The thing about sleep that knocks me out is we don’t really know why we do it. We cannot definitively state exactly why we sleep. For some reason, I love that.  I find comfort that there are all sorts of things that exist and work but we actually don’t know the full how or why of. For example, over time, listening to computer guys, I realized there are parts inside a computer they don’t fully understand exactly why they work. They designed them, they built them, they work, they accomplish what they want but they don’t fully know how.

That’s a beauty of recovery; I don’t have to fully understand it to know it works. As a mentor said to me, responding to my questions, “It’s not as important why you are an alcoholic as it’s important H.O.W. are you going to stay sober today.”   There are numerous examples of things we do not fully understand but a favorite of mine is; despite long-standing alcohol studies departments at major universities, we don’t know everything that happens in the brain when we drink alcohol. At some point the journey of the alcohol and its by-products and their interaction with our serotonin and dopamine is a mystery and frankly, alcohol is a relatively simple substance.

The topic of sleep came up when I was presenting to a group of some 250 men who were participating in the Dart Cherry drug treatment program in Goldsboro, and has been on my mind lately.

“Dart Cherry is a 300-bed Residential Treatment Facility delivering chemical dependency treatment services to probationers sent by the courts and parolees released from the state prison system and transitioning back into the community.”

Last I checked NC had 18 prisons utilizing this program.

Talking with some of the guys before the ceremonies began, the topic of using dreams came up. All of this is a subject near and dear to my heart because of my own deeply disturbed sleep in early recovery and my motivation to study and research in an attempt to regain health and balance. Studies have continually shown, multiple health concerns exacerbated by lack of sleep; from weight gain/obesity to immune system disorders to driving accident increases to mental illness/suicidal ideation increases. It’s a huge issue.

My studies revealed some things I feel are basic facts of sleep.

There are (about) four stages of sleep (some quibble over final stages and call it 5 or 6) and that the deepest is what we know of as REM (rapid eye movement), where our dreaming is quite significant. More important than just sleeping is dreaming. In sleep studies, when they hook people up to meters that monitor, and immediately wake them the minute they start dreaming, basically not allowing them to dream, they grow psychotic, with hallucinations, in a matter of three/four nights.

I have referenced before, true story; that during my detox from multiple narcotics, alcohol and benzodiazepines, I did not sleep until the ninth night. I was hallucinating (some) by the 5th day. I had, two days before, what I characterize as a moment of Grace that allowed me to essentially know I was going to be ok. That I could get through it. Nevertheless, my recovery is fueled by the simple fact that I never want to experience that ever again.

It is easy to disturb our sleep and not get into full REM. It’s no joke that eating pizza (most food period) just before bed will disturb sleep.  Many things will and drug intake is definitely one of them. Which means that those with dependency do not achieve full sleep sometimes for years. I think of it as a pendulum that has been swung hard to one side and now needs time to swing back and will take months to achieve balance and finally rest in the middle.

Which is where the using dreams come in. It also appears the brain in sleep, is “downloading” the day’s activities. There’s an analysis of studies here, that appears to support this. The truth is the analogy, of a brain as a computer, is not that accurate. The brain/mind is much more than any computer we can imagine but for these purposes it has been suggested to think of a bank’s computers, whirring away at night, down in the basement, downloading all the transactions of the previous day(s). Thinking about all that un-processed “stuff” from years of unfulfilled sleep patterns, the pendulum-swing analogy seems apt, in that it makes sense backed-up processing might take a while.  Sleeping and dreaming is processing, which leads us to drug using dreams, very common amongst those dependent or addicted, in their first year of recovery. The “downloading” amounts to letting go, grieving.  The above NY Times article /analysis refers to the need for the brain to “forget” each night.  For those with SUD, to quit drugs has been acknowledged as a letting go of an old friend and we are “processing” the death of our old friend (which includes the “death” of our old self) which might suggest the “struggles” we feel during and upon waking from said dreams. We’re saying goodbye to our old self and on some level that creates strife. Separation anxiety if you will. My studies/experience working in a detox showed me that in the first year of recovery it is quite “normal” to have such dreams and we want to support those who feel shame from those dreams to know they are actually saying goodbye to the old ways. This flips the dreams from “bad” to good as in a necessary step in the recovering/healing process.

Cravings come from the physical body and cravings of any kind are quite “normal” in the first year. (There are quotations around normal because I generally shy away from using that word. To me the desire is healthy. There are many “normal” things in our society that are not healthy. Conforming to societal standards can often be unhealthy.) True detox/homeostasis can take at least 5-6 months. Urges stem from the mental body and can take up to three years of growth to pattern out. Thoughts themselves, being the final stages of using changes, can then lessen or fade away, like a cloud, over time. On the flip side of this natural process of detoxing from a lifestyle, emerging toward health and vibrancy, is that using dreams after 3+ years tend to be a signal of something not being dealt with, something serious to our psyche and often unconscious and in times like that effective therapy can be very supportive.

Finally, my own health/nutrition studies led me to understand another purpose of sleep was physical cleansing. The “cleaner” I eat–less/sugar/starch/junk, more grass-fed/pasture-raised proteins, organic fruits/vegetables, some nuts/seeds, healthy oils/fats—the easier it is on the body and the less sleep I need. I might wake up refreshed after 7 hours rather than 8. Less junk means less clean-up.
There are other energetic benefits to sleep I could elaborate on, taught me by learned teachers but I’ve gone on long enough here. Truth is, as the saying goes, my dreams are not the things I see in my sleep, they are the things I chase when I’m awake.