I never had a problem sleeping when I was younger. While school kept me on a rigid schedule, I still always felt rested. In high school, when I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning to be at school by 7am, there were some tired weekends where I felt the need to catch up on sleep but even then, it was normal.
Flash forward to summer 2013. I am in my final year of college but on summer break. I accompany my aunt to what turns into a five-hour doctor’s appointment compete with rigorous tests and as a reward for helping her out, dinner at a local restaurant. I get home around 7:30pm, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to shower, watch TV and sleep. I am two for three that night, though, because I never actually fall asleep no matter how hard I try. I lie awake all night frustrated and confused. I just spent a day running around I should be passed out by now. And now it’s midnight, it’s tomorrow, fantastic. I give up on sleeping and get up and try and read which always makes my tired. Nope, not tonight. By 7am, it’s time to start my day and I have had not a wink of sleep so why am I so alert and ready? Stranger still, I manage to get through my day with hardly any feeling of exhaustion. That night, I am able to fall asleep but find myself waking after only an hour, sometimes 45 minutes. Still, it is sleep, right? This bizarre routine occurs for a week, then stops, then starts up again even on days when I have run myself ragged doing work around the house, helping out a relative or being outside all day. So what was this mysterious sleep condition? Research led me to insomnia.
What is insomnia? It is defined as difficulty in sleeping or the inability to fall asleep or to remain asleep long enough to feel rested, especially when this is a problem that continues over time. This is a problem for a college student like me who needed rest in order to function for class, exams and papers. While insomnia could also be a symptom of other medical conditions and is more often found in the elderly, I found myself experiencing it frequently. Sleeping pills were prescribed but the risk of sleep walking or other adverse reactions as prevented me from taking them. While my bouts of insomnia come and go depending on the week or time of year and what is going on in my life, there were still some naysayers who disagreed with my diagnosis. So here are some truths about insomnia that you may not have known about.
1. Insomnia affects lazy people: not true. You can work your butt off all day and feel exhausted but when you lay down at night sleep never comes or when it does it is for a very short time and you awaken frequently. Insomnia has no limits and does not target people based on their work life.
2. Insomnia affects REM sleep: true. REM sleep is critical to feel rested and when that is disturbed, that is when we feel tired. REM sleep occurs just after falling asleep and just before waking in the morning. Well what good does that do if you never fall asleep? The hours in which I feel the most tired are between 5am and 7am which, go figure, is the time most people have to get up for work or school. So does that mean we all have insomnia? No, it just means we are losing out on a critical period of REM sleep and is the reason most people feel tired or unrested.
3. Living arrangements affect how you sleep: true and false. While living with roommates or family increases the noise and disturbance level, living alone also hinders sleep. In fact, I have met more people with insomnia who live alone than those who live with others but it does make a difference if you are constantly being woken up by the people around you like I am most mornings.
4. Technology hinders sleep: again, both true and false. If you watch TV or play on your phone before bed chances are you will have trouble sleeping. But if you’re like me and shut off all devices before bed and still can’t sleep? What’s to blame? Often times when I am awake past midnight still I will pull up my computer or TV just to kill time since I know that sleep will not be happening and I might as well get some work done instead.
5. Drugs fix the problem:not true. They alleviate the struggle to fall asleep but soon your body becomes dependent on them and the dosage must be increased which can be dangerous. While I was prescribed a low dose sleeping pill I still hesitated to take it. No sleep is better than me sleep walking, or worse, driving, at night down to the 7-11 and having no memory of it the next day.
6. Going to bed earlier helps: somewhat true. It will add a few extra minutes to your chance of falling asleep but it is not guaranteed to work every night.
7. Stress is a factor: true. Running thoughts through your head every night make you crazy. You worry about your job, your kids, your homework, whatever you have going on in life it is enough to make sleep
These are just a few myths and truths behind the reality of this syndrome. No one can be cured of it but depending on your symptoms and severity of insomnia and proper diagnosis you might just be able to manage your symptoms. As for me, I run on fumes everyday. Sometimes I sleep well, other nights I toss and turn for hours. All I can do is hope one day my body and mind cooperate to give me a better night’s sleep.