Ep 14. From Night Call to Sound Sleep: Richard’s 40-Year Odyssey

Nov 01, 2023

In this compelling episode, I sit down with Richard Wills MD, resident sleep coach for the Mind. Body. Sleep. mentorship program. Throughout this thoughtful interview, he candidly shares the remarkable 40-year journey that has been his struggle with insomnia.

Tune in for a captivating story of how insomnia starts... and how it ends.

Here’s a sneak peek of what you’ll hear:

  • How insomnia started in med school
  • How sleep deprivation became glorified during his residency
  • The challenges that came with doing CBT-I (three times)
  • How he cultivated an attitude of indifference
  • The creative strategies he used to befriend wakefulness
  • What made him decide to become a sleep coach

Join this conversation with Richard as we dive into the interesting and enlightening story of his battle with insomnia and the valuable lessons he learned along the way.

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Full Transcription Below:

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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP:

For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights.

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Richard's Big A-HA After 40 Years of Insomnia


Hello, and welcome everyone to this very special episode I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I have brought another sleep coach into the mind body sleep mentorship to co moderate the community with me. And I am super excited that he is here with us today. So welcome Richard wells.



Well, thank you so much, Beth. It's really a pleasure to be here. We've been working together now for a month, and I've just enjoyed every day of it. So, this is great. Glad to tell my story.



Yes, I am looking so forward to this. And just you know, just to give the listeners an idea of how we've been working together the last few weeks. The Mind Body sleep podcast also offers the mind body sleep, mentorship, and the mentorship is a three-month program for people with insomnia. And one of the major components of the mentorship along with a wonderful curriculum is the community forum, which we host on Slack. And in that forum, you can ask questions whenever you want Monday through Friday, and Richard and I are in there helping and coaching. And I have heard from so many of the students how helpful this is, man, because some people use the community daily, some people only check in when they want a little bit of support. And there's really no right or wrong way to use it. But it is so helpful to know when you're going through this, that there is somewhere you can go where people understand, and we have been through it ourselves. And you can get help right away. So Richard, it has been just so lovely having your presence in there, because I learned a lot from you, as I do for all the students, but it's just been such a nice vibe.



It's really been great, Beth, I've enjoyed it so much. And I'm glad we're such a great fit for this.



Yes, 100%. I was telling I was saying a couple of weeks ago on the podcast that this is like is an extremely short list of people that I feel like could just come in and help right away from the philosophy that we share. So I have heard bits of your story or parts of your story, but I have not heard your full story. So my goal today is to talk as little as possible, and soak up the wisdom of your journey. So tell us how did insomnia start for you?

How Insomnia Started and Progressed Through Med School


Well, that I was always a good sleeper as a kid as an adolescent in college. I, I slept well, I didn't give it a second thought. You know, I had some tendency for anxiety and overthinking as a kid as an adolescent. But this never really impacted my sleep. Then I went to medical school. And that's when the problem started. So, I've had insomnia now. Although I had insomnia for about 40 years. So it started toward the end of med school when I was on call at night when I was doing clinical rotations and wasn't just book learning, but actually seeing patients. At first it was exciting oh boy am I'm on call and save lives and help people. And in that one find initially No, I was taking call, I was in the hospital and I was taking call, I'd see the patient. And I realized, you know, I could I was learning medicine, I could do this. But then I became worried. Okay, well, I've just had a call, I just got up back in bed once the next call gonna be and it became kind of, I started becoming worried about my sleep. One of the things about medical training, this is both in med school and residency following med school is it's it at least back then it was kind of a macho thing, you know, talk to the other student or residents say, Well, I only got three hours of sleep last night. Well, I only got two Well, obviously he's better than I am. He's more macho than I am. Because he's he's more exhausted. We had, of course had to work the whole next day. Anyway, it became it became this thing where I was worried about my sleep. And initially it only happened when on the nights when I was on call, but then started spreading to the nights I wasn't on call. I just started worrying more about sleep. And then I started taking sleeping pills. Now sleeping pills were very easy to obtain at that time. They worked great until they didn't suffer. So I became kind of wedded you know, here I was in medical school and residency and I was wedded to the medical model to the pill and I was broken. I thought I needed a pill to take care of. So then when I finished my finished med school finished my residency training, this is an internal medicine. I was in practice I was In a medical practice, and call continued when I was in my practice, the thing is, it was actually worse. Because when I was a student and in training, I was on call in the hospital. So if I'd see a patient, I would walk down the hall, see the patient, go back to the on call room, go back to sleep. Now I was at home. And if I got a call, probably 80% of the calls were just handled over the phone, but up 20% I have to actually go into the hospital. And that was hell for me, I just hated almost never get back to sleep after I got back home. So this continued for about 20 years with that kind of call situation. At that point, I had a different practice a different job where I almost never had to was I was occasionally called at night and almost never had to go into the hospital. But the kind of the problem was set, and I continued having insomnia, sometimes it was initial insomnia, or I'd have trouble falling asleep. Other times it was maintenance insomnia, where I wake up early and couldn't get back to sleep. The way it evolved was more in the direction of maintenance, insomnia, so I was able to get sleep, okay, but then I'd wake up at three, four o'clock in the morning and often wasn't able to get back to sleep. So I tried to get off sleeping pills. I kind of went on and off them for a while. And then I, of course, went on the internet and Googled all this stuff and tried various sleep efforts. I was on different pills and potions and books and read books and articles and have blackout curtains and earplugs and down rituals and sleep diaries and sleep trackers and gizmos and relaxation recordings. Just the whole bit of things that went to get some psychotherapy for insomnia, but these, the therapists unfortunately really didn't have a clue. Now, I also tried meditation that that seemed to help marginally, it kind of calmed down the the worry and anxiety had about sleep. But unfortunately, I kind of used it as a sleep tool. Okay, this is my, you know, more touchy-feely healthy version of a sleeping pill. So rather than doing it, because of something, I enjoyed that that helped me have a better life. I viewed it as a sleep effort. So basically, nothing worked. Because these were all sleep efforts. They're all attempts to monitor and control my sleep. And this is always counterproductive. This never works. Yeah. So going along, but 12 years ago, I was diagnosed with mild to moderate sleep apnea. I had been flooring and so I tried CPAP I hated it. I tried it for like three nights, I couldn't stand it. So I got a dental appliance, I had a very nice dental sleep specialist, made a dental appliance for me. And that really helped with my sleep apnea. Sleep Apnea wasn't all that severe. But I found when I had the appliance, I slept probably about 10% better, because my sleep quality was better. I had high hopes that this would cure my Steve Jobs.

When the Gold Standard (CBTI) Doesn't Work


In looking back, Beth, I'm thinking that even though sleep apnea, you know, your airway is blocked, you snore, your tongue falls to the back of your throat. And it's a form of sleep disruption. As we know, as we teach sleep disruption is not the same as insomnia, sleep disruption, it can be from pain, it can be from a crying baby from whatever. So, it disrupts your sleep. But when the disruption goes away, the sleep gets better. But I think in my case, this disruption kind of fueled my insomnia because I didn't know Yes, before I was diagnosed, why I wasn't getting the good quality sleep. And so, I tried all these things and had all these sleep efforts. And so, I think disruption kind of led into fueling my insomnia. Yeah. So yeah, yeah. So I did you know, along all this time, I did a lot of research and reading and so forth. And most of the solutions I found online and books really focused on sleep hygiene, and this just never worked. Um, so then I discovered CBTI, cognitive behavioral treatment of insomnia. And this is so hyped and touted by mainstream medicine and mainstream psychotherapy that that Well, this has got to be the answer. Yeah. I thought, you know, there was nothing else that it was it said, Well, this is just as good as sleeping pills. So, I tried. I think there's three different CBTI programs these are all online one with was with Greg Jacobs. Another was a program called Shaddai. Other was with Martin Reed. I tried all of them. Maybe a little marginal improvement initially, I think probably because I thought, well, this is going to this is going to help, I don't have to worry about sleep I'm, I could let go of efforts because these procedures, sleep restriction and so forth. I'm going to take care of it. Well, they didn’t really work in the long run. And in fact, I'm thinking they kind of made my sleep worse, because it made me more focused on it. I sleep diaries and were just more focused on it. Martin was more helpful than the others, I think, but didn't do it for me. So, you know, here I was, I felt that this point, it felt like a real failure to try the gold standard three times. My God. So anyway, so that's, that's kind of everything I did up until the point where I found something that did start to make a difference. Yeah, start started to get on the better path to recovery. And this is when I discovered Daniel Erickson at the sleep coach school. This is really the first thing that helped. And I really had kind of a breakthrough with Daniel, a couple of years ago, two to three years ago, I did his bedtime program. And this is a this is a text-based program that he has online where I would write in with questions and concerns. And he would write back. So, it was text based. Yeah. And then Daniel has, as you know, Beth has this approach called Natto, not attached to the outset to the outcome, mindset. And, you know, you know, I watched a lot of videos that Daniel had, and I kind of got it. But finally, at some point, during this program, I was doing the bedtime program, I finally kind of got it, the finding. And if I found that I could let go of this, this worry simply by saying, oh, well, or whatever, and give me a little shrug and a little smile. And it's like such a simple thing. But finally, I kind of got it. Really a mindset shift.

Cultivating an Attitude of Indifference


Yes, yes. So much. And just to give the listeners too, this is how Richard and I actually met was in Daniel Erickson's community, we both went through his sleep coach certification, which was amazing. And that's how, that's how our paths crossed. And, you know, I'm just so interested, it's just so interesting to hear your thoughts on this, Richard, for a couple of reasons. I mean, first of all, just that our paths were very similar, in that you going through your residency was a bit like me being on call as a flight attendant, for so many years, and just that, you know, there's just this the hyper vigilance that starts to develop, when you're just you, you're always kind of waiting, what you know, when am I going to call and then, you know, having to sort of sleep at odd times, and then wind down after for you, it's like having to get up and you know, not not work with that just through a phone call, or whatever I could so relate to that. And what you know, what I think is also so interesting is that you now are sort of kind of straddling these two worlds, these two paradigms, like the medical the medical world, because I know you're you semi-retired right now, and, and also this, this emerging paradigm on how to view insomnia. And I just think that is, excuse me, so fascinating, so fascinating. And also, just your journey through CBTI, and the gold standard, and all of the emotions and feelings that come with that, like, oh, you know, I'm doing this and it's just got, you know, all this, this clinical research behind it, and then but it's not working and what's wrong with me and all that. And, and then you found Daniel and natto, and not attaching to the outcome in this. You know, you got it. So tell us more about this path. Have you got it you understood in responding with that indifference? I'd love to hear more about that.



Yeah, yeah. You know, it's funny, one of the things I did when I was realizing just this kind of what you what you call this kind of cultivating indifference by saying, yeah, and finally getting that and but I would then kind of forget, oh, gee, it's been a week and I forget this little shrug this kind of little indifference. What can I do to remember it? So, I put up a little sticky and so forth, but that didn't help. So, I looked at my book, The novel, perhaps heard of Atlas Shrugged, novel out, and it sucks. sticky and I wrote my name on it. And I put the sticky over the word Atlas. So, then it said Richard, lugged on my, my night table for about a month. So always reminded of this. Okay, remember Richard to shrug. So that really just kind of helped me and then I put it away. And then every now and then I would just kind of get it out to remind myself for a few days if I forget. But this shrugging was so helpful. In fact, Daniel, he hasn't interviewed interviewed me yet. He's going to on his channel, but he discussed an email I sent him had had a, an episode and my email in which I talked about this. And I found this so helpful.



Oh, yeah, I think you just kind of got to do you know, find what resonates for you and for you, you know, it's like, getting the Atlas Shrugged book and covering up, you know, Atlas. And I love that, you know, you always have these wonderful analogies, which are so amazing. And, you know, when you were going through bedtime was Daniel, your coach, or? Yeah, yeah, I was coaching in the app for a while. And yeah,



this was early on when Daniel was the only coach for bedtime.



Okay. Yeah. Other people then. Yeah. 

Sleeping Without Meds


So that that was a that was a real turnaround for me. I was, I was definitely better at that point. So it was helpful, but I was still struggling. I was off meds by then. This about a year and a half ago, and it felt really good to get off meds. And the cool thing about being off meds was I realized, oh, I can sleep without meds. My god, that was just such an experiential revelation. That Yeah, I kind of knew in principle that we don't need medication to sleep. But I knew it experientially, my own body. Then, my next step was that I started doing coaching with Michelle at the sleep of school. So Michelle, is you interviewed her? And Michelle is associated with Daniel, and I just felt well, okay, I'm getting there. But I kind of need more. So I did coaching with Michelle, and she was wonderful. Now the difference was with Daniel, number one, Daniel has not had problems with insomnia. And number two, it was text based. Michelle, it was live in person zoom, was somebody had the same knowledge base as Daniel, but she's been there before. Yeah, had an in person really compassionate, really skilled sleep coach, who'd been there herself. And that made all the difference. Michelle was just great. I had several sessions with her. And she, she helped me in a couple of respects. Number one, she really emphasized the importance of accepting my feelings. So, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I'm awake, what a bummer. I have this, you know, worry and anxiety, and I push them away. And this, you know, I kind of knew this in theory that I shouldn't do this. But this was such a long standing, ingrained habit, that it really took somebody kind of recognizing this in reminding myself that I was doing this. So that was major that I was able to stop pushing feelings away. Notice them that really, I I finally got the knack of was befriending wakefulness. So, the way I tried to befriend wakefulness before was okay, I'm awake. Oh, that's fine. That's, that's wonderful. Doesn't bother me at all. But it was kind of just words, and I wasn't actually doing something to enjoy myself when I was awake at night. So with Michelle, I, you know, I that the accepting piece, I would be with the feelings maybe for five or 10 minutes when I'd wake up, and I'd be feeling great. But then to be friend, the wakefulness my answer was Seinfeld. I would watch Seinfeld. And that would make such a difference because you can't get watch Seinfeld without laughing. Yeah, to your worries.



So you and Michelle have Seinfeld in common because Oh, yeah. Right. Because in our, for the listeners, there's a wonderful interview I did with Michelle. It's called the lighter side of insomnia. I can't remember what number it is, but it's she talks about Seinfeld as well. So you guys have that in common?



Do definitely yeah. And the key thing the way I kind of processed this was, I'm not using Seinfeld as a sleeping pill replacement, I'm not using it as a way to get back to sleep, I'm using it because I enjoy it. That that made all the difference. But you know, after a while, you know, I didn't get back to sleep much more easily. And just and then I didn't have to use Seinfeld, but I had kind of reprogram my brain to be friend wakefulness. And that that made such a big difference.

Learning to Befriend Wakefulness


Yeah, and you know, this is a huge concept, I think, in the recovery process. And in that process for you. Tell us more about that. Because I think this is where it can, it can feel a little bit like, Well, how do you do that? You know, and for you, it's like, well, I'm going to watch Seinfeld and give this a try. And that ended up like sort of being lighter. And you notice, like you did feel different. And there was a different relationship with wakefulness happening. But did it take a little bit of working into that? Or how was that process for you in your mind of befriending wakefulness?



Well, I think, because I was already kind of along that path of of improving my sleep. coaching with Michelle, I was I was already partway there. So, so that helped, I did other things as well. For example, I would get up sometimes at night, I live in a suburb of Denver, so that kind of get up, if I wake up at night, go out and just kind of go out on my driveway just with my bathrobe on look up at the sky and look and think, Okay, so my insomnia is just this little, I'd make a little circle with my thumb and index finger and look at a couple stars. That's where my insomnia lives right up there. The rest of the sky is just wide open. This is life. This is insomnia is just a little part of it. So that's one of the ways I befriended wakefulness. Another thing that I did was I listen to music, sometimes. I happen to listen to the lion sleeps tonight. And then I would go out and I would be reminded of that song. And I would think, yeah, that's really the way it is. The lion sleeps tonight. Well, the lion, that's the threat. That's the danger. Ah, yes, the perceived threat of wakefulness. Sleep is not a danger anymore. So just sometimes they need to say it out loud. So, just to kind of these different kind of fun hacks that I came up with, to help me be friend wakefulness and kind of get out of this. This insomnia,



battle, right. The Battle of the lion. Yeah, yes. Yes. I think it's just so interesting. It's it's a shift in the whole relationship with wakefulness? Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. And I think sometimes these shifts come incrementally. I mean, every one is different. Sometimes you will have like, oh, you know, when they they're able to make that leap. And sometimes it's very incremental. And either way is just fine. Yeah, yeah. So what? Okay, so this is such a wonderful story, and what made you decide to want to become a sleep coach yourself?

Becoming a Sleep Coach


Yeah, well, let me just back up a little bit, a little bit more about the kind of the recovery process, ya know, but so what I started experience was experiencing with Michelle was I was having more of these magical moments, which is times where I sleep well, where, and I feel experientially I can do this. And I felt like I was kind of rejoining the human race. What happened then, this is a year ago, a year ago, I got a kidney stone. And the kidney stone didn't pass on its own, required three surgeries over four months. So this was a major sleep disruption for me. After that, I got back on the recovery track, and that's when that's when the sleep really became much, much better. And that's when I started, you know, I still have some, I still have some slips, where I'm not sleeping quite as well. I still have some sleep disruptions at time, but overall, it's so much better. And at that time, Daniel mentioned that he was taking students for his sleep coach training Me and Daniel and and Michelle, both both teaching this. And I decided last February, well, I would do this. So this just felt like a really good fit, because I liked both Daniel and Michelle and I like their philosophy and so forth. And so I did the three month training here. The reason I wanted to be a sleep coach is I wanted to share this, this journey with other people, I had taken this journey, I thought that I was never going to sleep well. And I found that I could actually. And so I just wanted to share this with other people. I love the training, I especially love the tons of practical experience I got because we had zoom sessions, we had slack, Slack channel, text based, and I did a ton of coaching as a coach and training. And that was just so great, because it wasn't just, oh, knowing theoretically how to coach, but it was just hands on experience. And I'm so glad that they, they offered that. And so that was just great. And then when I finished that I knew, you know, I really want to do this. And I started creating a website and so forth. And you know, as, as you mentioned, you know, you and I had met online last spring. And then you contacted me a couple of months ago asking me to join and I thought well, this would be another perfect fit. Same view of of insomnia, what causes it, how to how to put it behind us. And you have just a when you showed me your online course, I just I was just flabbergasted because you just had a fabulous online course. And this is such a benefit for your for our clients. So I've really loved working with you. And this is just working out, right?

The Big Life Takeaways From Insomnia


Yes. Oh, thank you so much for that. That means a lot coming from you. And it is it is it's it's been you know, you mentioned yesterday, we were talking a bit on Slack. And you said and I thought this was so powerful that recovering from insomnia was almost like a spiritual experience for you. And I would love to hear you know, what, some of the Silver Linings that have been that have come with insomnia. Yeah, if you?



Sure, well, so I think the first thing is learning how to deal with emotions and other areas of my life. If I'm feeling, you know, some anxiety of worry or doing rumination, just learning how to feel my feelings, and then shrug them off and say, you know, whatever, okay? It's this cultivation of indifference and not being caught up, caught up in these feelings and struggling with them. So this just has so much wider application than just sleep. Yeah, I would never have known this if I hadn't done the insomnia recovery journey. The other thing is that I really enjoy this kind of coaching. And I don't know if I ever would have come to this or enjoyed it so much if I hadn't had problems with insomnia myself. So yeah, and this, as I said, in the text you yesterday, I mean, this is really, deeply meaningful. For me, it's not just a way of making a living, it's really a way of helping people heal and get their lives back. And that's, it's just, it's been great.



Yeah, yeah. I've just gotten the goosebumps on this because it I feel so similarly, it's insomnia just becomes the catalyst for something so much bigger than recovering from insomnia. It's it is a pivotal moment in life and it and it's, it's hard to believe when you're really in it and you're in the thick of it, that there could be anything that you would be like you would have gratitude almost for having gone through it. And, you know, but when you when you get to the other side, you do you kind of let go of all the pain and hold on to the learnings of it. And it is significant, you know, it's very significant.



Definitely, yeah.



Well, this was just so wonderful. Richard and everything you said just so beautifully, and I can't thank you enough for being here. And for anyone out there going through and Insomnia right now. We invite you to join us in the mentorship. Because I really think that if the two of us with 40 years each of us after that long with insomnia, I think anyone can get beyond insomnia.


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