I haven’t blogged for so long. In truth, I’ve barely written a thing in months. There are many reasons for this, but the main one I wish to share with you. This is a long story about my relationship with sleep. You may tire of it before you get to the end, and I won’t be offended if that is the case. I am writing this as much by way of catharsis as anything. If you do stick it out to the end, feel free to share with me your thoughts and perhaps your own experiences with sleep.
We all have our afflictions, some more than others, some bearable, some unbearable. It’s part of human nature to suffer with aches and pains and parts of our body that don’t work, or break. My greatest afflictions usually err on the mental side of health issues. Mostly these days I’m healthy, apart from one main issue. Chronic insomnia.
For as long as I’ve been alive, I have loved to sleep. Where some people can get by on six hours a night, I prefer to get nine or more whenever I can. Even in my misspent youth, when friends would relish in the newfound ability at the age of eighteen, to stay out in a club until the wee hours, I would go along with them, but by midnight I’d be sat in a dark corner yawning, waiting for the time to tick away until I could go home, and sleep.
I always thought I was an easy sleeper, and to some extent that was true, once out, I’d be out cold for the duration, very little would wake me. But the ritual of sleep was specific. Some people can lay their head anywhere and go off without a problem. For me, I went from a childish need for the soft glow of a nightlight all night long to a specific desire for absolute darkness, one night in my teens, and the ritual has grown ever more specific since. Pitch black is a must – I have black-out blinds at the windows to cope with the summer months. In addition to darkness, I need silence. The slightest sound – a dog barking – a car racing up the road outside – someone shouting in their garden, causes undue stress. It’s as if, once disturbed, I have to reset the entire process of attempted sleep, each time, after each sound. The loudest sounds of all were non-existent. The voices in my head, replaying events of the day, events of the past, conversations with people that had happened, that I planned to happen the following day, or that were utterly imaginary. I obsessively played them out, over and over until, eventually my exhausted mind would find quiet and let go.
Imagine then, what having a child did to this delicate ritual. I’ve gotta tell you folks, it fucked me up no end. Add to that an unhealthy dose of post-natal depression, plus PTSD from the near-death experience of childbirth, I can safely say that the first twelve months of motherhood was a mess. It took all of two weeks before I sat in the doctors office, sobbing, shaking, breaking down into shards of a human, leaving pieces of my mind on his grey carpeted floor that I was sure I wouldn’t be able to pick up again before I left. I hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night for all of those two weeks. Luckily, I had broken down in front of the very best products of any medical training and experience that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I wish I could remember his name so I can sing his praises. He told me simply, to stop breastfeeding at once, to take anti-depressants, and to take sleeping pills.
Zopiclone was perhaps the only thing that stopped me tumbling over the edge of insanity. A heavy sedative that took all of my specific sleep ritual needs and threw them out the window. Take one pill, twenty minutes before bed. Lay down. Sleep. I took one a night for twelve months. Then I tried to stop taking it… what I didn’t know was that I was completely dependent on the drug. I tried lowering the dose, taking one every other night, all sorts of tricks to wean off the stuff. None of it worked. The only way I got off it was cold turkey. It took around three weeks of utterly broken sleep (most nights where I didn’t sleep at all) before I could get back towards some sort of sleep routine.
The World Health Organization assessment of Zopiclone states that since the beginning of its therapeutic use, zopiclone has been found to cause rebound insomnia and anxiety. I can attest to that statement. Coming off the anti-depressants was just as hard, and against all advice on the matter, was only achieved, again, cold-turkey – I DO NOT recommend this approach, I very nearly killed myself as a result of the quick withdrawal of such a strong drug. I am alive only by the skin of my teeth on that point. My reasons for doing so are varied but not pertinent to this post.
My daughter is now almost seven years old. I have spent seven years with chronic insomnia. A lack of sleep affects you in so many ways. Go without good sleep for long enough and you’ll find every part of you suffering. Your head throbs and pulsates. Parts of your body weaken at odd times, you could be walking along then find your knee gives out and you stumble. You forget things easily. I struggle sometimes, even now, with the names of people I’ve known for years, people I work with every day, I look at their face and have no idea of their name. You can have open-eyed micro-sleeps – very dangerous for driving. The list goes on and on.
A few months ago, I’d had enough. It’d gotten to the point where I was having maybe three hours sleep a night. Anxiety was at a peak and so I went back to the doctor. A different doctor this time, since we moved house, but still a good result, I was prescribed with Amitriptyline. A low dose anti-depressant, it’s an older style drug in that it makes you drowsy (most of the modern anti-depressants try to out-engineer this “side effect”) but since drowsiness is the goal, it was worth a try. I was also told it has low-dependency – a definite bonus since the awful experience I had with Zopiclone. It worked. It still takes me a good hour, from the moment I lay in bed to the point where slumber catches up to me, but it does the trick. My mind quietens quicker.
I still struggle badly with sleep issues. I’ve accepted the insomnia as part of me now, I couldn’t cut it off any more than I could cut off my own head. I can manage it with help, and that’s perhaps the best I can ask for.
The worst side effect though? My writing. I’ve found different anti-psychotic medications have differing effects on my ability to write, some enhance it, some quash it entirely. Where I spent a good number of years on a handful of drugs, I wrote prolifically, and though Amitriptyline allows me to sleep, it suppresses my ability to write.
I hope it won’t always be the case. I’d like to find a balance. But working full-time and raising an energetic daughter, and caring for my wonderful husband (who was diagnosed with cancer last year)… requires me to be a functioning human being, and that means I need to sleep.
And so to you dear reader, if you’re still there, tell me of your own relationship with sleep. Are you an easy sleeper, or a fellow insomniac?