How to deal with sleeping alone when a spouse works the night shift.
October 23, 2013 11:46 AM   Subscribe

My husband frequently has to work overnight, leaving me alone in the house. I've been having a lot of trouble and worry over sleeping at night when he's gone, and it's eating into my day. What else can I try? Details inside.

(Borrowing his account to ask this.)

My husband has to work about 8-10 overnight shifts a month. We live just outside an urban area with a moderate amount of crime. We have a dog in the house and good exterior lighting. I've found myself having quite a bit of trouble sleeping through the night when he's not around. When he is here, we have a pretty typical routine of watching TV to wind down, then heading off to bed together. I sleep fine when he's around, usually 6-8 hours.

I've tried to form my own habits and routines for bedtime, but it just seems like the irregularity of his schedule makes it difficult to settle into a routine. I've tried things like relaxing baths, a noise machine, etc to help me fall asleep, but I'm still having a lot of trouble getting more than a 2-3 hours of good sleep each night. It seems like I'm hyperaware of sounds in the house or outside, and I feel like it keeps me up and on edge.

At one point, I went to a hotel for the night just to get a good night's rest. I think that is a good indication that it's not so much an issue of having him in bed with me, but an issue of me feeling safe in our home. We're near a street with lots of traffic and bars, and it probably doesn't help that I keep a close eye on police reports of nearby home break-ins. I don't necessarily think we live in a dangerous part of the city, so I don't know that changing neighborhoods would help anything.

It just seems like the more I think about trying to get a good night's sleep, the more I'm concerned that it's not going to happen.

Where can I go from here? How can I stop worrying about getting sleep and find ways to ease myself into a routine that will last?
posted by sciencemandan to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How about a home security system that alerts you if doors and windows are opened? In one of my houses, I had such an annoying one that would say, "Back door...OPEN!" and such, but I found that it set my mind at ease, knowing that nobody could get in without at least letting me know about it.
posted by xingcat at 11:49 AM on October 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am in the same situation and have found that an alarm system (in my very safe neighborhood! In my fairly safe city!) gives me a surprising amount of peace of mind.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:50 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also was going to suggest a home security system.

In addition, do you have window locks, and deadbolt locks and chains on the doors, etc.?
posted by gudrun at 11:51 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My sister was recently in this exact same situation and she too went with the alarm system. I know it has worked for her.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:52 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a security system? Do you want one?

Typically, there's an "I'm at home" mode, which activates the door/window alarms (with time delay for doors) but not the interior motion sensors.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:53 AM on October 23, 2013

Get a little $25 electric heating pad from Target. Pop a Benadryl (non-habit-forming, non-addictive magic pink sleep maker pill), hug your heating pad, go to sleep.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:56 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

A dog and good exterior lighting, which you already have, get you a long way. So does the alarm system suggested by others. Since you didn't mention them, I would also suggest that you add deadbolt locks to your doors. Also, I travel frequently for business, and my wife uses these when I'm not home. Someone might be able to get in with one of those on the door, but not without working their ass off and making quite a racket.

Finally, and this obviously depends heavily on your personal worldview, your family's health, and local laws, you may want to look into purchasing a firearm and getting some training.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2013

In addition to the home security system that everyone is suggesting, can you reach out to your local police department to see if they will come over and do a home security check for you? I think I would sleep better having an "official" weigh in on just how safe my home currently was and where we might want to focus any improvements.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:58 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had this problem when I lived in a big house out in the country and my boyfriend would go out of town. There were break-ins and crime from time to time in the area ... it was kind of an area where people from the nearby city would come at times when they wanted to do things in a place with fewer cops. And the house was so isolated, and it was so dark at night. I would get really scared even just when it got late at night and I was alone there, even before bedtime. My solution was honestly to go in the bedroom and block the door with a really heavy chair, and not come out until morning. I also slept with my mace next to me. This made me feel totally fine because I knew if someone broke in, they would have to be really determined to get through the door with the chair in front of it and I would have time to call 911. Plus then I could get them with the mace if they finally got through. It helped that the room had its own bathroom ;)
posted by cairdeas at 12:05 PM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

It seems like I'm hyperaware of sounds in the house or outside, and I feel like it keeps me up and on edge.

What if rather than white noise on in the background you put the radio or a the tv on? No really, go with me on this one. The problem is that every unexpected unexplained sound is waking you up. If it doesn't fit within your "these are the normal sounds of my house and safety" box it wakes you up. So what if you had the radio on or the tv on so that unexplained sounds can quickly be excused off as "Oh, it was just the TV" and then you can go back to sleep? Basically, you need to broaden you "these are normal sounds" box. I had a similar problem to you and that was the solution that worked for me.

Also, have you tried ear plugs?

If you feel that unsafe alone in your house, even with a dog and a security system, maybe moving would be an option to consider. Like you say, you may not be able to find a more safe neighbourhood, but you could maybe find a house (or condo?) that makes you feel safer inside.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:06 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Obviously, all the recommendations for a home security system are great, and I don't want to minimize the very reasonable fear you have of becoming a statistic.

That said, if you are overcome by worry over a possible break-in, and that worry is so intense to keep you from sleeping, and then you worry about not getting enough sleep, it might be worth exploring that old MeFi favorite, therapy.

I am also at times overcome by sleep-devouring worry, and teaching myself to unload that anxiety in a healthy way has been a real help. If you can get yourself to the point where you can relax and recognize that "worry is happening right now," you will probably sleep a heck of a lot better.
posted by gone2croatan at 12:07 PM on October 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

I feel this way in the house I'm living in now as well. I just think it would be so easy for someone to break in and no one is here to protect me, which is probably true of all houses and thus not anything that increases my own likelihood of a break-in. Your situation sounds different, but it helps for me to AVOID THE NEWS and avoid reading about bad things. The news is a highlight reel of every bad thing that happened that day. In a sense, I look at it and say, if this is what they are reporting, then these incidents are really rare and that's why they are news. But seeing it also tends to automatically make the world seem unsafe, so avoid.

I also need to have a mental talk with myself about the probability of anyone coming into my house at night when they know I am home and the likelihood that anyone is actually interested in my particular house. It's very unlikely. Very. Sometimes when I'm really neurotic I'll put something on the stairs that would definitely make noise if someone tried to walk up them...

They sell little door alarms that probably would work on windows too -- they will make a very loud beeping sound if the door or window is opened. Just search Amazon under door alarm. My friend has one she takes on business trips with her that's decently loud. That might make you feel better knowing you'd be woken up if anyone tried to get in. Full security systems are expensive, so this might be a good alternative.

edit: In response to the suggestion below me, I will just say that when people keep a gun in their homes, the odds are that the homeowner or the homeowner's family is the only one who is ever going to get shot by it. Don't keep a gun in your home. It will only exacerbate your mindset that violence is a rational fear. Unless you live in a high crime slum, it's not really rational to spend every night expecting something horrible to happen.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:08 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know most of Metafilter will disagree with even this suggestion, but this is exactly why a lot of Americans keep guns in their homes. Obviously, if you have a fundamental problem with guns, don't get one, and if you *do* get one, take a safety class and practice shooting it. I do know a single mother who, after having her house broken into while she was at home with her three daughters, bought a shotgun. She has never needed to use it but feels better knowing that she has it.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:09 PM on October 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Stop reading the news and police reports. The chance of your particular home being broken into while you are there is very low but you are erroneously perceiving it to be higher. You can still get an alarm system or whatever, but definitely stop reading the news.
posted by desjardins at 12:10 PM on October 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

Came to say one possible solution is a gun. If you get one, learn proper safety and practice.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:11 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Alarm system and a white or brown noise machine.
posted by quince at 12:12 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came to make the same suggestion @PuppetMcSockerson made. I find having a quiet, irregular noise helps me get over my night-time fears when my husband is out of town. I use a white noise app on my iPhone that lets me mix sounds (I mix wind, traffic and violet noise -- it's got enough variation in it that it covers the random creaks my house makes). But a TV on in the next room provides the same level of irregular distraction -- before I had an iPhone, I used to play Star Wars (Episode IV) on the TV in the next room, with the volume low. I know every word of that movie by heart, so it didn't really capture my attention, but provided an irregular buffer sound that I found very comforting.
posted by OrangeDisk at 12:23 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

An alarm is not a replacement for your husband. Your husband represent more than just a layer of security, which your dog can easily provide. Therefore, an alarm is not going to be much help.

What you really want is a replacement for the security of knowing a living breathing husband will take a bullet to keep you safe, and move heaven and earth to protect you. You can bounce your fears off of him, unlike an alarm or a dog. I don't know if you are a spiritual person, but your best bet might be to find Bravery through God/Buddha/Yahweh,etc.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:32 PM on October 23, 2013

I'm in your situation quite often--my husband works sleep-in shifts twice a week. We live in a neighborhood that has had some crime and our house has been broken into twice--BUT, both times were during the day, with no one home at all.

Given that experience, I believe (and research does seem to back me up) that most thieves don't want to mess around with a house if they know someone is in it. It's more risk than reward, basically. So, is your car visible from the street? Are your house lights on? Are there other ways for you to indicate that someone's home?

I do agree with the alarm system, FWIW--we got one and we haven't had any more break-ins (it's been almost four years since the last one). You can get one with a setting just for windows and doors so you won't set it off walking around.

Finally, I'd suggest trying to keep as close to your regular bedtime routine as possible--just without your husband. Trying to get yourself into your own separate routine is just going to throw you off. Watch TV until you feel drowsy, since that's what you say you usually do, and then turn in. (Maybe call him right as you're going to bed, if that's possible? That might help your feel more like he's present.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:35 PM on October 23, 2013

Oh, and if you don't do this already, keep your cell phone right by your bed when you go to sleep.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:38 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know most of Metafilter will disagree with even this suggestion, but this is exactly why a lot of Americans keep guns in their homes.

I agree with this advice. To expand a bit upon it, what do you think your husband would do if there were a break-in while he was there? Hope harsh language works?

If a gun is not an option, I also recommend a security system. The exterior lighting is already a step in the right direction. The dog might be, depending on if its a vigilant Rottweiler or a comatose spaniel.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:39 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My ex worked a lot of overnights and I never got comfortable in the house alone. I always left the television on because it gave outsiders the impression that we were home and awake and the sound from the TV drowned out all the little noises that I would fixate on. I also left lights on in a bunch of the rooms, again to indicate that we were there and probably awake.

I would have gotten an alarm system in a heartbeat but it wasn't in the cards for us at that time. To be honest, I never got used to it and am glad those days are over.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:39 PM on October 23, 2013

1. Stop reading the scary news
2. Get a hot water bottle (the soothing power of these is amazing)
3. Ear plugs, eye mask, white noise machine
4. It seems counter-intuitive, but think about what your plan is if someone does break in -- what would you do, how would you respond, what resources would you want to have? When H is home, your plan (in your brain) is probably "H will know what to do." Figure out what you would do when alone and how to best achieve success with that plan. Maybe it's putting an extra lock on the bedroom door so you have more time to get out/get help (your stuff is just stuff, so don't worry yourself over that), maybe it's getting a baseball bat or pepper spray to keep next to the bed, maybe it's having an alarm system, maybe it's having one of those life alert panic buttons that would dial your husband (and then the police if he doesn't pick up). Does the dog sleep in bed with you? Maybe he should. And I disagree about getting a gun...what if your husband gets out of work early and tries to slip into bed with you......and you shoot him......this kind of thing happens.

If you still can't sleep, then yes, therapy and medication may be a road to explore. Maybe husband changes jobs/schedules.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:44 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, dogs are great but the asker mentions having one, so suggesting they get one isn't actually all that helpful good intentions notwithstanding.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:53 PM on October 23, 2013

Alarm system and timers for lights and TV.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 1:03 PM on October 23, 2013

I recently had my exterior doors replaced and I am shocked by how much less I worry about break-ins now when I can't sleep and hear odd noises in the night. They weren't particularly break-in prone before, just old, but having new, solid, tightly-fitting doors has really irrationally reduced my irrational anxiety!

I would NOT stay in bed fretting about not getting a good night's sleep because you're worried about break-ins; when I found myself thinking those thoughts, I would tell myself firmly to stop and if after 5 minutes or so I haven't, I would get out of bed and go sit in a chair in a different room, in dim light, and read a book, and try to sleep again when I got good and tired. This will lead to a few crappy days where you're exhausted, but you don't want to condition yourself that bed is where you go to worry, so when the worrying starts, either stop it or go somewhere other than your bed.

I find it helps to have something specific to think about, something elaborate and engrossing, like designing the castle I would live in if I were Queen. When I catch myself worrying, I force myself to think about that instead, and I can usually get my brain engaged enough in castle design to quit worrying. Otherwise I lie there and panic about what I'm going to think about other than worrying about burglars and then I enter a state of metaworry and it is not good, so I have a PLAN for what to think about to divert my worry-mind.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:07 PM on October 23, 2013

I, too, have trouble sleeping when someone else isn't around (it doesn't even need to be someone else in my bed -- just in my place). There's definitely something reassuring about having another person around, even in the safest of places.

So yes: Leaving the TV on works well for me (I like something like the Weather Channel or one of the bonus PBS stations that's all weird craft shows and such overnight -- anything that's mostly quiet and harmless). I think the added light is helpful and comforting.

Is sleeping on the couch an option? Or in some other room? If sleeping in a hotel works, that might work too since it would help disrupt the feedback loop of worry.

I am a life-long insomniac (although I've done much better lately, partially since I have to get up at a stupid early time) and sometimes nothing is going to work. Not sleeping really sucks but once I let myself stop worrying so much about it, I felt better.

Good luck to you, though.
posted by darksong at 1:24 PM on October 23, 2013

I was thinking about some of the other answers and something occurred to me. Having a guy in the house makes me feel safer not because of any willingness or not to die for me or take a bullet for me (e.g., I feel safer with my brother and it's definitely not because we have any kind of dying-for-each-other relationship) but very simply because it's a deterrent. A rational person, even if they are a criminal and inclined to violence, can weigh the risks of fighting me (125 lb woman who is not good at fighting) vs. someone like my brother (over 6ft and 200 lbs and practices MMA) and realize they have worse odds against my brother. For a lot of people, it ceases to be worth it at that point.

Because I think there is strong deterrent value in and of itself in giving the impression that a man is there, I wonder if it would make you feel more secure if you could use that. The next time your husband is hanging out with a few of his friends, say watching a sports game on TV, I wonder if you could record them. Then you could play the recording on a loop during the night when you're alone in the house.
posted by cairdeas at 1:59 PM on October 23, 2013

Not only are the chances of your home being broken into low but the chance of a break in continuing after the initial entry is pretty close to zero when you have a dog. Ain't no thief got time for that!

If it makes you feel more secure get good door locks and latches and beef up your windows. Also consider securing your bedroom door.
posted by srboisvert at 2:32 PM on October 23, 2013

So... how did you sleep when you were single and alone?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:33 PM on October 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Remember that your home doesn't need to be impenetrable, just more difficult to break into than the neighbors' homes. Any kind of dog is already a huge deterrent and if you feel you need more, a few simple and relatively inexpensive security upgrades like dowels to prevent windows and sliding doors from opening and mounting motion-sensor lights in key areas should be enough to make your place unattractive to burglars.

If you're worried about someone coming after you personally instead of just looking for easy targets to rob, you might sleep easier if you keep a weapon or something you could use as a weapon in the bedroom. If you don't like guns, perhaps a baseball bat?

Could the dog sleep with you?

Meanwhile, definitely add some background noise to mask out the noises that are waking you up now that you're hyper-vigilant. I've read that studies have found that pink noise is best for sleep, whereas personally I'very found brown noise best for blocking out car and trunk engine noises. There are apps you can download to your phone or you can use a website like Simply Noise.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:39 PM on October 23, 2013

These answers about security systems &c are okay and but

At one point, I went to a hotel for the night just to get a good night's rest

sounds like a lot more anxiety than is healthy or pleasant to have. It's nice to have a partner that makes you feel safe but this is not so much 'My partner is useful' as it is 'I am not functioning in a full and happy fashion.' This is primarily if not perhaps entirely an anxiety problem, not a home security problem.

It just seems like the more I think about trying to get a good night's sleep, the more I'm concerned that it's not going to happen is a really common insomnia hassle and something I would want to nip in the bud, maybe with a visit to my GP, before wasting more time addressing something that doesn't actually sound like a big problem (that is, the general safety and security of your home).

Loads of adults live alone and that state of existence is quite normal. Yours may not be that uncommon a problem, but that doesn't make it a good thing to live with. I would worry that not addressing it, or addressing it with 'band-aid' measures like alarms, might lead to an unnecessarily anxious and isolated old age. (What happens if you're widowed...?)
posted by kmennie at 3:22 PM on October 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Earlier this year, I lived in a neighborhood where there were a string of attempted rapes of sleeping women by a person who had broken into their apartments. All of the reports centered in an area two blocks away from where I lived. I lived alone in a ground floor apartment with big windows. As you might imagine, this made me afraid to go to sleep at night.

You know what helped? Installing a makeshift alarm system (lots, and lots, of bells) on all the possible entrances to the apartment, and spending some time thinking about how I would handle an actual break-in rapist scenario. For instance, I started sleeping with my phone under my pillow so that I had a better chance of being able to call for help and a heavy flashlight near my hand so that I could see what was going on in the dark if I heard anything funny. I made sure my glasses were always close by for the same reason. I rearranged my belongings so that I couldn't be cornered or impeded by anything if I needed to run out of the apartment. I also thought about which direction to run in and who I would contact if anything happened.

Whenever I got anxious, I would think about my plan and make sure everything was in place. I would verbally reassure myself that I would do my absolute best to protect myself and get out of danger, because I had a right to be safe. Then, I would relax. After the first night or so I was able to sleep comfortably. The combination of knowing that I'd done some work to protect myself and assuring myself that there was someone looking out for me (me!) was enough.
posted by rhythm and booze at 3:23 PM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Having some pepper spray near your bed can feel reassuring and less dangerous than having a gun in your house.
posted by whalebreath at 3:38 PM on October 23, 2013

Yeah, this level of anxiety isn't normal. Are there any other aspects of your life that cause you anxiety? Have you looked into treatment for the anxiety itself? Otherwise, if your house is as safe as it can be (and it is statistically less safe with a gun in it, good lord) is your bed comforting and welcoming? Do you feel as though you have made it your own? I love my bed, and I look forward to getting into it every night because it is warm, soft, comfortable and smells like lavender, just the way I like it. I love spending time in it no matter what - perhaps if you loved yours too (set it up exactly the way you like it, and look forward to getting into it and hate sleeping elsewhere) that would reduce your anxiety.
posted by goo at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my ex-husband started traveling a lot for work, and I had 2 little children, we went the alarm route, and it really did help. I was just very scared when I was home alone back then. Now that my girls are older, and I am divorced I rarely am afraid in the night- but I remember fully how freaked out I would get, and be up stressing out all night and installing the alarm system worked for me.

Now when I have trouble falling asleep I listen to an app called deep sleep by Andrew Johnson. That works wonders for me.
posted by momochan at 5:09 PM on October 23, 2013

I am in your position and our alarm system gives me a lot of peace of mind.
posted by amro at 5:30 PM on October 23, 2013

Don't get a gun, get a prescription.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:11 PM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of good suggestions here -- it would be instructive to know more about your financial capabilities and history, though. Money-wise, can you afford the alarm system? If so, that sounds like an easy fix. If not, what could you do to replicate it on the cheap? I keep my cellphone by my bed, for example, and have emergency contacts in my favorites so that I could call for help from 911 or friends/relatives quickly and easily. Extra locks, the security assessment by law enforcement or by your insurance company, even just keeping a baseball bat next to your bed might make you feel empowered as to your security.

The history piece, though -- are you a worrier or prone to anxiety generally? Does your husband's presence calm a variety of fears or just this very specific one about safety, and if it's the former, will solving the security "problem" just lead to your anxieties transferring over to other areas of life? I ask because you mention the worry itself several times as the main problem, which suggests to me that it may not be resolved by some sort of logical fix. Sometimes it's possible for repetitive thoughts to get in the way of relaxation and take on a life of their own, and it might be most expedient to consider medication to break that cycle. To that end, your doctor might be able to prescribe you something that can be used on an as-needed basis. I am not a doctor, but have known of people having good results with sleeping pills, anxiolytics (e.g. low-dose Xanax), and beta-blockers like Inderal.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 7:41 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hit the snooze button on my radio so that I am listening to the radio - usually NPR talk. I will also let the dog sleep on the floor next to the bed despite the noise he makes.
posted by 101cats at 10:01 PM on October 23, 2013

I guess I can understand how some people might want a gun in this situation, but knowing that having a gun in the house increases the risk of homicide and suicide in the house (and is more likely to be used in fatal or nonfatal unintentional shooting) (ref) isn't a very comforting/sleep inducing thought to me.

I agree with kmennie. When I read "It just seems like the more I think about trying to get a good night's sleep, the more I'm concerned that it's not going to happen" my first thought was trazodone! (a non-habit-forming prescription sleep aid). Then again, I am a doctor, so of course my first idea for a solution is going to be medicine.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:26 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

After a breakup, I had this kind of anxiety. It migrated from "must get up again to triple check that I locked the door" to "... that I turned off the stove" to various other things.

I eventually figured out that, being used to sleeping next to someone who wasn't there, my body would of course have a deep sense that "something doesn't feel right." Once I realized that my issue was free floating anxiety and not ...a legitimate memory that I bumped the stove knob as I left the kitchen after checking the stove last time, or whatever, then I could detach from my checking urges and smile on bemusedly even when I gave in to them.

The hotel visit could've tapped into a different "normal" pattern, in which it didn't feel weird that your husband was missing. Could you develop a new routine specifically for when he's gone perhaps, like watching a guilty-pleasure TV show he doesn't like, or something else you would look forward to?
posted by salvia at 9:35 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the alarm suggestion -- I really think it helps with weird noises (ie, the alarm isn't going off, so it couldn't have been a problem).

But more important is sleeping somewhere else while your husband is away. I don't know if you have a guest room or pullout bed that could be made comfortable, even the couch could work. You need to have a place to sleep where you aren't expecting him to be next to you. It can help you get used to the slightly different routine too.

And while I think therapy could help, I don't think a therapist would tell you to just work on your anxiety. (Mine gave me both of the above suggestions; it was really great to have someone tell me I had reasonable fears.) I also think, if you're lying awake at night, it might be a good idea to get up for a bit. I found that I can lie in bed terrified of nothing for hours, but a minute or two of walking around the house checking to see that everything is locked, the kid isn't actually calling for me, no windows open, etc, is so reassuring that I can usually go back to sleep pretty quickly.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:50 PM on October 24, 2013

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