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LIFETALK: The gift of wakefulness

March 28, 2014
By ROBERTA RUSSELL , Lake Placid News

For me and many others, the norm of 8 hours of continuous sleep every night is a myth.

As a child I can remember my mother getting annoyed at being awakened by a phone ringing during her first sleep. I often find that I sleep in segments.

Some of my friends are so alarmed by the intrusion of wakefulness during time slotted for sleep that they dose themselves with Ambien or newer replacement drugs at night only to rouse themselves in the morning with another chemical intervention.

Article Photos

Roberta Russell and the dogs

My methods are more organic. If long after I have gone to bed and turned off the lights, my eyes stay open, my mind actively examining the events of the day when I really want to sleep, a hot bath can often make me sleepy. Sometimes talking with a friend in a different time zone can sooth and relax me.

As we lie in our beds anxious about the sleep we are not getting, we lessen our chances of restful sleep. My friend and one-time co-author, the famed British psychiatrist R.D. Laing, once told me to think of sleeplessness as the gift of wakefulness instead of fretting over insomnia, a disorder that needs to be treated with prescription drugs.

With that bit of reframing during sleepless interludes, I rise up, go to my computer and seek peace of mind and order by informing the thoughts that have been chaotically resurfacing as a subtle reminder to adjust my course. The Internet is an amazing resource providing us with unprecedented information. Here in a private interlude without interruption using what I learn, it is possible to plan and reset my goals in a constructive way. Recently while trying to make an informed decision on what Lake Placid house to buy, I found pictures of every house online along with its real estate tax and estimated value, even in the dead of night. Once that was done, I made a strategic plan and went to sleep with a smile on my face.

Sometimes novel ideas surface in these lucid intervals.

Our veterinarians had advised us to spay our senior standard poodles. We were concerned about the risks and the problems of their recovery in our friend's walk-up Lake Placid condo where we had been staying for long intervals while we tried to find a dreamy place to live in Lake Placid. We had a home there for 20 years before we moved away to New Hampshire in 2007, and now we long to return to its congenial atmosphere and rugged beauty.

Late at night last week, all of a sudden it came to me that my husband and I could instead take both of our poodles to be spayed at the local well-staffed and convenient, low-cost Humane Society, just five blocks from our New York City apartment. We had been considering out-of-the-way motels, where we might wait out our dogs' recovery because we intended to have the operation performed by our favorite vet, Dr. Cogar in Ray Brook. However our healing dogs would then have been required to navigate stairs right after their operation.

It never occurred to me in the light of day to go to the Humane Society in New York City, where we live half the time, because they had previously turned us away as they did not treat unneutered animals. This sudden insight eliminated the tribulations of the contraindicated post-op stair climbing, as well saving us thousands of dollars and much inconvenience.

Nevertheless, I do not mean to give short shrift to the importance of getting enough sleep, even if it is in intervals. Sleep deprivation contributes to accidents, diminished well-being and poor performance. Nearly a third of all working adults in the United States -about 41 million people-do not get enough sleep, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lack of sleep can also make you gain unwanted weight. Lauren Hale, an associate professor of preventative medicine in the Public Health Program at Stony Brook University and board member of the National Sleep Foundation explained that a lack of sleep takes a toll on our hunger hormones.

"Ghrelin, the hormone responsible for appetite stimulation in the body, is increased in times of insufficient sleep, while leptin, the hormone responsible for satiety, decreases," she said. "Your insatiable appetite may be a sign that it's time to schedule shut-eye."

A number of recent studies suggest that any deep sleep - whether in an eight-hour block or a 30-minute nap - primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, solve puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately.

The gradual acceptance of the fact that sleep does not have to be continuous to be beneficial, has led companies such as Google to allow their employees to take naps.

If you can fit in quality sleep where it is convenient, being awakened can be a source of delight.

In my lifelong quest to understand the nature of relationships, Werner Engel MD, a 90-year-old Jungian analyst and past president of the International Association for Analytical Psychology, had been a great source of knowledge for me. One day when he was near the end, suffering from terminal cancer he answered my afternoon call, sleep still in his voice. I apologized for waking him, and I will never forget his response.

"I can sleep when I'm dead," he said.

We went on to have our last numinous conversation savoring the precious gift of wakefulness.

Roberta Russell is the founder of the World-Wide Calorie & Exercise Logging Group ( She is the author of "RD Laing & Me: Lessons in Love" and "Report on Effective Psychotherapy: Legislative Testimony." Send letters to



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