And you thought daytime television was rubbish; wait until you've seen the home-shopping network at 4am...
It’s 5.37am. The sun is streaming beautifully through the window. You can hear the birds calling merrily to each other, and the Summer breeze through the open window is just glorious.
I’ve had exactly 1 hour and 49 minutes sleep this last bout. I know because I’ve been counting. That sun streaming through the window isn’t, in fact, beautiful, it’s fucking painful. And I want to cry with frustration because those 23 minutes more sleep before the alarm goes off seem like the Holy Grail to a Crusader; miraculous, but unreachable.
Hi, my name’s Laura, and I’m an insomniac.
I’m nearly 32, slim, white, female, and (I like to think) reasonably attractive. I have a good, challenging job, a super-hot boyfriend, some really great friends and family, and a pretty decent home life with a cool housemate. I’ve started back at uni and have some quirky outside interests, like archery and knitting. Lots of my time is spent with other people, but I get a good chunk of ‘me’ time where I just chill and loaf about.
I’m not saying I don’t want a better job or a nicer house or to be better at uni, but I’m no more ambitious than the next person, and none of these things weigh on my mind as such on a day-to-day basis.
Why then have I had insomnia for more than 10 years? What is it in my life that makes sleeping through the night so hard? Why is a good night for me only waking up two or three times, as opposed to being able to sleep a solid 6 to 8 hours?
In 2010, 8.9% of the Australian population was calculated to have sleep disorders. That’s 1.5 million people. 1.5 Million people. Seriously? Yes, seriously. And it’s on the rise.
Sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture in many cultures throughout the ages with varying success. The CIA still use it today. Some were better at it than others, and some used other methods to complement it. Be that as it may, there was no denying its effectiveness; once you’d gone past the point of no return without sleep, you’d say anything.
These days however, torture is more in the mind of the sleeper. Or non-sleeper, rather. Stress from work or home, shiftwork, illness, even seasonal changes all contribute to insomnia. And a combination of these can be deadly.
From a personal point of view, insomnia has become a normal state of affairs. The highs and lows vary, but a night of 7 hours sleep, broken only by 2 trips to the bathroom (whether I need it or not), and waking at dawn (actual dawn; my body is currently taking circadian rhythms to new extremes) instead of 6am when my alarm clock goes off, are considered a good night. Socially, this is not normal. The body needs solid sleep to function, a rest period that it uses to repair the trials of the day, be they standard work or any damage you have sustained during that time.
This particular, almost clockwork, mechanism seems to be becoming normal for more and more people. But why, and what can we do about it?
Shiftwork has long been considered the most antisocial, sleep disrupting profession around. Be you bartender, ambulance officer, or rail worker, shiftwork creates a sleep pattern like no other. And once you’re in the cycle, it can be more than just a little difficult to break.
But what about those of us who got insomnia before we worked in hospitality or emergency services? Did those jobs make it worse? Or did the change of sleep patterns actually help us in maintaining a better balance due to the ability to cater to our already dysfunctional needs?
It’s hard to say sometimes what makes a sleep disorder better or worse, depending on the cause. As an asthmatic and a life-long ‘mouth-breather’, it took years of various training routines to clear up that side of the matter; swimming as a child taught control, circular breathing through yoga helped create a more effective respiratory environment. What about after that; why did the insomnia continue?
Here’s where most people start to get frustrated. Figuring out what the problem is, be it asthma, stress, or something else, is the first step, and managing it is the second. Sadly though, it doesn’t stop there. Thinking that you can be complacent about this is a bad move and one that I’ve personally come to regret on many an occasion.
If you’re a seasonal insomniac, my sympathies go out to you. I’m absolute rubbish in Summer and a little of the Spring. It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. No, I don’t bloody like the later nights of daylight saving, and no, being able to stay up later doesn’t help me sleep. And I’m not the only one. Seasonal insomnia catches more people out every year, and still we think it’s just a phase to be ‘coped with’, something we can struggle through. Thanks, but no thanks.
Seasonal insomnia is in itself a form of torture. 4 months, give or take, of restless, broken sleep do not a productive person make. And the catch-up is a bitch.
The catch-up is commonly called a ‘sleep debt’; you’re racking up more and more time without shut-eye and it’s taking its toll. And just so you know, it accumulates incrementally the longer it goes on. If you miss a nights sleep then go to bed early with success the night after, you might do ok. If you miss that first night, then a little the next night, and then the next, and then think, hey, I’ll make it up in the weekend, you’re wrong. That 3-4 hours you missed at the start has built its own momentum, and by the weekend, you’re wrecked. The build-up of sleeplessness added to the normal stresses of everyday, has become a small monster in its own right, and it wants you to suffer.
Sleep-debt needs to be paid and it needs to be done sooner rather than later. There is no right or wrong here, but the longer you wait, the worse it gets. My limit is about 30 hours on normal time, meaning I got some decent sleep before the long stretch without, and was able to crash at the end. On an insomnia day? 6 hours over two days, at which point I turned a whiter shade of pale, and passed out at work.
Then there’s the crying. Have you ever been so tired you just cried with frustration? I have, and more times than I can count, though luckily not so much in the last few years. Look at a small child after a long, hot day out. Watch their eyes droop, their face go all red, and the waterworks start. You know why; because they are absolutely knackered. And presently, being outside in a loud, invasive environment is pretty scary. Add 25 years and the responsibilities of being a grown up and you might just start to get the picture.
Potions and pills
There is any number of remedies out in the market today to help insomniacs of all breeds to cope with lack of sleep. Some are more hardcore than others, and some people can only take certain types. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of the chemical ones, purely because my body gets doped up enough on asthma medication, but after a week of little to no sleep, in the middle of Summer, with work stress hammering me every day, I’ll take my magic Mersyndol, thank you very much.
For those of you who think that varying your options works better, there are lots of effective methods you can try; medicinal sleep aids are available over the counter, and some of the herbal versions are available in Priceline pharmacies or supermarkets. I’m on a Valerian cycle at the moment. I only take it perhaps once a fortnight at the moment, but even when it was twice a week, I still didn’t feel like I was over-doing it, which was a real bonus.
Complete Sleep, by Nature’s Own, is another winner. At $26-$28 a packet it’s a little on the steep side, but I can’t recommend it enough. There is always Sleep-Aid, Mersyndol, and Restavit, but if you want to make sure you’re not upsetting your gut too much with chemicals, the herbal stuff is the biz.
Hippie as it sounds; meditation is an amazing method to get you just past the point of wide-awake to sleepy enough to drop off. Can’t switch your brain off? Count sheep – it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Your mind needs a merry-go-round to keep moving on, why not give it a gentle, easy one to follow. Guided meditation tapes, music, yoga nidra (specific guided meditation), and visualisation are just some of the methods I’ve used over the years.
The best one, and my favourite, is definitely what they call the fantasy scenario. Yes, I’m aware that sounds mildly dodgy, but go with me on this; you pick a situation you’ve always wanted to be in and walk yourself through it. Meeting George Clooney, skydiving, industrial espionage, whatever! It’s all about the details here; every moment needs to have colour, stitching, the edge of that piece of crockery, the feel of that chair. Be painstakingly precise. Get really involved, so involved that you feel like you are there. Hell, go for the romantic scenario if you like, whatever works for you. Trust me, you’ll become so deeply entrenched in the scene, you’ll be drift off before you know it.
The opposite is also effective, though a little harder to conjure for some people; absolute stillness and calm. Imagine a blank page, an empty room, an ocean before you. This one can be more difficult as humans prefer to fill in the gaps in life – anywhere there’s space, they want to fill it. That being said, this one takes serious concentration and patience, and if you have that and all you want is to shut everything off to get to sleep, again, you’ll be drifting off before you know it.
There are so many different ways of getting some sleep, and yet we are all getting less and less of it the busier our lives get. Surely it can't be that hard...
Sleeplessness as a disease could wipe out millions. Lucky it’s not then, hmmm? But what damage are we doing our bodies by not getting enough sleep? I don’t think there is enough attention paid to the overall, holistic wellness required to get through every day. Hopefully, sleep will become a more prominent topic before we take it even more for granted than it already is.
This is only the first piece I’m going to write on a topic I’m really quite passionate about, and I’m hoping to explore different elements of it later; dreams and dream states, the effects of different sleep aids, non-medicinal sleep aids. I’d love to hear any methods you’ve used to get some shut eye, and don’t be shy about the stranger ones, I’m sure you’re not the only one to have tried them!