Life as a Recovering Insomniac

I’ve written about this elsewhere and tweeted about it, but my insomnia came back with a vengeance these past few weeks, and it has been rough. Many long-time readers know that I’ve struggled with insomnia for much of my life. I’m a night owl by temperament and have even “made insomnia work” for me at points in my life, when I had more reserves of energy to compensate. (Not sleeping = superproductive, at when I was 25.)

But in grad school, my insomnia got ridiculous — I’d finally fall sleep by 6 or 7 a.m., only to wake up 4-5 hours later — and it became a real issue. It took a monumental move to tire me out enough to fall asleep before midnight (the first time in years) and a lot of vigilance and effort to remain on a somewhat normal sleep pattern. I’ve managed to stay on a fairly decent routine with occasional lapses, but sometimes you slide — and recently, due to a number of factors, the slide became a full-on avalanche.

For those who haven’t ever had problems getting or staying asleep, it’s hard to communicate exactly how necessary and foundational sleep is. If left unchecked, insomnia can really chip away at your health and happiness. You don’t get enough sleep; you wake up feeling tired; you down some coffee in hopes of creating some phantom energy; the extra caffeine keeps you up again; a few more days like this, and your lizard brain starts to go to deep dark places; little hobgoblins of anxiety and fear suddenly become full-fledged monsters; you work yourself up into a mental frenzy and can’t sleep even worse; and so on and so forth, until you get to the point where it’s 4:20 AM and you’re really questioning your commitment to life in a serious way. I like to say I’m a “recovering” insomniac, and while I don’t mean to equate alcoholism with insomnia, I have found that insomnia is something I always need to be aware of and vigilant against. I’ll never not have a tendency to fall into it; it’s something I think I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.

These past few weeks have been a perfect storm for the return of insomnia in my life: daylight savings always screws me up a little. (It’s nice to have more daylight, but I also don’t feel sleepy into much later into the evening.) But couple that with job stress, a literal pain in my neck that has kept me from getting regular exercise, and just, you know, life — and suddenly I’m only getting 3-5 hours of sleep a night. I could manage to stay fairly coherent and somewhat even-keeled on this amount when I was in my early 20s, but now…not so much. I really need a good 7-8 hours a night these days, and when I don’t get it, hell breaks loose in my life. The first night seems workable, but as the sleeplessness adds up, it snowballs often into something much darker and monstrous — and it’s important to tackle it quickly for me, because otherwise it transforms into a mega-demon fast.

This last week has been particularly awful — the mind demons ran riot in my brain, even bringing back those classic teenage feelings of self-loathing, self-hatred and doubt. You know the kind: I’m ugly and old and destined to die alone and no one loves me and why I am alive and oh my god please just put me out of this misery because life is absolutely senseless. So, so awful. I’m self-aware to know that I can’t trust these “feelings” when I’ve been absolutely fatigued and exhausted and not sleeping, but that doesn’t mean they don’t grip your heart, suffocate its arteries and burn in your chest anyway.

I have always found most general insomnia advice to be inadequate, though, and this go-round of insomnia is no exception. Get enough exercise, turkey sandwiches, cooler rooms, trying to sleep and wake up at the same time…honestly, if it was this easy, then insomnia wouldn’t be so prevalent and pernicious. I believe the big difference makers are either very deep, almost subterranean psychological ones — dealing head-on with your anxieties, fears, depression, griefs and deep-seated juju — or weird little “hacks” that disrupt the behavioral patterns that push us into sleeplessness. (I remember getting the tip to take out my contacts much earlier in the evening, which helped me so much, because dealing with stuff like contacts and brushing my teeth when I was tired and wanting to blow them off made me feel guilty — and guilt keeps me up at night.) Insomnia is a set of behaviors and mental, physical and emotional patterns, and it’s important to analyze your own to be able to effectively attack it. In another life, I’d be a sleep researcher and maybe even a sleep “coach,” because I honestly and truly believe everyone’s insomnia is highly specific and individual — and requires an equally specific and individual response to tackle it.

That said, this bout of insomnia taught me a few new things about fighting it — or underscored the importance of other things I’d tried in earlier fights. I’m only sharing them here in hopes that they help anyone else dealing with it, particularly if they’re tackling the mental and behavioral aspects of insomnia.

Treat yourself like a toddler. Anyone who has been around small children knows that you have to teach them how to sleep. You know how parents make little kids take a hot bath, change into PJs, brush their teeth, settle down with a book and have “quiet time” before night time? You need to take the same care with yourself, because it takes some time to signal the body and mind to slow down and get ready to rest. Would you let a random 2-year-old run riot and then try to get them to bed after they’ve exploded in a ball of energy? It won’t work, because they’re too keyed up — and deep down, you’re really no different from that 2-year-old.

I always go back to this idea, because as an adult, it’s really easy to fall into bad habits: being on your computer right before bed, trying to squeeze out one more e-mail, more post, one more anything. You’re really banking on your own exhaustion to get you to bed the minute your head hits the pillow, but after awhile, fatigue itself can get really toxic — and sleep just isn’t the wonder of restoration that it should be. I have to renew efforts to really chill and relax before falling asleep periodically, to set and keep up a “Kat, it’s time to relax enough to fall asleep” routine. And this means that sometimes I don’t blog as much, I don’t get as much freelance work done, I don’t work on my book or novels all the time, or even that I don’t stay out as late. Those are sometimes hard decisions to make, frankly, but sometimes you really do have to make them, especially if your well-being is on the line.

Don’t feel depressed that it’s back. Rethinking myself as a recovering insomniac actually proved oddly helpful, because sometimes insomnia is its own stress feedback loop — you get stressed about not getting sleep, which makes it even harder to sleep, and then you get stressed even more that Oh my god, I’m not sleeping, this totally sucks and then, wow, it’s even harder to fall asleep because you’re so worked up about it. Feedback loop, I tell you! Realizing this is something that’ll probably pop up again in my life made it slightly more ho-hum and less calamitous, very “Oh hai, insomnia, you again?” Whatever it takes to psych my mind out, right?

Nothing is real at 4 in the morning. The hard thing for my particular brand of insomnia is that, once it gets really bad — I challenge anyone to stay sane after a week and a half of getting only 3-4 hours of sleep — my mind fills the vacuum with sometimes awful thoughts, and these keep me up once they start marching through the night. But I always remember — I am not the effluvia of my mental or emotional activity. Feelings, emotions, thoughts, they pass through your mind and life like weather. There may be persistent days of cloudiness, but beneath the grey is a sky, something way more clear and steady and pure, and that is who you really are. It’s fine to let the 4-in-the-morning hobgoblins run riot, and even observe them like you would a fireworks show — and indeed, trying to suppress shit sometimes makes it feel even stronger — but don’t act on anything or believe it’s the truth if it always only comes up at 4 in the morning and you’re exhausted and maybe even ravenous with hunger. I always say, eat a great meal and do something really lovely, and if you’re still having dark thoughts — yep, then it’s time to acknowledge something deeper is going on and get help or take positive action. If it happens in the middle of the night, maybe it’s just your fatigue and exhaustion having a movie night with the fears and anxieties everyone has tucked away in the little folds of their amygdala or whatever.

Seriously, exercise. I hate that everyone harps on how great it is, but man, this go-round only underscored how much I need to do it in order to feel somewhat healthy. Having a literal pain in my neck that kept me from doing any genuinely aerobic exercise really, truly sucked. It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to jump back into my running shoes, and it’s made such a huge difference to be able to run and move again. (Plus: endorphins really nicely displace those feelings of yuckiness and malaise.) I hate that everyone is right about exercise, but there you go.

Little things help. Everyone has their own “little things,” but mine are: not having cold feet, not feeling too hungry before bed, no computers or electronics, taking out my contacts way before bedtime (ha), no loud punk or dance music at night, no new fiction in bed at night (I always want to finish the story), lots of hugs and kisses if there’s someone there to give me some, using a tennis ball to massage those stupid knots in my shoulder blades, and dimming the lights in my apartment overall. It’s way too easy for my mind to get stimulated, so I have to really focus on calming it down at the end of the day.

Talk to someone. I don’t even think you have to do it in a serious “I’m going to get professional help” kind of way. Sometimes insomnia can make you feel so isolated and cut-off from the rest of the world — everyone else around you has energy or at least seems functional, but here you are, beyond fatigued, sleeping at odd hours, just slightly out of step with reality. You can’t enjoy life, and even food loses its flavor and the world is slowly drained of color when you’re plagued with persistent sleeplessness. Even just being open about it helps me, like, “Yep, I’m dealing with insomnia now and it really sucks and I’m going kind of mental.” (This is part of why I’m writing this here.)

It’s all too easy to feel like you suffer alone, and it’s easy for insomnia to develop these existential dimensions that go beyond the mental, physical and even emotional. Talking about it helps take that part of it away for me, and acknowledging the importance of sleep — and not minimizing its effect in my life paradoxically helps me feel like it is manageable, and not a phantasmagoria it can turn into.

5 thoughts on “Life as a Recovering Insomniac

  1. The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4am knows all my secrets”~

    Personally by 4 I’m almost always at the stage of for fucksake, all your weepy thoughts are nonsense which is far better than just ‘weepy thoughts’, but..

    This is the best advice that I’ve somehow never realised alone: “no new fiction in bed at night (I always want to finish the story)”

    1. Sometimes I think the most seemingly inconsequential advice has the biggest impact! Especially all those little things about insomnia…you never know what will finally work…

      xo k.

  2. Hi I’m a student in London at Middlesex university and I would love to use this blog post for my dissertation research on recovering from insomnia. Is that okay?If so i need to provide evidence of permission so do you have an email address that I could contact you on or if you would go have my email contact info. I would provide you with more information on my research aswell. Thankyou

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *