I’m trying to do a better job of being positive, or at the very least attemptingto put a more optimistic spin on things. After a lifetime of sleep issues, I can confidently say that Insomnia is an artform and I am a skilled artist. I utilize diverse mediums such as anxious thoughts, wide-eyed stares at the ceiling, and burrito wrapping myself in the sheets, which all allow me to become unproductive for many additional hours a day. While other people are busy sleeping and rejuvenating their spirits, I am awake solving all the world’s nonexistent problems and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Everything would basically collapse without my added efforts each night. To borrow a phrase from my friend Sandy: “I have to tuck the moon in each night and then worry that the sun won’t be able to rise without my help.” I kick ass every night so everyone else can shut their minds off and not worry about a thing. That’s right. I graduated summa cum laude with a double major in insomnia and anxiety, plus a double minor in loneliness and problem solving.
I’m all out of positivity and BS now. That was exhausting. Let’s talk about insomnia.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (2018), one in ten people suffer from insomnia-related “daytime functional impairment.” I promise you…it’s as bad as it sounds. If you think about it, a prevalence of 10% makes insomnia relatively common. But what is it? The Journal for Clinical Sleep Medicine explains that insomnia is “the presence of a long sleep latency, frequent nocturnal awakenings, or prolonged periods of wakefulness during the sleep period” (Roth, 2007). I personally prefer definition number four from Urban Dictionary, which states that insomnia is “when little demons keep poking your brain with little pokey things to make damn sure you can’t sleep” (Insomnia, 2007). That basically sums it up.
I have struggled with insomnia for as long as I can remember. It certainly goes hand in hand with my anxiety. My earliest memory of my sleep problem is when I was only a few years old. I remember going down to the living room to sit with my mom so she could tickle my back until I fell asleep again. (If only I could make a machine that could tickle my back the way my mom does, I wouldn’t have any more sleep issues!) In that memory in particular, I recall the neighbor’s bug zapper going off on a regular basis. Even at that point, the noise disturbed me and caused a great amount of anxiety. I’m sure I thought our house was 1) about to be overrun by all the bugs that were missed by the zapper or 2) the zapper was actually a bad guy coming to get us.
Another memory is from when I was seven years old. My family was vacationing in Oregon, visiting family, and enjoying the ocean. I distinctly remember lying in the living room in a sleeping bag, listening to my dad and my uncle discuss this terrible thing called HIV and AIDS. I was awake for much of the night because I was so terrified that my entire family was going to contract and die from that disease. That fear lived with me for weeks afterwards and caused ongoing sleeping issues.
There was a tape player near my bed growing up, so each night my sisters and I would put on various children’s stories, audiobooks, or recorded radio programs. I will never forget the sense of dread I developed if I knew the tape was almost over. If it finished and I wasn’t yet asleep, the anxiety would creep in and I’d be wide awake in a flash. Just in case, I kept myself surrounded by an army of stuffed animals. If all else failed, they stayed awake to keep watch over my family and me while I tried desperately to drift off to sleep.
Over the years, I certainly have not discovered the secret to overcoming insomnia. I no longer surround myself with beanie babies, teddy bears, and a larger than life purple dinosaur named Grape. I have traded those guardians out for sleeping medication and the occasional glass of wine. Unfortunately, this still does nothing to stop the flow of internal chatter. Insomnia is more prevalent among women (Medline, 2016), which makes sense since our thought process is like a plate of spaghetti – all jumbled together…can’t tell where one thought ends and the other begins. My stream of consciousness is comparable to the black hole that is YouTube – you start by watching one video about puppies, then six hours later you find yourself watching some obscure foreign language documentary with no subtitles and no recollection of how you got there. One anxious thought leads to a semi related thought, which leads to something vaguely correlated, and then it’s all downhill from there. Good luck making any sense of anything. Someone somewhere was describing my nighttime brain when they sent this statement out into the internet world: “My mind is like my internet browser: 19 tabs open, 3 of them are frozen, and I have no idea where the music is coming from” (unknown author). Spaghetti and internet tabs that are permanently frozen or loading. That’s me. Every. Single. Night.
In all seriousness, the sleep debt that piles up night after night is pretty devastating. In fact, “insomnia is associated with substantial impairments in an individual’s quality of life” (Roth, 2007). For me personally, I get pushed into this vicious game of which came first – the anxiety or the insomnia? The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2016) puts it far more eloquently by stating that “a comorbid psychiatric disorder such as depression or anxiety may be a consequence of – as well as a risk factor for – disrupted sleep.” Great. So I already have anxiety and depression, which is going to make it difficult to sleep, which will in turn exacerbate my anxiety and depression. I just can’t catch a break! Throw in the other vicious cycle of no sleep, then caffeinating to get through the day, which also makes it difficult to sleep that night. I’m losing the battle AND the war.
The hardest part for me is that the dark, quiet wee hours of the morning are where my demons live. Just as that Urban Dictionary definition suggests, that is when they come out to play. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Inner Demons” by Julia Brennan. The first verse in particular always speaks to me:
They say don’t let them in
Close your eyes and clear your thoughts again
But when I’m all alone, they show up on their own
‘Cause inner demons fight their battles with fire
Inner demons don’t play by the rules
It’s easy to tell yourself to just stop thinking about everything and go to sleep. It’s something entirely different to actually accomplish that task. Think about how much deeper shadows seem at night. Now take the stuff of nightmares, throw them into those shadows, convince yourself that every worst case scenario that could happen is going to happen, and remind yourself that you are facing all that alone in a cold bed. More than once I have been relieved to see the first glimpse of dawn, if for no other reason than because the sun chases away some of the fears and I can get to sleep. Unfortunately, that’s usually about two and a half minutes before my alarm goes off. Medline Plus (2016) explains that one symptom of insomnia is “feeling as if you haven’t slept at all.” It is a terrible feeling that lingers and can really bring down the entire day. Keep all that in mind when you see someone who looks tired or mentions that they have insomnia and didn’t sleep well. It can be devastating and makes life so much more difficult than it already is. Be kind to everyone – you never know what kind of demons they fought the night before.
In closing, I can tell you that I have two wishes when I wake up each morning (if I have actually slept):
- To feel rested
- To have 20/20 vision
I can’t remember when the last time the first one happened. I’m still holding out for the second.
Good night. I hope you all sleep like babies and have wonderful dreams.
Brennan, Julia. (2016). Inner Demons. Tunecore Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.
MedlinePlus. (2016). Insomnia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/insomnia.html
National Sleep Foundation. (2018). What is Insomnia? Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-is-insomnia
Roth, Thomas. (2007). Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978319/
Insomnia. (2007). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Insomnia
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