Understanding Insomnia (and Failing)

In Commentary, HOME, LIFE by Sam Prance

It’s one of those things, so profound yet so undercover. Others can’t detect the condition at all really, but it’s such a pervasive part of one’s life that one has to work around it constantly: remoulding one’s personality, one’s schedules, one’s eating habits…I have chronic insomnia, which means that, for me personally, I’ve had poor quality of sleep for the last three years or so. Ever had a totally sleepless night, and then felt shit the next day? Most people have. But that’s my daily life, interspersed with limited periods of sleep.

I read an article recently that said that due to hormonal reasons, teenagers need up to two hours more sleep per night than normal, and they’re not just being fantastically lazy. Great – every other teenager and young person I know who loves shut-eye has a valid excuse to dream away what seems like a fairly huge chunk of their lives. But, for the young insomniac, this research made me want to tear my hair out. It’s the fact that I don’t know the reason for my chronic insomnia that can make it so distressing.

I believe it started back at school when I was 18 and doing my A-levels – I developed anxiety-induced heart palpitations when I was trying to get to sleep at night, which developed into insomnia. The palpitations lapsed after exams finished that year, but the insomnia stayed. The curious thing is that I would say I’m generally a confident person who enjoys life; I emphatically do not have anxiety, but there’s no cause for it if I am not anxious in some way. My bed-time routine is not much different from the next person’s. I don’t abuse caffeine or other substances, and I’m not depressed. The only way I can describe it is that the part of my brain that switches me off, which renders people unconscious, has just suddenly become faulty, and needs repairing. How to repair it is the question.

There is no magic pill which can take away insomnia. When I first decided to talk to a doctor about it during one particularly bad exam season, I was prescribed Trazodone, an anti-depressant with a drowsiness-inducing side effect. I was confused with his decision, and hesitated to take it. After talking to a close friend, who had had bad experiences with anti-depressants and was shocked at the doctor’s questionable prescription, told me categorically not to take the pills, I decided not to use it. 

For the last year I’ve been sporadically taking Zopiclone, a potent sleeping pill designed for short-term sufferers. It’s a last resort, as the chemicals in the drug are so strong that it can make me feel like the walking dead pretty much every day after taking it – even when it’s actually allowed me to sleep. A few weeks ago, however, I decided to desist taking anything at all, and to begin hoping that my condition might improve naturally with long-term results. And, miraculously, I am finding that my nights of normal sleep (I consider 5 hours to be decent) are slowly becoming more frequent.

With my insomnia, however, I can never tell when bouts of complete sleeplessness are going to happen. Occasionally, on the most torturous of nights, after a couple of days of no sleep whatsoever, I lie in bed on my phone, reading discussions in forums for insomniacs, hoping to find someone who’s feeling as terrible as I do, hoping that they’ve found a cure or at the very least can express some empathy.

Empathy from those who are going through the same thing as me, I’ve found is for me the best form of solace. Others with whom I’ve discussed my insomnia can’t seem to comprehend it; sleep is both natural and vital. I guess with all illnesses, no one apart from the inflicted can truly understand it. One can’t really see physically the degree of fatigue that I experience on a daily basis, there’s no sign of ailment or direct cause of suffering, and that’s why insomnia can seem very isolating, and particularly hard to deal with. No one really wants to talk about it, because everyone’s going through one sort of shit or other, but at the same time, I do want to talk about it, because I want to know that there are people going through the same thing, that we sufferers are not just randomly selected to deal with this insane predicament.

I hope that in writing this article, I can help to tear down a small part of the wall of stigma that society has around mental illness, and I would love to hear from anybody who is going through something similar.

Charlotte Dawnay

Charlotte Dawnay is a student at Edinburgh University. She studies French and Spanish. She loves the work of surrealist artist Joan Miró and has a terrible addiction to avocado. This we’ve noticed is a common problem and although we cannot recommend anything to treat this addiction, we do sympathise with Charlotte.

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