You haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced insomnia. As in, really felt the darkest, loneliest, nothingness core of existence that really only strikes around 4am when sleep eludes and sunrise is an hour away.

As in, descended to such a pit of wall-punching, stomach-clawing despair, and then risen again as the currawongs emit their forlorn caw, thoroughly aware of every fibre of yourself, the person next to you, the neighbours, and, in fact, all of humanity. Honestly, I feel closer to insomniacs than good sleepers because of the shared experience of this particular despair.

Image by Julia Fullerton-Batten

Image by Julia Fullerton-Batten

I’ve been an insomniac since I was 21. Actually, I was eight when I first became scared of the night – not of the dark, but of the task of switching gears to sleep. When I was 21 insomnia sent me mad. I was living in Santa Cruz, California, and….oh, there were things going on…and I wound up spending five months grabbing no more than 3-4 hours a night. They were the good nights.

Most nights it was a 15 minute snatch of delirium around 5am. Fifteen minutes in which I was able to give in to the night. Or, rather, the dawn. It was anyone’s – God’s? – guess as to whether I even got that snatch. I was at the mercy of…God? Fate?

This kind of vulnerability is particular to insomnia. You’re imprisoned, defenceless. You can’t control your destiny. You’re denied the freedom to “turn on sleep”. And why? A reason doesn’t seem to exist. And so it all seems so unfair.

At 4am you oscillate between anger (“This is unfair”) and grief (“I must have done something terribly wrong to deserve this”) and loneliness (“What am I missing? What handbook to life didn’t I get???”).

The extent of the madness back when I was 21 is for another story. Suffice to say at the end of the five months I no longer functioned and George, a loved one, came to collect me and take me home. I got my first auto-immune disease off the back of this, actually.

I’ve not been sleeping lately. My apartment has two elephants running up and down the hall all night. It rattles the windows and my nerves. Last week I had two nights in a row where I don’t think I even snatched 15 minutes of delirium. After two days of no sleep I had to appear on Sunrise (morning television), then go to three meetings, followed by a function that night. These days, of course, insomnia doesn’t just leave me tired, it also “eats” away at my health. The biggest trigger of autoimmune-related inflammation in my body is lack of sleep. If I don’t get enough, my body doesn’t heal the damage my autoimmune disease causes to my cells during the day, and then leads to more damage. Every night that I don’t sleep, my health goes backwards. It’s truly a tragic thing to be aware of at 4am.

And then a double bind kicks in: when my autoimmune disease flares up, it disrupts the hormones that enable sleep. And so around and around I go, wondering what egg came first.

I mean, where does any of it start? Why do some people just not sleep? How does it start? What causes it? For those of us who find sleep elusive, the far more interesting question is: HOW THE HELL DO GOOD SLEEPERS JUST…FALL ASLEEP? What is it? What kicks in? Is a clean conscience really a prerequisite? I’m willing to accept this. Really, I am. I accept that there is a reason why I’ve not been handed sleep on some kind of invisible drip, even if I don’t know what it is.

I cope really bloody well given the above… I reckon. More days than not I’m sleeping badly, and so 4-5 days out of seven, my every cell is in pain from the issues my insomnia causes. On bad-sleep days, it is very hard to move and to work and to conduct conversations and to keep sane. I have chosen, however, to not let it stop me. Slow me down, yes. And so I get up and exercise every morning. I rarely cancel plans. I show up.

Confession time: In order to get the meagre amount of sleep that I do, I revert to a very bizarre bag of tricks, including drugs.

I wear earplugs every night, and an eyemask. Have done for years. A boyfriend once told me it was like sleeping with Helen Keller (I also wore a mouth guard at the time).

I must shower before getting into bed – to raise my body temperature.

I take melatonin (the sleep hormone and precursor to seratonin) which I have to get sent from the US in a clandestine way – it invariably gets held up at customs – as it’s illegal to sell here over the counter (and expensive on prescription).

On top of this, I take various combinations of the following at various time of the night/pre-dawn: Sleep Aid, GABA, valium, and aspirin (on the days where my inflammation is roaring; aspirin calms it down).

Do I feel wrong for reverting to drugs? Hell, yes. Wrong is an understatement. I feel thoroughly poisoned. And imprisoned.

But sometimes we have to do what we have to do. And this is where I have arrived at in life, on a meta level.

As John Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, s’alright”.

Is it age? Fatigue? Defeat? Surrender? That brings you to this kind of realisation. I’m in a bind, with no easy way out. So I choose to cope. I choose not to stay bound in the cycle. I choose to surrender. And every morning, when I get up feeling inflammed and angry, I choose to not let it ruin my day. I engage in a hell of a lot of self-talk in the mornings.

Why am I sharing all this? Well, I could say it’s because I want to reach out to other insomniacs and to start a conversation that helps us all feel less alone. Or because I want to remind everyone – even good sleepers – that you do have to whatever gets your through sometimes. We all do. No one has it all sorted in advance. This is indeed part of it. But not all of it.

I also, selfishly, want understanding and a bit of leeway. Are bloggers allowed to admit this?

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Claire Murray

    I highly recommend The Effortless Sleep Method by Sasha Stephens! This book got me out of a bad phase of insomnia, can’t recommend it enough. The writer was an insomniac for 30 years. This book is priceless.

  • David LaPorte

    It’s two years later, so I’m not sure that anyone is still reading this, but here are a few thoughts from a fellow insomniac who’s undergoing to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia as I try to get off of several medications. I’m also a professor of biochemistry.

    – Melatonin is a chronobiotic, not a traditional sleep aid. It can help if you have a circadian rhythm problem, but most people don’t. I took melatonin for years, but it was easy to stop because it had very little effect. If you do have a circadian rhythm problem, melatonin should be taken several hours before bedtime, not AT bedtime.

    – Electronic screens, including computers and TVs, tend to stimulate the brain and don’t promote sleep. If what you’re doing on those screens stimulates you (e.g. an interesting TV show), that may defeat boredom, but it will also defeat sleep. If you’re trying to get to sleep, boredom is your friend.

    – Many forms of tea contain theophyllline, which has effects similar to caffeine, and should be avoided. Not sure about peppermint tea.

    – Trying to force yourself to sleep rarely works. Sleep professionals refer to it as “paradoxical intention”. The effort and resulting frustration stimulate your brain, which keeps you awake.

    – If you can’t move to another bedroom to get away from your snoring husband, at least keep the dog off of the bed. Love your dog while you’re awake, but don’t let him contribute to your sleeping problems.

    – I highly recommend the book the Savvy Insomniac by Lois Maharg. She’s a journalist but also an insomniac with an impressive grasp of the sleep research. I just discovered that she has a website, that I’ll be exploring.

    – “Psychological And Behavioral Treatment Of Insomnia:Update Of The Recent Evidence (1998-2004)” published in SLEEP, Vol. 29, No. 11, 2006, 1398 is a good review of the primary literature written by a task force appointed by the American Academy of Seep Medicine.

    • Helen

      I am reading this 2 years after the original post and suffering severe insomnia. Thanks for the tips. I am going to try not drinking caffeine after noon as I do drink a lot of tea, thinking it might be better than coffee but some research I saw today from Sarah has tea at similar caffeine levels to coffee.

  • Paul Zelic

    I stumbled upon here whilst looking up information for insomnia. Like you I have insomnia and have had it bad for years where I could easily stay up 4 nights in a row on 0 sleep. On average I was getting about 4 hours sleep. Pretty much what everyone writes in the comment section is helpful. Here are a few more things.

    – Leaving the lights off and having salt lamps around your room. They give off an orange glow which simulates more of a dusk sunset which produces more melatonin in your body

    – Download a program called flux on your computer which makes your screen orange (go in the options and adjust it, the more orange the better). At first it feels strange, but later you won’t be able to live without it. The blue lights on your screen are a major culprit for insomnia. One week with this app and you will never go back.

    – 1/2 hour before bed put some headphones on and listen to some calming meditation/ambient/soft instrumental music. Focus on the beautiful sounds, instruments, ect. What you want to do is really feel the beauty and calmness in it as it will lower stress levels and done right will take your mind off anything stressful. I find this method better then silence as in silence I start thinking about work, my goals, family, what i’m having for lunch tomorrow, ect. You need to use the time to stop, so focus only on the music and its beauty and try not to think about work thoughts, resolving issues, ect.

    – Allergies can stimulate your body and keep you up. If you have dust allergies for instance your body can be constantly charged whilst reacting to it making it difficult to sleep. I bought an air purifier to help.

    – Make your bed as comfortable as possible. Try different pillows, sheets, ect. A good bed is the best investment you can make.

    You may also want to research adrenal fatigue as no sleep will cause issues on your adrenal gland which manages stress. The vitamins/diet will be beneficial in making your body perform at a more optimal level and help in restoring sleep.

    I hope you beat insomnia. I know how hard it is having battled it for 15 years. It’s really robbing my quality of life (i’ve lost at least 20 jobs from being tired/taking days off, lost friends, unable to attend events, been bed ridden). On the plus side it’s taught me how to be a better person as i’m constantly fixing my diet, habits, managing stress, reframing thoughts and in general appreciating things more.

    Good luck and remember you may be the only person who can fight this, but you’re not alone.