing the fact I had not slept through the night in almost two years. It felt glorious not to toss and turn throughout the evening. To fall asleep and wake up hours later had me feeling like a new person.
Little did I know this would be the first step of many to protect my nighttime rest.
While I have ways to prepare for the night, all of it is disrupted when my husband leaves for military training. I am pulled right back into the same old routine: three or four hours of sleep on a good night. Without him I don’t feel safe, my fight or flight kicks into high gear.
I can’t take away the nightmares, I still get those, but I have learned ways to feel safe in my room even when my personal security guard is gone.
- Limit types of shows before bed. Nothing that will stimulate my imagination or ramp up my blood pressure. There are only five or six programs/movies on my list.
- Two or three perimeter checks before bed.
- When able, go to bed when the sun goes down or by 8 p.m.
- Talk to my husband or a loved one as I get ready for bed.
- Low-level noise. Television or known music playlist.
- All doors closed, even my closet and bathroom door in my room.
- Hot pads to warm the sheets. The warmth soothes my body and relaxes my muscles.
- Weighted blanket. A new addition to my toolkit that calms my body.
- Prepared attire: Shirt, sweatpants, and socks as pajamas. Hoodie nearby. Just in case.
- Sleep with a light on. Whether the television or a side lamp turned down low. If I’m away from home, I sleep with the bathroom light on and door ajar, body facing the door.
Sometimes I doubt the necessity of my routine and wonder if I am crazy. Then we have a moment where we are plunged into darkness and the weight on my chest begins to build, the noise in my head begins to buzz, and images I keep hidden away begin to surface and I know the quirks are there for a reason. The steps to create a safe sleeping environment, a time when we are incredibly vulnerable, are necessary for my brain and body to rest.
My therapist has been incredibly helpful in giving me the space to develop my routine. She said, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, try it. You get to create an environment you feel safe in.”
I feel weird doing extra perimeter checks.
My husband teases me about the doors.
When I travel with friends, I must ask for a light to be in the room.
I am not comfortable with having to set up a sleeping environment different from what others do. However, the results are worth the feelings of discomfort.
A year ago, I was sleeping for about 60 percent of the time—not too bad and something I accepted as normal. The difficulty came when my husband traveled, and I only slept one or two nights a week after exhausting myself.
Over the last six months, I have tried different techniques and am asleep most nights by 11 p.m. Once asleep I tend to toss and turn but quickly fall back asleep. That may be the best there is, and I am thankful for it.
The bigger takeaway is to try and fail. These techniques are working today but I know that could change and I accept it. I’ll be honest, I never like when coping skills stop working but I understand the value of trying something new, even when it is uncomfortable.
Learning to adapt to the environment around us in a healthy way is ongoing. Life is constantly changing and when we have to learn new coping skills, it doesn’t mean we have failed, or something is wrong with us. It means we are adjusting to our environment and choosing to participate in the best way we know how. It just may look a little different from others and that is okay.