I have been a bad sleeper my entire life. I can never remember a time when I did not sometimes have to toss and turn and use all the mental tricks in my bag to drift off: Counting to 100, forward, then backward. Reading boring books in bed. Focusing on breathing.
As I grew up and meditation became a thing, I learned some techniques for personal body relaxation: Going to bed at the same time every night in a cool room, with no lights and no noise (part of the reason I live in the boondocks). Melatonin. Every health food supplement. Every supplement from my naturopathic primary-care doctor. No caffeine after 3 p.m. — ever.
None of this worked.
I just didn’t feel tired, day or night, and, in fact, I had more energy after not sleeping for a night than after getting a few hours of sketchy sleep.
For a long time, I decided to live with not sleeping much and feeling fine, in spite of growing research into the long-term negative effects of lack of sleep.
* * *
I went through a crisis in 2010 when I joined a wonderful group of people from Brattleboro to Montpelier in a walk to support the closure of Vermont Yankee. We walked up to 16 miles a day in the January cold and often “slept” on church floors.
I was basically awake all night, every night of the walk.
By the time the walk ended, after 11 or 12 nights, I was pretty mentally fried but still unable to sleep. I called my doctor and was able to get a short-term course of medication and finally got some much-needed sleep.
It was still not much. I have never been able to sleep more than five or six hours, and never past 6 a.m. But it was some sleep all the same.
* * *
Sleep continued to elude me, and I tried different sleeping pills every two or three nights. Most of the pills had uncomfortable side effects, and none of them are meant for long-term use.
I was able to tolerate Ambien, which puts me to sleep, but I have never felt comfortable with drug dependency. All the research on sleeping pills says that the sleep it invokes is more like the results of anesthesia than natural sleep. Studies also suggest that these pills can be carcinogenic and habit forming, as well as have other strange side effects — like sleep eating — that I never experienced.
I then went to the sleep clinic at Dartmouth. I wrote down a series of questions that I hoped the doctors would be able to answer for me, hoping that they would be willing and able to share the latest research that would weigh the long-term effects of taking sleeping drugs against the damage of not sleeping enough.
I asked if I could pay just for a phone consultation, but they refused. When I arrived, it seemed clear that the doctor had a focus on diagnosing sleep apnea, and possibly had a connection with the companies that sell the medical equipment to treat the condition.
The fact that I was at the clinic because I couldn’t get to sleep. That sleep apnea could not logically be my problem did not seem to matter to the doctor, who was at my throat with a tape measure.
I walked away with a new Ambien prescription and a suggestion for therapy, but no new information.
* * *
Almost two years ago, I was lamenting to a friend that I was becoming dependent on Ambien, and she suggested a medical marijuana concoction called indica tincture.
I had never smoked pot — I really am very averse to smoking — but other people as well have suggested that pot might be useful.
I was able to acquire some tincture. I tried a few drops, and nothing happened.
But after I adjusted the dose, I was actually able to relax, quiet my mind, and sleep for the five or six hours that felt just right.
* * *
In the face of the election of Donald Trump, the numerous and vile racist attacks on people of color and on Jews, the terrible mishandling of the environment, and all the criminals now busy helping themselves to our country’s resources, the medical pot has given me the ability to sleep.
As a person who obsesses about political affairs, who chews on a problem like a dog chews on a bone, and who probably takes everything too seriously, I have been able to sleep most nights with the help of pot edibles taken an hour or so before sleep.
I have been afraid to write about this, because I have a terrible fear of jinxing it — that the pot will cease working and sleep will be impossible again. But for right now, I am almost accepting that I will sleep most nights.
The fact that the federal government under Trump is busy trying to move us back to the Dark Ages in many areas, including the continued attempt to keep marijuana criminalized, has deterred any serious funding for research on the effects of pot for people who have trouble sleeping.
I am far from alone in having long-term difficulties with sleep, and I hope sharing my story will help others. While the many edible products made from marijuana are only available for purchase with a medical card in Vermont, other states have legalized sales to adults, including our next-door neighbor, Massachusetts, and our northern neighbor, Canada.
Every night, when I eat a piece of candy infused with the relaxing strain of marijuana, I continue to be astonished and grateful that I can sleep most nights and wake up feeling energetic, clear-minded, and ready for a full day of what I hope is useful work for a just and sustainable future.
Pot has changed my life.