If you are a frequent listener to either NPE Radio or Confessions of an Obese Child blog or podcast, you know that I have struggled with insomnia. So much so that I’ve committed two episodes on it: 4 Easy Biohacks To Combat Chronic Insomnia & Natural Biohacks To Improve Sleep. The funny thing is that my insomnia is only a relatively recent occurrence and it is not medically-related, at least not with a physical malady. I’ve contemplated beginning a running blog on my ongoing insomnia called the Insomnia Chronicles to be used as way to express my frustrations and struggles as well as to offer insight as to what goes through the mind of a neurotic insomniac. This first one is entitled The Insomniac Chronicles #1: The Origin.
How It Began
My insomnia began three years ago. I was going through a difficult period in my life with the birth of my 3rd child coupled with the disintegration of my marriage. Prior to this I would fall asleep very quickly. Upon returning from my night walk, I would be down and out within 5 minutes of putting my head down and aside from tossing and turning a bit, I would sleep through the night. (I’m an early bird, for my body is wired to wake up anywhere from 5:30-6:00am.) Even if I were to awaken to go to the bathroom, I would be able to go back to sleep quickly.
Throughout my life I’ve always had an over-analytical, somewhat neurotic mind. In other words it is hard for me to shut my mind off. But prior to this spell it never caused me not to sleep. Well, in this first insomniac night back in this April 2015 night it did. I remember distinctly not being able to shut my mind off in bed. After a few hours of tossing and turning in bed, I began to wonder “Will I fall asleep tonight?” It was never a problem before to fall asleep so I wasn’t too too worried. But the stress of the breakdown of my marriage kept me mind in a racing panic.
As it approached 2:00am, I became frantic “Oh, my God, am I going to go through the whole night without sleeping?!” By 4:00am, I was sweating and in a total free fall. I didn’t sleep that whole night! Part of the reason, I didn’t sleep was the catastrophizing. Chronic insomniacs will tell you that a night after no sleep you begin to think of the worst-case scenarios that will occur if you sleep doesn’t resume. This is called catastrophizing. You think “Oh my God, if I don’t sleep I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow. I might even get in a car accident. Who knows within a week they might have to put me into a mental ward.” This slippery slope of catastrophizing can lead you down a rabbit hole of anxiety, depression, and outright paranoia.
Aside from being groggy, the body is quite resilient and will overcompensate for the lack of sleep. Here is the issue with insomnia, or at least the type that I manifest. The over-arching fear of another night of not sleeping through the night terrified me. The pending dread the entire day about getting back into that bad put me into a cold sweat. By the time night time had come I was in a sheer panic and there was no way in hell I was going to sleep. Or at least that is what I told myself. You see, I already had psyched myself out of sleeping. Had I learned at that point not to catastrophize and tell myself “It is going to be OK. This will pass,” then things in the long run would have improved. But I didn’t tell myself that. It didn’t have the tools at my disposal to do that.
The next night it was the same ordeal. No sleep followed by panic. I would move to my vacant children’s beds to see if a change of scenery would improve. It didn’t (though I learned later that changing scenery is an effective tool in sleep hygiene practices.) I would manage to doze off for an unrested sleep for an hour near dawn. At this point, I began to have palpitations, hearing a rapid heartbeat in my chest and ears all night. This was due to the utter anxiety. The palpitations exacerbated my insomnia because how can you fall asleep when you hear your heartbeat in your chest?
I told my wife of the situation. She told me what all family members tell you when you tell them you have insomnia. “Take a pill.” She also said, “I stay up all night when the baby cries.” Both points were valid and I will say that prior to this 2015 spell, I would be able to wake up to lull a child to sleep and then either fall asleep holding the child or go back to bed to fall asleep quickly.
As a whole, she wasn’t too sympathetic. I don’t blame her. Our marriage was falling apart so why would she be sympathetic to my plight? Also there is the factor of compassion fatigue. If you are not familiar with that term, is the gradual lessening of compassion for people’s problems mostly because the human mind is only capable of a certain amount of sympathy before it takes a toll on that person’s psyche. Also, you just get tired of hearing about someone’s problems.
I began hallucinating at night. When I mean hallucinate I am not suggesting that I would see purple elephants in my room. It is more like this. When you eyes are closed at night, the back of your eyelids serve as a projector screen. The mind, panicking that it is not getting any restorative sleep, begins to project images into that screen. They aren’t very visible and certainly not in color. They are more shapes and monochromatic hues that continually move. I was never fearful of these hallucinations. I was never fond of them either because I knew things were getting real bad.
My acute insomnia lasted about two weeks. Near the end of it I was at my wit’s end. Perhaps not surprisingly, it coincided with my separation from my wife. Lack of sleep amplifies all types of emotions, but most certainly makes you less logical and rational and more irrational and paranoid. That being said, the separation and eventual divorce had many more issues than the insomnia, but it sure didn’t help. This is one of the reasons sleep deprivation has been used as a torture technique.
Once I moved to a hotel, I was able to slowly regain my sleep. Eventually, I moved to an apartment and within a month or two, I was sleeping like normal, even taking day naps. Even during the stressful maneuvering of the divorce proceedings, I was able to sleep. I was back to my normal sleep modus operandi of falling asleep on the couch and then moving over to the bed in the middle of the night and getting back to sleep in a jiffy.
Return of the boogeyman.
I never forgot about that first insomnia spell, but I was able to move on and sleep well. I would even stay up late till 11:00pm-12:00pm watching TV, taking night walks or going out late with friends. But the insomnia returned again in the summer of 2016. And this spell has not ended.
On a particular summer day, I took my kids to a burger joint to play. I had them for 5 days in a row. For the year after the separation, I slept well even when my two children would stay over at the apartment. That night, my ex-wife serendipitously arrived with a man. I suppose it was a date, but I wasn’t sure. I suspect the man lived nearby, recognized my children and then told her to come over. This burger joint was way too far away for her to come on her own. Either way, no drama occurred, but something stirred in my mind that night. I had never seen my ex-wife with another man before.
The thought that this man might raise my children and be an influence in their life freaked me out. It wasn’t that I was jealous of this man or uncomfortable with the fact that my ex was dating, it was more about him. I didn’t know anything about this man so my mind just filled in the blanks. I began to imagine my kids wanting to spend time with him, eventually loving him, and maybe replacing me with him.
The insomnia returned that night. The memories of that first insomnia spell came back with a vengeance. The palpitations returned. I literally got 30 minutes of sleep that night. The panic returned! The obsession that I would not sleep the next night returned. Even after the kids when back to their mom I was fixating on this idea that I would be replaced. And that fixation morphed into a ritualized sleep protocol. I could no longer fall asleep on the couch. I heard every imaginable sound. The ticking of the clock kept me up. The swirling of a creaky ceiling fan kept me up. Even a slight amount of light coming into the apartment would keep me up.
For about a month, I was getting anywhere from 2-5 hours of sleep. I began to panic. I didn’t want to take Ambien or any other “sleep aid” because I knew the studies about their heinous side effects. Not to mention they don’t help you get into that deep REM sleep. They give you 15 more minutes of shallow sleep. Not to mention they make you even more drowsier than had you not slept at all. Not to mention the habit-forming and tolerance issues with them. As one doctor said, sleep drugs and anti-depressants only mask the symptoms; they don’t treat the underlying problems.
So I decided to use natural remedies and good sleep hygiene to resolve this episode. Unlike the other episode, where I could extricate some of the outside factors that were exacerbating the insomnia, this time around I had nowhere to go. I did the research and began to implement some of the classic sleep hygiene protocols that are mentioned in the aforementioned NPE articles and podcast episodes at the beginning of this article. I wore blue-light blocking glasses when looking at screens, didn’t eat too much before sleep, made the bedroom as dark and cold as possible, didn’t look at the clock at night, only used the bedroom for sleep, and avoid caffeine after 1:00pm. I began to use magnesium and chamomile tea. I purchased a Cognitive Behavorial Therapy for Insomnia program (CBT-I) that is supposed to be the best therapy treatment for insomnia. I read the material, maintained a sleep log, and implemented its other practices such as…
- Not going to bed until you are sleepy (even if it is late).
- If you do not fall asleep within 30 minutes, move to another location and engage in another activity until you get sleepy again. Then go back to your bed. Rinse, lather, repeat.
- Do not catastrophize. Tell yourself not to panic and that your sleep will return.
- Try various meditation and body relaxing techniques.
I implemented these measures to various levels of success. Honestly the hardest one for me to do is wait to go to bed until I’m sleepy. That measure makes sense. Why go to your bed when you are not sleepy because you know within 30 minutes you probably won’t be asleep since you weren’t sleepy in the first place? This measure is difficult for me because I know I only have a finite amount of hours to sleep before I have to wake up to go to work. Waiting till midnight or even later to go to sleep, though it might increase my chances of sleeping, puts me closer to my wake-up time of 6:00am.
Future Insomniac Chronicles blogs will go into depths detailing my daily struggles with this mysterious illness. There is a lot to flesh out. I will say that even 18 months after this second insomnia spell, I still haven’t recovered like that first one. For example, last night I slept for 3 25-minute sleep sessions and two nights before, 2 hours.
To add more anxiety to my neurotic mind, my mom was hospitalized on two occasions for insomnia and the anxiety that came before and after it. She spent weeks in a private facility. My ex-wife once told me that I would end up in a psych ward just like my mom. I worry that your prediction may come true.
This insomnia has put me into a mental prison, has made me so regimented in every aspect that I do, it has greatly affected my relationships adversely, not to mention my overall health. It is absolutely debilitating. I will explore these topics in later blogs.
Click HERE to purchase an effective CBT-Insomnia program on Amazon.
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