Sunday, December 4, 2011

Insomnia... how it all began.

I don't recall very well how my insomnia took hold. There never was a sudden onset, I just felt, as time went by, that I would have increasing trouble falling asleep.

I don't remember very much from my early childhood, but from the little pieces that I do remember, I can put together the image of some quite good nights of sleep. Of course, my parents would occasionally remind me of how hard I was to put to sleep as a little child, but then I imagine that wouldn't be unusual for a baby.

However, I do distinctly remember noticing around the age of 12 that the moment of going to bed was never followed shortly by the moment of falling asleep (as it had been the case throughout my life up to that point). I remember one day realising that perhaps it's not normal to lie awake in bed for a few hours past regular bedtime. That's the first memory I have of trouble sleeping, but it hadn't even started developing into what it would later become.

As time went by and I became a teenager, my evenings would be constantly plagued by quarrels with my parents over sending me to bed. That, of course, is normal as well, for such behaviour is to be expected from children. But apart from that, the hour of falling asleep, too, kept creeping up one steady step at a time. I think by the age of 15 I could no longer hope to fall asleep by midnight on regular nights, and by the age of 16 it would be impossible for me to rest before 1 in the morning, on average.

And I found ingenious ways of coping with this and saving face with my parents. In the beginning, one of things I loved doing was thinking. I would pick a theme, or a subject, and just think about it for hours on end, till I had exhausted all possibilities. As I grew more experienced at overstaying awake everyone else in the house, I got bolder and I would read under the covers with a flash light, or watch TV with the sound muted (this was a dangerous one, because of the light that the TV would cast through under the door).

At the age of 16, my mother caught me awake reading at 4 am in the morning. I wasn't tired a bit, which she thought was odd, so she kept spying on me. Of course, I didn't sense that, but a few weeks later, my parents confronted me and asked me how it was possible that I would rarely sleep over 5-6 hours a night, and for how long I had been hiding it. Since the cards were all out on the table, I told them the real time I would go to sleep.

So, this having been said, they tried to take me to the doctor. As expected, he wasn't much help. After an ever lasting lecture about the importance of sleep (they were convinced I was intentionally keeping myself awake, which looking back, is a fair assumption), he gave me sleeping pills. Now, if I was OK without sleep, I was NOT ok with sleeping pills, as they would leave me in a state of drowsiness and drained me of energy. I've hated them ever since. I can't stand them.

By the time I turned 17, things had become critical. On bad episodes of insomnia, I would go without effective sleep for a few days in a row, and this is the time it was taking a significant toll on my daily routine. With my 18th anniversary, I reached a new level, with episodes of insomnia coming right one after each other (as soon as I had come around from one, I would recognise the signs of the following one), and this all culminated with my 19th anniversary, and the two months following it, which were the most miserable months of my life. I was forever tired, but what's worse, I could never seem to forget the memories from the previous day. It's like all the days continually added to a pool of already saturated short term memories, leaving little room for learning new things, being able to pay attention, and everything that comes with it. It would be almost impossible for me to focus for more that 10 seconds on anything, and the impossibility of turning down the volume of my thoughts at night almost made me insane. I was quite literally, losing it.

As high school was coming to an end, the insomnia suddenly broke. I don't know why or how it happened, but I am glad that it did, as I was able to quickly pull myself together and focus on getting into university, which I did rather easily. Later on that summer, I had another episode, but it wasn't merely as bad. It seemed as if the worst had been over.

And in a sense, it had. For a couple of years, the insomnia decreased in both intensity and frequency, but it by no means disappeared. Then, at the age of 20, I lost it again. Once again, it all started in late February and early March, and it kept coming back for almost three months. Then I had a small recovery and in February the following year (now aged 21), it hit me again, the second worst three months of my life (better only than at 19). And then it subsided again, and came back right before Christmas, but this time it didn't go away and only amplified in February. By May, in my 22nd year, I was such a mess that I lost almost all contact with reality. This was a new minimum, probably equally worse to my experience at 19, but since I was now much more prepared to cope with it, I rated it as not being worse.

And then it kept oscillating through the summer, only to have stabilised in late October (and by stabilised, I mean constant frequency). To be honest, I don't think I've ever had more than 10 continuous nights of good, restful sleep in the past 6 or 7 years.

I learned that the ability to sleep is not in fact affected by stress too much (I'll cover the relationship between stress and insomnia in more detail in a different post), and that it is possible to sleep for a few hours a night and still not realise it and wake back up with all of the memories of the previous day (I call this "fake sleep").

I don't know what the future holds, but I am confident that I learned enough about insomnia to not let it affect my life. In some instances, it did give me more time and opportunities for introspection, which I am grateful for. On other occasions, it made my life miserable, but with enough experience, I can reduce those to a minimum.

I also learned that it's not something that will go away, as the stages of sleep are regulated by chemicals in the brain, so I am quite at peace with it. However, many people around me are considerably less informed and have some terrible preconceptions about insomnia, so that's why I felt it was my duty to start this blog and explain a little.

Stay tuned for more...


  1. I have also been having this problem for oh so many years. I am amazed you can, somehow, cope with it, I can't at all. In these periods of lack of sleep I am a nervous wreck, I can't even walk straight or talk normally, I also get terrifying headaches which last 3-4 days.

  2. Well, you're still here, aren't you?

    Ibuprofen sort of solves the head aches for me.

    Most times when I wind up being angry or in despair, I try to stop and think whether I'd feel the same way if I weren't sleep deprived. If the answer is no, I try to back off and get myself out of the situation (for example, if I'm in a group, I go home, if I'm at work, I put on the headphones and listen to radio, etc.). I's also a good practice for when you're not sleep deprived having this cognitive safety net. Makes you less prone to taking rash decision.

    And when all else fails... talk things out with someone you trust. That always works for me.

  3. I have tried every type of pain killer from Ibuprofen to aspirin to light narcotics(in Romania you can take them without prescription, stupid thing). Even some antimigraine pills, nothing works more than 2-3 hours at best. But that is the least of my problems, because I can cope with the 3-4 days they last.
    I simply can't stand it anymore, lately it's been getting worse,I haven't slept at all in the last days, I have many college exams the next week and I feel like I am losing it. I can't relax, reading, music, everything just irritates me more.
    I talk with the people I trust, but they don't really get me. They tell me stuff like "Oh, I bet you are overreacting. Go try to sleep.". I CAN'T sleep, that's the problem ...
    You said you've been feeling better after you got 20, I just hope it might improve for me too.

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  5. Hi, I am the same chick that posted above some months ago. I kept reading your blog, though never commented anything. I wanted to ask you if your insomnia has gotten better or if you had any improvement.
    I want to thank you for making me realize that I was kinda stupid and pitiful, asking people to help me, when all that I needed was to help myself.
    I started doing lots of sports, jogging mostly, started eating healthier and it has shown some improvement. I have also begun a treatment with melatonin, which is supposed to help me regulate my biological clock. I am hoping for the best.

    1. Hello Dana,

      The short answer to your question is "Yes, it did get a lot better." Whether I had any influence on it getting better is questionable, though. I had a bad episode in August, and then it slowly subsided. During September 2012, I had the best and most restful nights in all of my previous five or six years, but things really got mindblowingly good throughout October. So good that I used to wake up fully rested and smiling on every morning :-). I had occasional insomnia in November and then a moderately bad episode in December, both of which may have been cause by, or correlated with depression, but I think I am on the right track.

      Physical exercise is very, VERY important to me, and it is one of the most important prerequisites I have for good sleep. I go to the gym three or four times a week, and I go to great lengths to eat healthy. Emotional security is also very important. I can't stress that enough, and I also can't give any specific advice on how to achieve it, other than the fact that it has to come from within. I had a very rough patch last year, and I was also living in a quite abusive environment, so I got visibly better after I removed the negative stimuli.

      I really don't know what to say about the melatonin treatment, because I've never tried it. I reject all forms of sleeping medication (including circadian rhythm regulators), because I always thought that it was addressing the symptoms rather than the cause.

      Trust me, it can (and does) get A LOT better. It take some lifestyle changes, but you can do it. I am living proof. Just have patience, relax a bit, and try to live one day at a time.

      I'm not sure whether this was very helpful, or whether it actually answers your question, but I am more than willing to talk to you and answer some more of your questions, if you have them.

      Take care,

  6. I do have a ton of things to ask you, but I was wondering if you had a mail address or something of the sort, for I don't feel that good writing things about my personal life on the internet for public view.

    1. I've made my email address associated to this Blogger account visible on my profile page (click on "Marcvs" next to my picture, you should find a link on that page).