The Overrated Agony of Insomnia

I was at the end of my rope. For five nights I had not slept more than a two or three hours. Now I was facing another day of brain-fogged exhaustion, battling the unthinkable possibility: What if I never sleep again? Will I die, or go crazy?

This was nothing new – I’ve had bouts of insomnia for decades. It was, of course, stress, which is, of course, everywhere. My current list of stressors included my partner’s health, my grown kids’ various problems, selling our house, and our impending long-distance move. Not to mention dangerous fools running the world.

Regardless, I’d been doing ok, managing to sleep in spite of everything. Until five days ago, when out of the blue something happened that made my stress-o-meter blow its delicate fuse.

It was a friend’s horror story that did it. In the course of being a good neighbor, he found himself suddenly entangled in a situation of violence that included death threats. That phone call woke me up like a knife in the ribs.

I did the only two things I knew how to do to help: I sat down and imagined him safely floating in an island of light, and I stayed awake worrying. Not so much about him, as about myself…

I did the staying awake to perfection. Five nights in the sleep desert, mind racing and eyes wide. If that didn’t solve the problem, I didn’t know what would.

But now I was done. I couldn’t take any more. I had to find my off-switch.

That was easier said than done. Over the years I’d tried everything in the book, and the only thing that worked more or less reliably was a highly addictive, dementia-inducing sleeping pill. And that was something I was determined to avoid.

But what else was there?

When I reach my wits’ end, I often call my old friend Fernando.

Fernando has a particular talent: bursting illusion-balloons. He loves to provoke people, teasing them until they see the absurdity of their fondest beliefs. His sage advice has helped me come through many impossible situations.

It takes a lot to get me to call him – asking for help is so embarrassing. But five nights without sleep and I was ready to be embarrassed. Planting myself on the deck in the sunshine, I called Fernando.

When I explained what was going on, he said, “Oh yes, I know about our friend’s situation. Things seem to be working out. A difficult problem, but things will most likely be fine.”

“That’s good,” I said, “but I have got to do something about my insomnia. This not sleeping is really getting to me.”

“Ah, insomnia,” he responded. “One of the most overrated problems ever!”

That was the last thing I expected. “What do you mean?” I asked him.

“I know insomnia causes a lot of suffering,” he replied. “I myself have been having more trouble sleeping as I get older – but what I’ve noticed is that even when I don’t sleep enough, I’m really ok.”

I thought about this. Much as I hated not sleeping, I had to admit that I’d been functioning ok these last several days, even though I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep a night, if that.

The idea intrigued me. It resurrected a possibility that had raised its innocent head more than once in the past: What if I could actually learn to live with my sleeplessness, maybe even take advantage of it? More hours in the day, after all, would not be amiss.

I had never contemplated this idea for more than a fraction of a second before shoving it back into the realm of impossibility. But now, with someone else going so far as to suggest it, maybe – just maybe – I could give it a chance.

“You know,” I ventured, “I think you might be right. I guess I have been more or less ok all week, at least physically…”

I paused, looking back over the years, and had to admit that this seemed to be consistently true true. Sleep or no sleep, my body was usually more or less ok.

If my body was ok, what was the problem? What was making me so miserable?

The answer was obvious. It was how I felt emotionally.

“You know,” I told Fernando, “I do think most of my insomnia suffering comes from worrying about it, much more than anything physical. Sure, I’m tired sometimes, but that’s not so terrible. I can always take a nap or a rest and if I need to, and I generally get through the day ok.”

“Of course,” said Fernando. “It’s the dread of not sleeping that is the killer. If you aren’t afraid of not sleeping, and you just stay awake, what’s the problem?”

That was the question. Was there a problem?

I had always believed there was. But why?

I remembered how it started, when I had my first run-in with insomnia as a teenager. At that age my upset had had to do with how I saw myself. I wanted to be OK, to be normal, not some freak. Everyone sleeps, and if you can’t, there’s obviously something wrong with you. I was miserable until the doctor gave me the pink pills. They did the trick, even though I later found out they were placebos. I believed they would make me ok, and they did.

After that, although my desire to be “normal” persisted, I had no problem sleeping until my forties. It was when I was raising three little kids and publishing a newspaper at the same time that the stress of it all got to me. Staying up all night again and again to get the paper out, I pushed my endocrine system over the brink, and ended up with chronic insomnia.

At first when that happened, I just struggled. Lying wide awake and quietly panicking, I tried to force myself to sleep. Of course that did nothing but wake me up more.

Then I tried the things that were supposed to work if you were normal: I took hot baths, ate turkey, had foot rubs, and I even counted sheep. Nothing worked.

Clearly I was not normal.

So I went to the medical experts. They agreed with me, this was a serious problem.

They sent me to a sleep hygiene class, where I learned all the dos and don’ts of sleep, none of which were of any use. The only thing I got out of that class was proof that I was right. I was abnormal, and nothing would work on me.

If nothing would work, I was a goner. According to doctors and scientists alike, the prognosis for anyone who doesn’t sleep normally is grim. Who knows how many cancers are caused by years of wear and tear on the immune system from lack of sleep? Not to mention a host of other ghastly conditions. So on top of being a hopeless case who might quite possibly spend the rest of my life awake, I was doomed to die of cancer or lose myself in Alzheimer’s…

As the evidence of my doom mounted, my terror of not sleeping grew. Hulking over me like an evil cloud, it rained down its morbid warning: sleep or die!

At last, when my husband was dying of cancer, my insomnia became unbearable. I went again to my doctor. Maybe I should try sleeping pills?

I’d always resisted taking pharmaceutical sleep aids. This was partly because I didn’t want to get addicted, but mostly because I was afraid they would do nothing. Then I would truly be in a pickle, utterly beyond the reach of modern science.

But now I had no choice. I had to get enough sleep so I could be there for my husband.

“What do you think,” I asked the doctor. “Should I try some kind of sleep medication?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered without hesitation. “Any time you can’t sleep, it’s an emergency. I’ll give you a prescription for Ambien. It’s not so bad.”

That did it. If a doctor said it was an emergency, I had to find a way to beat my insomnia at all costs. Even a pill reputed to wreak havoc with memory and other vital functions would be better than dying from some hideous illness or going crazy from not sleeping…

I got the prescription. Miraculously, it worked, and I took it for a year, until my husband died. Then the Ambien stopped working, so I got a new prescription, for a drug called Clonazepam.

Ambien was ok, but Clonazepam worked wonders. I still love it, it knocks me out like a light. But it is highly addictive, and if you get hooked you have to wean yourself off it slowly, and even then it can be a wild ride. I’ve gotten off it three times. The worst part is the satanic voices in my head…

Regardless, I’ve gone back to that sweet poison again and again, especially when I travel. And if my trip lasts longer than ten days, I’m hooked, and have to wean myself off it all over again.

I didn’t tell Fernando all this, that morning on the deck – just about the doctor telling me insomnia was an emergency.

Fernando snorted with disbelief. “An emergency?!”

Later that day I told another friend the same story.

“Hah!” she laughed, “the only emergency is the doctor’s bank account!”

No one seemed to understand how I could have taken that seriously, about insomnia being an emergency. Now that I thought about it, it did seem just a tad naïve.

After contemplating this remarkable comprehension, I figured I might just give Fernando’s proposal a try. Might just try being ok with the way I am, sleepless. Maybe I’d just keep the pills for a last resort…

And so I did it. I let go – dropped my ancient fear of not sleeping like an old hat.

It was easy – much easier than worrying – and an immense relief. Because no matter how I justified using sleeping pills to squash my insomnia, I had never felt quite right about it. I knew I was avoiding something that I really might be able to face. And that made me uncomfortable.

In reality it wasn’t just my insomnia I was refusing to face – it was my life. I had always dreamed of living without having to struggle against myself, against my tendencies. What would it be like to just let everything be, and live with myself exactly as I am? I had never dared…

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t about to abandon all fear, delightful as that might be. My fears were there to keep me safe. Even the fear of insomnia was well-intended and clearly justified: it was there to protect me from the many well-documented perils of sleep deprivation.

But the fear of insomnia, unlike the fear that keeps me from stepping in front of an oncoming bus, was making things worse, not better. My body was already flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals at all the wrong times just from being alive in the 21st century, and the more I panicked about sleeping, the more I couldn’t.

So I figured it was like living in an earthquake zone. If that’s where you live, you don’t just up and leave. You accept that there might be an earthquake any moment, and go on with your life.

That’s what I did with my insomnia. I accepted it. I decided that it was ok. That it was normal for me. That I could live with it.

It was like stepping off a cliff and finding out that I’d grown wings.

After that the small miracles began. The first was that I lost my fear of clocks.

I used to refuse to look at the clock after bedtime, because I was sure that the lateness of the hour would distress me, and that distress would keep me awake. So I never had a clock in my bedroom, and turned my eyes away from any glowing digital time pieces I might encounter when I got up at night to pee. At hotels I turned every clock to the wall, and hung a towel over the glowing numbers on the microwave.

Just losing that little fear was lovely. Now whatever the time was, I was ok with it. No longer did I have to tell myself it was really quite early, while being sure it was really quite late, without being able to face the unknown truth, whatever it was.

I even began to write down the time whenever I woke up so I could keep track of my sleep patterns. And the next day I would observe how I felt after such and such an amount of sleep. I was becoming my own scientific experiment!

An even greater marvel is that I’ve stopped taking sleeping pills when I travel. Unless I know I’m going to have to drive long distance, I now dare to sleep in strange beds pill-free. At first it might be challenging, but I can take being tired the next day. And little by little, I get used to it, and actually sleep. It’s amazing.

And a great, unexpected bonus: with the stress element missing, I seem to need less sleep. Now I usually feel physically fine even after only a few hours of sleep.

All this has brought up an outlandish possibility. If I’m not stressed about it, could insomnia be less of a death sentence? I mean, isn’t it mainly stress that sends us careening headlong toward all those dire illnesses?

Whatever the case, all is well.

Because more than anything I feel clean. Clean and neat, as if I’ve put on a white dress, freshly ironed and smelling of the wind. As if I’ve ironed all the wrinkles out of myself.

Not that I’ve magically become an expert sleeper. Sometimes I still can’t get to sleep. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and stay that way. I imagine I will always have nights where I get no sleep at all, and days when I am exhausted, and even quite uncomfortable. And now and then, I will take a sleeping pill.

But none of that will be weird or wrong or abnormal. It will be ok. Because I am fine, alive and kicking, and stronger and more courageous than I thought.

– Trudi Lee Richards, Groveland, California, April 2018