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Although most of my clients readily understand the benefits of dusk simulation, it can be challenging to implement because it requires a willingness to let go of common nighttime activities, many of which function to protect us from encountering ourselves more deeply. I discussed dusk simulation with Jonathan, whose industrious evenings were ablaze with lamp and television light. "What?" he asked. "Dim the lights?" He paused. "That's impossible. I've got too much freakin' work to do at night! Besides," he continued, "I have no trouble falling asleep. I go out like a light when my head hits the pillow."

Faulty Beliefs About Sleep

Our contemporary take on sleep onset is that it's achieved by crashing, conking out, dropping off, or knocking oneself out. We expect sleep to come on our terms, at the flick of a switch. We declare ourselves great sleepers when we can "go out like a light" the moment our heads hit the pillow.

In actuality, though, a persistent pattern of falling asleep in less than 5 or 10 minutes isn't a sign of being a good sleeper. Because it suggests that one is already excessively sleepy at bedtime, it may actually be a sign of an accumulated sleep debt—a symptom of a sleep disorder.

At bedtime, most people find themselves sitting up reading or watching television. Frequently, even though their eyelids are heavy and they're beginning to nod out, they actually resist going down. Despite being sleepy, they apparently want to become even sleepier, to crank their sleep load way up so that when they lie down, they'll go out like a light. I've come to believe that many people are quite reluctant to spend 10, 15, or, God forbid, 20 minutes alone . . . with themselves . . . in the dark. And this is exactly what natural and healthy sleep onset requires.

For many, the brief interlude between turning the lights out and falling asleep is a period of heightened vulnerability to the upwelling of psychological material that wasn't dealt with earlier. Falling asleep in a flash provides assurance that we won't have to face ourselves at sleep onset. If we aren't sufficiently sleepy or drugged, we run the risk that this material will interfere with sleep onset. But even if we manage to override it at bedtime, we run an even greater risk that it'll emerge to disrupt our sleep in the middle of the night.

In exploring his resistance to an honest encounter with dusk and sleep onset, Jonathan recalled that he and his late wife routinely spent evenings together, luxuriating over a fine dinner and enjoying each other's company before bedtime. Now evening had become a trigger for these grief-laced memories, which he avoided by escaping into light and activity. With this realization, he began to address his grief and sleep issues. He modulated his evening pace and light exposure and experimented with a slower, more gradual approach to sleep onset. A couple of weeks into his treatment, he reported having his first decent night sleep in a long time without sleeping pills. "I can't believe it," he said. "Actually, I cried myself to sleep. But I slept through the night."

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