The agony of sleeping together when you have insomnia (and my Ozzie and Harriet solution)

Guest post by TorchyBlane

“Life with an insomniac” by: Anita DaltonCC BY 2.0
This post is about sleeping together. GAUCHE! Except, I mean, actual sleeping. As in closing your eyes, turning off your brain, allowing the worries of the day to melt into tiny, infinitesimal oil slicks on the calm sea of your beatific self-possession. Oblivion sneaks over you like the smell of a fart in a conference room, and before you know it you’re flying to Magnolia Bakery for red velvet cupcakes in the TARDIS with Joseph Gordon-Levitt until, precisely eight hours later, you awake to the sound of early morning songbirds outside your window like a goddamn Disney princess.

Seriously, fuck those people.

I’m an insomniac. Not in the cool way. I’m not staying up because I’m punk and badass, or my thoughts are too deep to be constrained to your bourgeois daylight hours. I’m talking about the kind of insomnia that sees me refreshing websites that don’t update at night, over and over, because I am too tired to concentrate enough to navigate to actual content. The kind of insomnia that can play Tetris for seven straight hours and never get past level ten. The kind where I’ve occasionally laid in bed actually crying because I want to sleep so, so badly.

This is my whole life, basically — certainly my life past puberty. When I took my GREs I hadn’t slept in three days. I got the scores back and literally didn’t even know I had taken the test, which was awesome because I drove to it. I have ground most of the enamel off my teeth because the mouthguard my dentist gave me keeps me awake. Everything keeps me awake. When the cat drinks from her bowl in the kitchen, the sound of her tongue keeps me awake in the bedroom.

And now I have a fiance.

If Disney had made a princess movie starring a 6’4″ tattooed guy with a beard and glasses and enough muscle to pick up a couch with one hand, that princess would sleep the way my fiance does. When he has to fly at 5am, he’ll say things like, “Well, we should leave the house at 3am, so I’m going to go to bed at 7:30 tonight so I have enough sleep.” Then he puts his dinner dish in the sink, brushes his teeth, packs his suitcase, lays down in bed and actually does it. I’ve never seen him take more than five minutes to fall asleep — and I’ve had ample opportunity, as we’ve lived together for two years and in that time I’ve never once fallen asleep before him.

He’s not a perfect sleeper (he’s occasionally sleepwalked, and sleeps very lightly) but every time he wakes up he just falls right back to sleep. It’s enraging enough to make me occasionally — usually around 5am when I’m just sitting in bed waiting for his alarm to go off — wonder if he’d nod off so easily with a mouthful of fist. (Spoiler alert: I’ve never actually punched him, but I think the answer would be yes.)

Being an insomniac is bad enough. Being an insomniac in love with a good sleeper is its own special kind of torture. Here’s a nightly schedule:

  • 10:30. Fiance, who works an early schedule, goes to bed. I go in with him for cuddling, because I want him to at least associate some positive thoughts with me and bed, and we both know what’s coming.
  • 10:35. Fiance falls asleep. I do the routine; make sure his blankets are good, refill his water glass, turn off the radio. That sounds ’50s housewife, yes, but I know if I don’t the guilt later will be enough to keep me awake even more.
  • 10:40. My night life begins. The first three hours are me trying to tire myself out. I do mentally taxing activities — writing, video games, money management, a fair amount of wedding planning. I try to make schedules and get a little ahead on work so my anxiety will have fewer anchorages to latch onto later.
  • 2am. I start trying to wind myself down with Sleep Literature tricks — yoga, directed thinking, breathing exercises.
  • 3:30. The tricks haven’t worked, and I’ve thought of at least four things I still need to do. I figure, why not do them now, since I’ll just obsess about them anyway?
  • 4am. Go to bed. Fiance is woken up by: me opening the door, me opening the pajama drawer, me getting into bed, every microscopic motion I make once I’m in bed. Some of the wakings are accompanied by him getting more blankets or getting a drink, which means he’s awake longer and I feel bad. Sometimes they’re accompanied by him asking sleepily, “You need anything, babe?” which just stab me in the heart already, why don’t you.
  • 4:30am. Sleeping in here isn’t happening; I’ve been lying as stiff as a cadaver listening to his breathing with my teeth gradually turning into cornmeal. Either I stay in this position, my muscles freezing in shape, for another hour until his alarm goes off, or I go lay on the futon. Most nights I go lay on the futon.
  • Sometime during the next day. Him to me: “Hey babe, I’m sorry if I wasn’t much fun to sleep next to last night. What can I do? I hate seeing you sleeping out on the futon.” And then my heart breaks forever.

Recently, I’ve gotten a job that gives me proper benefits, and as it turns out, we live in a region with a few really good sleep specialization centers. So I’m finally biting the bullet and getting some tests done — probably an MRI and I might sleep for a few nights in a university basement with Science Pads glued to my head. But gradually I’ve been wanting one solution more than anything else, even more than strong drugs (which is saying something, because I really want strong drugs): Separate beds, like Ozzie and Harriet.

I get my own blankets, I don’t have to feel like every time I roll over I’m ruining his sleep, and we get to be in the same room every night in touching distance.

I finally sat the fiance down and discussed it with him. I had no idea how he’d react — I mean, how weird is that? This is literally a piece of furniture that is not made for adults. We would have to buy children’s beds and probably decoupage over the vinyl Buzz Lightyear decals with pages from Dwell. Plus, there’s the rejection factor. What if he thought I meant I didn’t want to sleep with him, you know, in the Biblical sense, anymore? What if he thought it meant I was subconsciously disgusted by him? What if it made him resent me? What if this was the death knell that would be the end of all our joy, and I’d spend the rest of my life alone on my tiny twin bed, looking across the nightstand at what might have been?

His response? “Oh man, could we maybe get bunk beds? That’d be SWEET!”

I love this man. And I guess this will work out.

Comments on The agony of sleeping together when you have insomnia (and my Ozzie and Harriet solution)

  1. Whatever you do don’t do what I did. I don’t have insomnia but I am a very light sleeper and my partner is a violent sleeper. He tosses and turns and throws arms and legs out and snores and talks. I wanted seperate matresses close to each other he didn’t, then we found a King size bed with different springs in each side (hard in one for me and softer on the other for him) I thought the different springs would help. They have a bit, as has the bigger bed but not enough, I still wake up 3 – 4 times per night (better than the previous 7 – 8) but I am alway tired. I always have a headache. I always feel like passing out after lunch and to get enough sleep I have to go to bed at 9.30pm which is pretty hard when you work two jobs and don’t get home till 9pm. Go the seperate matress route. Don’t compromise get seperate beds, your sleep and your health depends on it. I’m looking at the next 10 years on a bed that I can’t get a good nights rest on, that thought makes me want to cry. I think I might sleep in the spare room tonight on our old bed, I’ll feel happier tomorrow.

  2. I’m sending you piles of good wishes and loves because OMG I KNOW HOW THAT IS. The only difference in our stories is that my husband sleeps like the freaking dead and is never ever awoken by me in the night. Hell, he barely wakes up to his alarm. What must it be LIKE to sleep like that? And just FALL asleep? Eeesh.

    I will say that things have improved since we went to separate blankets. Not beds (yet) – but separate blankies is absolutely perfect. I suggest it to every couple I meet. No more temperature battles, no more cover hogging, no more cold feet… GLORIOUS.

    • I’m so glad you said this! My husband and I have separate blankets and anytime I mention this to any normal people they give me a blank stare like we’re nuts. It definitely helps us both get better sleep. I’m glad we’re not alone!

      • My husband and I also use separate blankets. We’re both blanket hogs. I’ve been known to steal the entire blanket and chuck it off the bed in my sleep, and he likes sleeping in a cocoon.

      • Right? I was trying to explain it to my best friend and I think she thought we did it because we don’t like each other or something! It’s something you absolutely can’t knock till you try. And we still snuggle plenty. 🙂

        • Separate blankets are the best! you can have whatever length, heaviness, material, etc that you want, no stealing and you can have it as high or low as you want. Having lived with a boyfriend who was a foot taller than I 2 blankets became essential. Works perfectly well with my husband who’s (only) 7 inches taller.

    • When my girlfriend brought up using separate blankets, I was like what?! But that’s not romantic at all! Now that we’ve made the switch I love it. It’s really awesome to have my own blanket to wrap myself up as a mummy in. I can pile heavy comforters on my and she can use thinner blankets (because she seems to get overheated easily). MAGIC.

      • My boyfriend and I used to use a duvet, but now that it’s warmer, he just has a quilt. At first I hated it, but we don’t really need anymore than that. I am usually very cold, so even in the summer, I’m wrapped up in it. Then I’m too warm early in the morning and push it off me. He’s an oven and sleeps with the fan on him. By them time I’m too warm in the morning, he’s too cold and wants it.

        I still want a separate blanket (or to use the top sheet like a normal person), but we’ve made it work.

  3. My husband and I have our own bedrooms. not even just separate beds, but whole rooms to our selves, and I swear it keep us from murdering each other in our sleep. We both sleep well, once we sleep, but our average night goes something like:
    12-1am: Colleen starts getting ready for bed, Terry is on the computer
    30min later: Colleen is in bed, Terry is cuddling/reading stories (yes we read to each other, it’s pretty god damn cute)
    30 min later: Terry goes to his room, turning out Colleen’s light, kicking out the cats. Collen sleeps in 10-15min (I do sleep well, sorry to those who don’t)
    some time between 2-4am Terry goes to bed, snoring, loudly (I might snore to, he only mentions it if I have a cold though)

    I often get up around 7:30, Terry gets up at 11-12.
    We just find it so much easier to have separate bedrooms, it’s not even funny. It was a problem on our honeymoon, when we where in a cottage for a week with one double bed and not even a full size couch, we started to sleep in sifts.

  4. The title of this post caught my eye in my Google Reader feed because of what happened in my own relationship. My husband is the light-sleeping insomniac in our couple and after a few years of marriage, he asked to get separate beds and I was devastated because I thought it meant he didn’t love me. Turns out, that couldn’t be farther from the truth–he did love me very, very much, he just had problems sleeping with me. So, we got him a loft and have it over our queen bed. We start out together and cuddle for a while and then instead of rolling over, he goes up to his bed. It’s been AWESOME for both of us–I actually really like having my little cave under his loft. 🙂

  5. I’m glad to know I am not the only one who gets mad at my partner for sleeping.
    When it’s 3am, and I can’t sleep, and he’s sleeping perfectly fine, not at all disturbed by my rolling around and loud, unsubtle sighing, I get really irritated at him.

  6. I started staying up (actually combing through Offbeat Bride!) a couple years ago. What has helped me is doing the things you mentioned as second-try (yoga, breathing, etc.) DURING THE DAY. Plus yoga therapy. I needed teachers who could really help me understand what was happening, heal, and learn to rein in my monkey mind. Your article mentioned guilt, sadness, frustration…if the sleep specialists don’t help, maybe explore some other therapeutic avenues. Your brain-body connection is capable of change, even in areas that seem hardwired. Best of luck!!

  7. Oh, the crying because you just want to be asleep so badly, I feel you there. It’s a hard place to be.

    I’m lucky that my husband is a sound enough sleeper that I don’t really worry about my insomnia and ups and downs keeping him up. The rare occasions when he can’t sleep have a tendency to drive me nuts though as they almost always happen when I am *finally* sleeping. I don’t know that I could personally do the separate beds thing, just because cuddling up to him when I can’t sleep is one of the most restful things I can come up with.

    I hope this solution helps you guys though! The idea of the queen/twin bunk beds mentioned above seems like a brilliant compromise.

  8. If you’ve got an iPhone or iPad, you can try a white noise app called Sleep Machine (featured here on Offbeat Home…er…a couple of months ago? Ariel, help!).

    It. Is. The. Best.

    For dealing with extra noises in the house. I have retardedly bad insomnia, too, and my white noise app on my ipad is the only thing that stops me going insane from everyone else’s god*&%# NOISE at night. (I have a mother who stays up until two am watching old movies and a brother who plays video games until even later.) It comes with about eleven zillion different noises (fans, beach waves, clothes dryer, beating heart, rain) and you can mix three of them together at once.

    Otherwise, I’d definitely recommend getting a sleep center to help out and the MRI for sure. (My insurance is crap and will not pay for either.) If you can get help, go for it! And we hope you get some rest soon–being tired all the time is no fun.

  9. Ok I am really sorry about your insomnia but “my thoughts are too deep to be constrained to your bourgeois daylight hours” is one of the most hilarious things I have read in a long time.

  10. I really feel your pain, my other half falls asleep instantly, and is an early bird too and usually wakes up at 6 (usually just a couple of hours after i have eventually managed to doze off)
    and i know what you mean about getting so tired but not being able to sleep so you end up lying in bed crying… which then wakes up other half who sleepily tries to comfort me and get me to sleep.
    bunk beds really does sound awesome, and sounds like you have an amazing guy there, you could get the bunk beds that are double on bottom and single on top so you can still have comfortable snuggly time before bed time and ya know… other things…

    I would also suggest keeping a notebook by your bed, any time you think of anything you need ot do, write it in there so you know you wont forget it, but give yourself permission to do it tomorrow…. another trick i use is something my nan taught me, lie still and imaging your feet going to sleep, and then your legs and thighs etc etc slowly moving up your body, it really helps me relax, takes my mind of the millions of things running around my head, i always get tingly, like when you get a dead leg or something but it definitly helps.

  11. When I was a kid, a mattress company advertised their wares by dropping a bowling ball next to a person on the mattress to show how little movement was transferred. We now have one of those mattresses and it is pure bliss!!! I’m an insomniac, too, and now I don’t feel nearly as guilty about waking my hubs with my late-night can’t-sleep activities. Not to mention the two kids and the giant dog who like to climb in and cuddle in the wee hours of the morn.

  12. I am totally sympathetic. My husband and I have separate ROOMS, now, because I’m a horribly light sleeper. He does things like cracking his knuckles in his sleep (no joke).

    People think we’re a little weird, but you know what? It’s a happier situation.

    And sleepovers are still a thing. 🙂

  13. Get the sleep study!! It changed my life. Through mine I found out that not only do I have insomnia, but I also have terribly bad RLS/PLMD, which both worsen getting to sleep and sleep quality. After some trial and ERROR, I found a medication that works for the RLS/PLMD without terrible side effects and I take ambien about once a week. My sleep isn’t perfect, it never will be, but it’s incredibly improved. The sleep study and the recommendations literally changed my life. Having a back-up medicine that I can take if I absolutely have to get some sleep (ambien) has reduced my anxiety about getting to sleep significantly.

    I’ll also give kudos to those who’ve suggested that your back-up activities could actually make your insomnia worse; Find something to do that’s BORING or as another commenter suggested, try soothing audiobooks. I listen to a slightly boring audiobook almost every night (on a sleep timer)and it really helps me reduce hamster wheel my thoughts get into that make sleeping difficult. Some nights I have to reset the sleep timer 3x, but eventually I fall asleep.

    3rd note: In my last relationship my partner and I had separate rooms/beds with occasional sleepovers; She despised the arrangement, but I loved it. Especially when one of us was sick and coughing all night. I also love the idea of bunk beds with a queen or king on the bottom, although in any future living together arrangement I will have my own bedroom, period, even if I rarely sleep there. Just my 3 cents =)

  14. You have my sympathies, and are also made of sterner stuff than I. When my at the time fiance and I finally merged beds a few months before the wedding, it was only because the cats had ruined his futon. We lasted precisely one night with shared blankets. Now we have separate blankets, and he ears earplugs at night to drown out my incessant logging.

  15. We’re getting twin beds! Not for insomnia, but because of such different sleeping habits.

    I like it hot, he likes it cold, I use all the blankets pulled up to my face, he likes one sheet & arms & feet out. We get up at different times, his schedule changes during the week, & there at the midnight trips to the bathroom.

    As long as we want to be together when awake, we’re fine not being in the same place to sleep. It’s just sleeping, you don’t even know the difference. I like to hang all over him when we’re awake on the couch & watching tv, but both of us like a lot of space during sleeping. Room to flail & no one to steal the covers from, but the cat.

  16. I’m a lifelong insomniac, but my partner sleeps like a log. The first couple years we slept beside each other I could barely move, because the concept of anyone sleeping through someone rolling over, or breathing audibly, was totally foreign to me.

    Fortunately, I’ve now found that even prodding him does nothing (although the cat clawing the bed? He’s awake in a second). So over the years I have relaxed, and since shifting to a paelo-style diet and enforcing a really strict routine to try and gain some sense of cyclical living, my sleeping has become manageable. Oh, and hot baths? Totally don’t work for me! Heat wakes me up, every time. Warm feet, sure, but a cold torso. So I usually have a fan blowing in my face and blankets around my feet regardless of the season.

    Also, while the blue light thing is definitely true – one thing that really works for helping me relax enough before sleep? Playing a game on my Nintendo DS. Blue light x a million. But so long as it is a turn-based, strategy type of game, I find it relaxes me into a state that helps me sleep for sure. There’s very few nights I don’t use my DS to help me get my brain into relaxed mode. The game is important, though. Nothing that gets me emotionally worked up. Puzzles and things like Pokemon are perfect for this.

    It seems like there are just so many reasons for insomnia the solutions are impossible to share without the need to customise heavily for yourself. The bunk beds sound great, and I totally agree on someone else’s suggestion of the freestanding high double bed and the bottom queen/king option – I’ve seen these around, Ikea had some at one point.

    Also, my parents have had two single beds shoved together their entire married lives, and they think it’s awesome for their sleep 🙂

  17. Oh my god, yes.

    I don’t have the same degree of insomnia as you, but I definitely lay awake for hours at night. I’m stupid and go to bed with my honey. He falls asleep in 5 minutes (like yours. most frustrating thing ever, isn’t it?) and then it begins. I lay there in the dark. On one side. Roll over to the other. My arm goes numb. I roll onto my back. Repeat for 3 hours.

    When I do sleep, it is often restless. I’ve had nightmares since I was a child and they just got more -awesome- (read: fucking terrifying and disgusting) as I got older. I wake up with pain, or headaches, or sit up suddenly while having an enormous panic attack about something I’ll forget in 10 minutes after laying there fretting about it for a while.

    Unfortunately, my sleep pattern is just different. I naturally feel sleepy at 2-3am, and wake at midday. But I work from 10am-5:30pm, so I can’t follow that sleep pattern, trying to force myself into another one. On my days off, I effortlessly slip back into my “natural” pattern. It is frustrating, and years of trying to train it out of me doesnt work. 🙁

  18. No new advice, just wanted to thank you for posting this, and add a note of support. Honestly, I think the best thing you can do is find something that works for the two of you, even if it’s a little unconventional.

    Best wishes!

  19. I’m not an insomniac, but I am a light sleeper and it takes me a long time to fall asleep. When I say light sleeper I mean that I’m sensitive to light, sounds, movement, everything. When I moved in with my fiance, we had to get curtains and move the nightlight (blue canary in the outlet by the light switch) to the kitchen.

    Oh yeah. He snores. Loud. The first few times I spent the night (before we were living together), I ended up out on the couch with a pillow over my head. Now, I wear earplugs and he takes an allergy pill but it’s still a struggle. I can hear him snoring through the plugs and the pills have helped but aren’t a cure. So, I wake him up a couple times a night, make him turn over and that usually makes it stop long enough for me to get to sleep/back to sleep.

    It’s not a perfect solution. I’ve never wanted to punch him in the face more than when he’s happily snoring away over there and I’m trying to stick it out in our room so he doesn’t get guilty when I’m sleeping in the living room. Ugh.

  20. I have had insomnia for as long as I can remember (and there is a about 5 years of my life that I can’t remember) and pretty much every technique under the sun was tried and tried and nothing worked. It took having a complete breakdown (grandmother dying, starting antidepressants, hallucinating on antidepressants and then hiding in a corner for over a month) to get to where I am now, which is a bit better.
    It takes me at least an hour to wind down, no matter how tired I am, I can’t be: hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, have a full bladder or be in pain or discomfort.
    I have some “me” time, I watch my favourite shows and relax in the bath or make a nice hot drink and read.
    Just about every sleep adviser ever will tell you not to watch TV, but I have to! I put on something light-hearted so I don’t get nightmares and I have to have seen it enough times to know the words! It isn’t always TV, I do use a few audio books or the Hitch Hikers radio series and I circulate to alleviate the boredom.
    I also use some techniques I picked up from doing a course of cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with my depression and anxiety, I make note of all the things on my mind and then go through them logically and physically cross them off (money – I can pick up some extra shifts next week but I can’t do that at 3am).
    Sleeping next to someone really doesn’t help, no matter how much I love his beardy face! My partner turns in to a bearsquid at night (he grows tentacles that are like bear arms and smashes things) and I usually need to wake up at 5.30am for work so having him smash in to bed at midnight is really unpleasant and often leads to trouble, but 2 years later he is well trained in the things that will cause him death if he does them again!
    I hope you all catch some Zs!

  21. I will never for the LIFE of me understand how my 30 lb dog sharing a pillow with me and gently doggie-snoring doesn’t faze me in the least, but snoring by the fiance can keep me up for hours…

    If I roll him (fiance) on to his side and he’s still snoring, then I generally will put in earplugs. It makes sleeping better, just harder to hear my alarm and wake up in the morning.

  22. Just like others have mentioned, it’s your bed too! My husband is the heavy sleeper and I am the insomniac. For years, I couldn’t sleep with anyone else in my bad and then I met him and we moved in together for 3 years before being married two years ago. I just had to get used to it! Over time, I realized that this man will get used to it too — meaning he had to adjust to a crazy grrrl getting up a million times a night, tossing and turning, and sometimes even purposely waking him up (misery loves company after all – I try not to do that too much but the night insanity mode makes me do crazy things sometimes).
    What has worked for me is reading before bed. Lately my insomnia has actually gotten worse so lately I’ve made myself get in bed BEFORE he goes to bed, sometimes really early (for us) like 9. This way, I get to have a quiet room to myself and can just chill and not worry about anyone or anything else. A lot of the time, I read for a couple hours and then before I know it, I shut out the light and go to sleep. Usually he gets in bed and doesn’t wake me (not always, bah!).
    Reading tends to calm me a lot, even on those night where it doesn’t lull me to sleep. It definitely calms my brain from thinking of every possible thing in the world.
    Oh, and as others have said too, a King sized bed might work for you two! We got a queen bed about a year ago and I swear, it feels HUGE compared to what we had before (full sized). I often joke that anyone could be on the other side of that bed and I wouldn’t know it. 🙂
    It gives the feeling that you have your own sleep space if you need it. Almost like two beds, really.
    Good luck!!

  23. OMG! Separate beds – hell, separate rooms, ROCK! I discovered this from my good friends who are the most in-love ppl you’ve ever met – she is “your fiance” (the easy sleeper) and he is “you” (the insomniac). They have their own rooms and they say it’s the best thing for their marriage b/c they both are well-rested and have more patience with each other.
    So, my hubby and I tried it b/c he snores and I’m a really light sleeper and it totally works. We sleep in the same bed for sexy times (which reminds me… it’s Wednesday date night!) but the rest of the week, we hardcore sleep in our own rooms. When you are two working parents with a toddler, you don’t f*ck around with sleep.

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