Living with insomnia - Coping mechanisms
The following hub is about my experiences with sleep deprivation. It is intended for those who also have trouble sleeping especially younger people who may be experiencing it for the first time. My hope is that a problem shared is a problem halved.
First some facts about me
I love sleeping. I think it's one of my favourite past times. If it could be called a hobby it would be top of my list. At University I was probably something of a champion. On a regular basis I managed to sleep in until about 3pm having been in bed by 11/12 the night before (I even rearranged my lecture schedule so there were no early mornings).
So it may come as something of a surprise that I'm not actually very good at getting to sleep. In fact I'm awful, terrible. If there was a contest for it I would lose every time. Put it this way if you were picking a team of sleepers I'd be the last picked - you know, the kid who the opposing captains try and shift onto their oppositions team? Yep that's me, Billy No Sleeps.
I trace the earliest symptoms of insomnia to watching the film Aliens late one night when I was about 10 or 11. I thought it was brilliant. I loved it and went to bed happy as a kid who's just stayed up late watching Aliens whilst their parents were distracted hosting a dinner party. Yes sirreee I was happy... for all of 3 hours. Then the lasers started, in my mind that is.
I found myself in the film firing lasers at Aliens and backing against a wall before realising they were in the ceiling above. I vividly remember waking up, sitting bolt upright panting and staring around the room in terror. Where were they? I couldn't figure it out and didn't want to move in case they got me. I literally stayed like that; staring at the ceiling until the early hours so locked into my near sleep experience was I.
For months thereafter I could not sleep. It was not the nightmare that kept me awake but the realisation of how alone you are when everyone else is asleep at night. I found it utterly terrifying.
I tried everything. I would sleep at the other end of my bed, read books, try out the floor, get under my desk, get in the closet, everything I tells ya but to no avail. I then started bribing the dog to sleep in my room by laying out treats up the stairs like some sort of Alice in Wonderland trail. You see I figured maybe if I had a little company I would feel a bit safer. Well that and I would have someone to talk to during the many hours of boredom that lay ahead. Sure she would keep me company but before long I was coping with the fact she snored and seemed to push me gradually out of bed as the night progressed. Things were not good.
Over time I managed to cope with the situation. I petitioned my folks to get satellite TV. This was back in the days when TV channels stopped broadcasting around midnight. I thought at least 24 rolling news would be so boring it would send me off. More than that I just wanted the company as there is little quite so lonely as being 11/12/13 and being alone for hours on end through the night. And so in time my folks relented to the constant hounding and were fairly impressed, I might add, with the fact that I managed to work enough odd jobs to pretty much pay for half of it! Such was my devotion to finding a cure.
And I tell you, it helped... for a while.
The Good Times
I managed to sail through my mid to late teens in a bliss of sleep catchingupedness (the only made up word I can think that explains it). I don't know if it was the change in hormones or just a progressive attitude morph but I found myself able to sleep more and more as the years went by. I became so good at it I would miss whole days of school, well and weddings, parties, expeditions and, come to think of it, anything else a sprightly teen would be up to.
I might add at this time the trick was to make really good mix tapes of tunes and listen to them every night. I would know pretty much exactly where I would fall asleep in the tape and so would relax as that moment got closer. Yes I was fully embracing of sleep and happy to luxuriate in its warm surrounds.
It came as something as a shock therefore to find that at University it was not so much encouraged as mandatory! You could sleep in lectures, in the student bar, in girl’s rooms, skips, you name it. If it was vaguely flat and not too lumpy a blind eye was turned to the sleeping shenanigans of this student at any rate.
Unfortunately bliss never lasts and I soon found my way out into the real World seeking gainful employment. The aim was to earn just enough to keep going until my career as a rock star kicked in. You see I'd noticed said rock stars seemed to live a life that was all encompassing of sleep.
Rock stardom beckons
During interviews all they would talk about was hotel rooms (where presumably they'd spend a lot of time sleeping - what? Why are you shaking your head like that?), the tour bus (where they had bunk beds for sleeping) and airplanes (one of the few places I can sleep now!). Also they used to go on about how 'gruelling' a tour was. I thought this sounded fantastic. Not only would you spend your waking hours knackered but you would be able to sleep it off in all manner of brilliant sleeping places in the company of others.
Real life takes over
With great sadness I was unable to join this club of the sleeping. Instead I found myself increasingly (or should that be decreasingly) paid very little to do menial jobs around an office. Not only that but I was expected to be the first one in every day and so would depart my humble bedsit for the office at around 6am every day. Add to this the fact said bedsit was on a busy road with loud traffic until 3am and that I managed to catch scabies from a friend (picture spending your night covered in mosquito bites and times the itching by a thousand) and you may start to picture the face of a man who was not getting much sleep at all.
How could life be so cruel?
OK I'm no doubt boring you by now but I just wanted to lay some of the ground work as to the various sleep related patterns I fell into. The reason will become clear shortly. Right where was I? Ah yes, cruel life.
So I made a decision to only take jobs that gave me every chance to sleep. You see I am actually something of a keen worker. I enjoy working. What I don't enjoy is working having not slept for the best part of a week or two. It becomes something of a chore telling your boss you haven't written said report because frankly you can't remember having said conversation because you have no short, medium or long term memory. In fact who are you?
My cure at this time, which is no way related to being in your early mid twenties and disillusioned with life, was the bottle. I would make sure I had a good few pints before I went to bed. The warm glow of sleep taking over ones constant thoughts at night far outweighed the grogginess I felt the next day especially when said boss would ask about another overdue report and I would merely smile happy with the fact I could remember being asked to write said report. No doubt this was equally joyous for him.
So yes anyway drink was good. It enabled me to once more embrace sleep. I could do it anywhere again. I could be in a traffic jam and sleep, in the dance tent at a music festival and sleep and just about anywhere else the decibels rang higher than usual.
The down side
The problem with relying on any stimulant to get to sleep is that you will one day need more and more of the stuff. So it was with the booze. It soon went from a few beers to a few beers, a couple of shots and a reefer. Later from a few beers, a couple of shots and a reefer to a case of beers, a bottle of whisky and a plant of weed. Shameful, shameful, but what can you do? You're in your twenties, you can't sleep and you have an amazing ability to ingest copious amounts of booze and drugs. What else is there to do?
Well let me tell you my good reader, not the above! There is nothing like trying to go cold turkey and not sleeping. It's like everyone has left the party and you're left to tidy the whole house by yourself but first you need to rebuild the house brick by brick using nothing more than a few bricks, a which guide to building your own house and some chewing gum for cement. It's not fun and not recommended. You soon realise the thing that got you started, i.e., lack of sleep, is still the thing left there with you as you battle to build your first metaphorical wall whilst the neighbour’s dog cocks it's leg against it.
The here and now
After this long path to the here and now let me regale you with my essential learning’s:
1. Don't watch scary movies when young. If you do chat about it with your folks and don't become introverted like said writer to the point your parents think you're a little loopy.
2. Don't over sleep. Keep to really regular patterns. If you can't sleep until 4am and the alarm is set to go off at 8am still leave it set. Somehow the pattern will help you out soon.
3. Don't turn to drink and drugs. It's not the long term answer and not good for you. On top of that don't go down the sleeping pills route either. They may be legal but they work just the same... In so far as you'll become reliant on them and then face cold turkey one day.
4. Do find love. Sleeping next to a partner who has no problems sleeping is actually pretty good. It helps calm you somewhat.
5. Do read if you really can't sleep. It won't always get you to sleep but tired eyes really can help.
6. Don't work late. The brain needs a good few hours to relax before bed. Give it this time or you'll be going over things in your mind when you should be thinking of nothing much.
7. Do embrace that moment when the unconsciousness beckons. You know the place. When you're thinking of what your girlfriend said to you earlier but it suddenly turns into some random words about painting and she turns into a walking potato.
8. Do not keep a mental list of images in your head about things that don't help you sleep. That's just your mind being mean to you. Don't give it the time of day.
Insomnia is not fun. It is a bit of a trial at times. If you have it you sort of have to live with it. However there are things you can do that help make it less intrusive into your everyday life (as outlined above). I think most people that have it find a way to adjust their lives to it. One of the key things is to try not to get depressed about it. We're all built differently and so have different problems. Try and maintain a routine and take regular exercise. It is literally the most consistent work around I have found.
I also wish you genuine luck with your condition! Do feel free to leave comments to discuss any of the above as I am happy to do what I can to alleviate others of some of the worst elements that go with it.