Sleep. We all need it. We all likely need more than we’re getting. For so many it can be elusive. And, the struggle to get enough rest can often be one of the biggest barriers to sobriety.
Like so many other women who have struggled or currently struggle with alcohol, before I got sober I used wine and beer (and, toward the end of my drinking, vodka) to shut down at night, to turn things off, to numb, to knock myself out. I didn’t know how to unwind without the support booze offered. I didn’t believe I could.
Night after night, I passed out on the sofa. Many times my glass was still in my hand and wine spilled all over me, the floor, the dog, everywhere. Somehow I got good at remembering to turn over the couch cushions before I got too sloppy so when I awoke I could simply flip them back and spray a little Febreeze to cover my tracks until I had time to give them a proper cleaning.
Whether I fell asleep on the sofa or climbed into bed, one thing was constant: I never slept more than a few hours, always waking around 3 a.m.
Why, when alcohol is a depressant, can’t we sleep through the night?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol helps us fall asleep faster but does not support quality sleep. It creates a battle between our sleep rhythms that prevents restorative sleep, it interrupts our circadian rhythm making us more likely to wake up before we’re fully rested, it blocks REM sleep leaving us groggy and unfocused (and hungover) the next day, it aggravates breathing problems, and its diuretic properties trigger more bathroom trips.
Many people who get sober rave about how their sleep has improved. It definitely can, but sometimes removing alcohol isn’t the only change needed.
For those who have used alcohol as a sleep aid, even for only a short time, insomnia can show up as huge challenge in early sobriety.
Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to our success in recovery. When we’re not rested, we’re grouchy, irritable, unfocused, distracted, and more likely to crave alcohol or another substance to alter the way we feel.
Lack of sleep leaves us exposed to pain, both physical and emotional. It can increase anxiety and deepen depression. This all makes us feel unwell and broken and can quickly lead to relapse or simply prevent someone from stringing together multiple sober days.
A good place to start is to change up the evening routine. It’s important to establish and maintain habits that send a message to the brain and body that we are finishing up the day and preparing for rest. Consistency is key. If you take inventory of what you have done to replace alcohol, what do you find? Are you over caffeinating, consuming more sugar, or snacking after dinner? Maybe you want to set a cut off time for caffeine early in the afternoon. Perhaps you create ritual or even ceremony around a new beverage in your favorite glass, or buy yourself a new special glass. For many, a warm bath and the use of essential oils is helpful. For others, journaling, reading a book, or meditating delivers a pre-bedtime calm.
Paramount to long-term success with slumber is understanding the source of any restlessness that shows up when we stop softening the sharp edges. When we no longer numb powerful emotions, quiet negative self talk, and drown shame, doubt, and fear, there can be a lot of noise to sort through. It’s hard to know where to begin and the overwhelm can quickly take us back down the road of self-sabotage. For those who find this true, there is great wisdom in seeking out support — from books blogs, and podcasts; from 12-step programs, or a coach, or a therapist; from online connections that can lead to in person relationships. This is big work and we never have to feel alone; there is always someone who has had or is having a similar experience.
A good night’s sleep is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, especially in recovery. It restores and heals us. Being well-rested gives us the clarity that enables us to continue choosing the next right thing.