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My fear of the dark led me to a new bedtime ritual

First Person

A voice in the dark

I hated the night. I couldn't learn to quiet my fears and turn off my brain. But then I discovered podcasts, Daryl Elliott writes

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Night has never been my friend. I've struggled with night my whole life but knew at some point I would have to come to terms with it. After all, there really is no getting around it – night is a sure thing. And in December, night is upon me ever faster. I somehow had to make the darkness okay, but it was not okay for the longest time.

Night represented the unpredictable. Fear, disquiet, restlessness. Anything could happen. My mother liked to stay up all night reading the papers and magazines she had stacked up in every corner and on every chair in our house. As a child, I would slink down the stairs to watch her and wonder why she would never go to sleep. What was she doing? Was she okay? I knew she was not. Night was her escape from us all. Her respite from the life she never wanted. Night stole my mother away and when night arrived, I worried about her constantly thinking she might not be there the next day. This fear consumed me and it was always connected to the night.

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And let's face facts. Night is when bad things happen – fevers spike, pain gets worse, the sick get sicker, people are lonelier. It's harder to see, and there are things that go bump in the night. Children are afraid of the dark for a reason. We are all a little less secure when darkness descends. The world is just a little more out of control.

"The darkest hour is just before dawn" – and for me, this ancient proverb was true. My husband died at that darkest hour many years ago, at 4 a.m. to be exact, on one of those endlessly dark, late-December nights. Fireworks would light up skies around the world in celebration of the new millennium as I tried to comprehend my life without him. From that point on, night descended into a whole new level of misery. Darkness enveloped me and the sun did not appear for the longest time. New Year's Eve celebrations were forever lost to me, as was Christmas and the holiday merriment and gatherings of December.

Sleep eluded me. Dusk and the transition from day to night was excruciating. As daylight disappeared, I would sink into despair and hunker down for night's arrival – sundowner's syndrome without the dementia. I was vigilant each time night arrived, not wanting to close my eyes for fear that I might be caught off-guard and some new unthinkable tragedy would sneak up on me as I lay sleeping. Something bad could happen at any time, but for me, it would almost always happen at night.

In the intervening years, I tried desperately to learn how to sleep again. To embrace night as a welcome time of peace and restoration. To try to find some comfort in the darkness. Maybe night would never be my friend, but could I make it tolerable? How could I rewire my brain and body so they would not automatically revert to a state of high alert when darkness appeared? I tried everything from alcohol to exercise, from yoga and meditation to prescription drugs, from warm milk to melatonin. Nothing worked.

And then an unexpected gift arrived in the form of a voice in the dark. It did not matter that it was a stranger's voice. That stranger became my friend. Telling a story, discussing an idea, conducting an interview. I now had company. One night, while I lay in the dark, alert as ever, I found myself being lulled by my very first podcast. Little did I know the effect it would have on me and the comfort it would provide. That night, I fell fast asleep within minutes. When I awoke hours later, I was shocked and thrilled that half the night had passed and I had slept. I repeated that same podcast (having missed most of it the first time) and when I next awoke, it was morning. I was stunned and hopeful. I tried it again the following night and again it worked its magic. A full night's sleep! Incredible.

I'm not sure why I'm surprised as it makes so much sense, for why else do we read children bedtime stories? We do so to help them ease into sleep with a calm and soothing voice that keeps them company. We do so with a story they love and often want to hear over and over again. And I do the same. I have found my favourite podcasts – the voices I like best, like-minded "friends" sharing their stories, telling me I am not alone in my loss and loneliness, sharing ideas, giving me hope and speaking from the heart. I, too, repeat the ones I love – the stories that encourage and inspire me – over and over again.

What a simple solution to a problem that plagued me for years – a bedtime story ready-made for adults. A podcast. A whole wide world of characters willing to share my pillow and lead me to my dreams. I look forward to hearing them each night almost as if my best friend has arrived for a sleepover. They are as reliable and consistent as night itself.

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And now, I have my nightly ritual and I cannot sleep without my companion voices carefully selected as I still trudge unwillingly to my bed and await the long nights of winter. And while night is not yet my friend, we are ever so slowly becoming better acquainted.

Daryl Elliott lives in Toronto.

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