I haven’t slept well in at least a month. Toddler issues (need I say more?) It got me thinking about my old pal, insomnia…Here’s the story!
I’ve always been and still am a light sleeper, but for over ten years, from ages 19 to 29, I was a walking zombie. I was alive but not living. I went through my days and did what I had to do, and even did it well. No one knew that on the inside I felt I would die. Though I never considered suicide, I thought that the lack of sleep would eventually kill me, and sometimes I wished it would.
The heavy-duty insomnia set in during my years at University, at around 19 years of age. I was studying Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. To say that it was a tough program is an understatement; not only was the schedule and workload intense, but I lived an hour and a half away by public commute. I would have to be up at 5am to make it to an 8am lecture and be in classes until 6pm and still have to make my way back home to study and work on assignments.
I worked part time and had clinical placements during the summers. I was exhausted and constantly swamped. The less I slept, the more overwhelmed I became and in my final year I began to experience panic attacks. I’d get out of the subway in the morning and have to hide in a corner on the floor to get my bearings before heading to class. I started becoming paranoid, believing that I had symptoms of every disease I was learning about.
As the decade of death went on, the insomnia only got worse. When I hear people describing their sleep problem, I hear “I can’t fall asleep”, or “I fall asleep, but then I wake up and can’t get back to sleep” or “I wake up every 5 minutes all night”. Whatever your pattern may be, I’ve been there, done that. I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL!
By the time I was 29, I had become a “functional insomniac”. I was able to work, cook, manage my life and have relationships, but I wasn’t really there. The anxiety became generalized, and the panic attacks continued (I was very good at disguising them). I came to get used to this state of being as my new normal. Up until that point I had never even thought of getting help. I dabbled in some natural products, which didn’t really do anything. I never did try medication, because I knew it would not solve the actual problem and I didn’t want to deal with side effects, including addictions.
It was when I couldn’t sleep in the months preceding my wedding that I decided to take action.
The winter before my June wedding, I went without any sleep for weeks, and very little sleep for months. To this day I don’t know how I managed to work every day, treating patients in an in-patient neurology rehabilitation department, all the while planning the wedding, the honeymoon, and the purchase of a first home as well as the move into it.
At work, I was a danger to my patients and to myself. I’d have to excuse myself and go lock myself up in a small closed room next to the therapy gym to hyperventilate and get my bearings. On the way home from work one day, I fell asleep at the wheel. Luckily, my friend and colleague was driving behind me and saw me veer out of my lane. She honked several times, succeeding in bringing me back to consciousness. She saved me as well as the unsuspecting motorists I was sharing the road with. Those were the times I thought I would die. During those months, if I got 20 minutes of consecutive sleep, I was ecstatic.
The night I decided to get help was during that winter in 2005, when I burned both my thighs by spilling a big pot filled with freshly boiled, scalding water on myself. It was the middle of the night and I was congested so I decided to get up and prepare a Eucalyptus vapor bath. I was so out of it, so completely burned out, that I had become accident-prone. I remember thinking, as I was in the bathtub running cold water over my legs, “Ok, that’s it. I can’t do this anymore. I need help.” Within a few days I had obtained a medical referral to a sleep clinic and signed myself up.
I learned a lot from from the sleep clinic’s weekly program. I also sought out other types of help and picked up many tools along the way.
Here are some of the measures I took:
- I prioritized my endless to-do lists and limited my daytime activities to what absolutely needed to be done. I cancelled appointments. The point is to reduce pressure/stress so that the nervous system isn’t running on adrenaline.
- I eliminated the use of electronics, including TV, in the evening (at least 1 hour before bed; 2 hours is better). The bedroom is a device-free zone!
- I ate soupy, stewy meals, heavy on the carbs (healthy carbs) for the evening meal.
- I eliminated caffeine and alcohol (the general rule is no caffeine past noon and no more than one serving of booze/day).
- I drank grounding, Vata-pacifying tea. Vata is a term used in Ayurveda to describe a body-mind type or constitution.
- I lathered my body in warm sesame oil, also an Ayurvedic technique aimed at reducing Vata.
- I allowed myself a six to seven-hour window of sleep, ex. 11pm to 6am. Outside this window, I had to be out of bed. It may seem counter-intuitive to go to bed later, but to regulate the biorhythms of sleep, a shortened and defined window of “allowed sleep” is key.
- I napped for twenty minutes, before 3pm. I didn’t necessarily sleep, but just lying there with eyes closed, doing conscious relaxation, was hugely beneficial.
- I practiced gentle, restorative yoga.
- I journaled. In other words, I downloaded the mental junk.
- Most importantly, I didn’t panic. I knew that if I went there, if I let myself get anxious and think that I would never sleep again, I was doomed. I stayed calm, knowing that this too, would pass.
I could give you many more tips and strategies but this is a good start. For now, let’s say goodbye to insomnia.