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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Snapping yourself with rubber bands … won’t help you get back to sleep’

The bad thing about waking up in the middle of the night is that you’re usually worrying about something you can’t do anything about.

A few nights back, I tossed and turned on my pillows, annoying Jupiter the cat until he jumped off the bed.

The wind was slamming trash cans around, whistling and knocking against the house as if it meant to blow it to kingdom come. I was worried about the leaves. Was the wind stripping them from the trees before peak leaf?

At the risk of repeating myself: I worry about peak leaf. Every year from about this time until the middle of October it is on my mind. I remember remarking as I drove my daughter, Molly, to grade school one long-ago morning, “Oh my goodness, look at that bush! Isn’t it beautiful? It’s crimson! Or is it scarlet?”

“Mom, you say exactly the same thing every time we drive past this house,” Molly pointed out.

At first I didn’t believe it. I thought it was only my grandmother Rose and my mother who were set off by certain calendar dates, words, smells and sights to reliably utter the same pronouncements, time after time. After Molly told me about the bush, I realized that I repeat myself all the time. I imagine it gets worse with age.

Rose was constantly going back to Waco, Texas, in her mind. The least little thing would send her. In high school, my sister brought home a friend named Vince Scilla.

“Scilla,” Rose murmured thoughtfully, always ladylike. “There were no Scillas in Waco.”

For Rose, repetition was a compulsion, not unlike that of the Ancient Mariner in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Since then, at an uncertain hour, That agony returns: And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns.”

The rest of the family were like the wedding guest in the poem, who “cannot choose but hear” as the Ancient Mariner “spake forth.”

Rose, to her credit, remembered, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and quoted it in reference to herself. She couldn’t stop.

Insomnia also often involves repetitive, compulsive thoughts. Whether the source of your sleeplessness is thwarted love, remorse, pandemic disease, wildfires, the bills that cover your desk like February snowdrifts in Saranac Lake in February, thinking about it now is not going to help. You know this, but still, there you lie, worries repeating like a broken record in your head. (If you are old enough to know what a broken record sounds like.) If you share a bedroom with someone, you know that he or she will not like being awakened just because you can’t sleep.

On the other hand, it is very irritating to listen to a loved one’s tranquil snores as you lie awake in a snit. This is especially true when, as is often the case, the person who lies sleeping next to you is the cause of your agitation, due to something said or done during the day, or perhaps several years ago.

Little does this person know that he or she is creating deep resentment inside you simply by being unconscious. You will naturally feel that this person SHOULD know, and under the circumstances has no right to be asleep.

My father used to say “Nothing of any value is said after midnight.” I think this is also true of the cycling worries that keep us awake at night. My friend Beatrice said that her therapist gave her a rubber band to wear on her wrist. She was supposed to snap it whenever she caught herself ruminating about situations, or people, over whom she had no control.

Another friend, Pete C., suggested that a bungee cord around the neck would be more to the purpose. He figured it would speed up the behavior modification process.

Still, snapping yourself with rubber bands, or even bungee cords, won’t help you get back to sleep.

Just when you think that sleep will never come, that you will have to tough it out until daybreak, you fall without warning into a slumber so profound it renders you oblivious to the racket of your alarm clock. Later, as you drink coffee and attempt to look sharp, your coworkers ask you what on earth you were doing the night before to make you such a wreck. What will you tell them? That you were worrying about peak leaf?

Get some sleep, and have a good week.