Content note: this piece contains discussion of anxiety, insomnia, and mental health.
Hi, I’m Sage, and sometimes I forget how to sleep.
Maybe this makes me sound quirky, but I can assure you that it’s mostly just terrible.
I have anxiety-induced insomnia and sleep-deprivation-induced anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not always sure what triggers my bouts of sleeplessness, but I know as soon as they’ve been activated.
For awhile, all is well. Then one night, right after I lay my head down, I’m hit with the first pang of anxiety. It begins just below the centre of my chest and rolls into my stomach, and it tells me I will be wide awake for many hours to come. Usually, this will last for three or four nights in a row and then resolve on its own. Sometimes, however, it can go on for weeks or even months. Life transitions, burn out, arguments, overcommitments, and a variety of other stressors can all be triggers. Sometimes, it feels like life itself is a trigger.
I’ve tried many things over the years in an attempt to either solve or cope with this issue and have come to the conclusion that if I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. That sucks but it seems to be the way it is.
On August 19th, after returning from a long trip and needing to wake up extra early for work the next morning, I wrote:
I have to change my relationship to sleep in order to get over my insomnia. I have to switch from “should” to “want,” like with food, where it is healthier to have a “want” relationship than a “should” relationship. Instead of, “I have to sleep now because I should in order to be functional tomorrow,” I need to go, “I am tired, I am done with the day, and I want to go to sleep”. The “should” is what keeps sleep from happening by making me anxious. I have to do the difficult work of changing the way I think about sleep.
The next morning, I wrote:
The trick is to lean into the anxiety. The issue is with trying to make it go away, make it stop so that I can sleep, but that does not work. I need to feel the anxiety in my body, the way it rolls in my belly and tingles my feet. I need to take deep breaths, not try to erase the anxiety but breathe into and around it. I need to lay there and embrace it. Eventually, I can get to sleep this way. Eventually.
It’s tricky because I can use these strategies to help myself fall asleep, but then I will often wake up about ten minutes later with a renewed surge of adrenaline. Anxiety really gets the best of me when I’m not awake enough to properly deal with it. Reasoning gets harder and fear takes over. It’s best, when this happens, to turn on the light and read, write, drink water—anything but continue to lie in the dark with the fear.
I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with bouts of sleeplessness before, but they can seriously interfere with your quality of life. I’m far more irritable and less able to focus on whatever tasks I have to perform. I try to compensate for my lack of energy by drinking more coffee than normal, which makes me feel even more anxious. I often end up cancelling plans, getting sick, and feeling totally disconnected from my body. Most of the coping mechanisms I have for managing my mental health go out the window. Small things that would normally have little impact on my mental state send me over the edge into full-blown panic attacks.
To summarize, when I stop sleeping, EVERYTHING IS BAD.
Pot helps sometimes. Herbal remedies help sometimes. Deep breathing helps sometimes. Leaning into the anxiety helps sometimes. Reading a book helps sometimes. Sleeping with my partner helps sometimes. Writing helps sometimes. All of these things help sometimes, but I haven’t found anything that helps all of the time, that is guaranteed to help me get to sleep. Even with my awareness and coping skills, I still experience anxiety-fueled nights with little-to-no sleep on a regular basis.
I will likely never be “cured” of this issue. Insomnia runs in my family on both sides. I’ve had sleep issues my whole life. My mother says my brother was the picky eater while I was the troubled sleeper. I remember, night after night when she would tuck me in, I would ask her, “What if I can’t sleep?”
She would reply, “Then you’ll just be tired. It’s not like you have to perform brain surgery tomorrow”.
I still use this to calm down sometimes. Thank god I didn’t become a surgeon.
Until my brother was born and his crying kept me awake, I insisted on sleeping in my mom’s room because sleeping on my own scared me. A nightlight wasn’t the solution because it wasn’t the dark that bothered me, it was the fear of being alone with my nighttime anxiety.
I believe this issue is in my genetic makeup. It has also been with me for my whole life and I don’t expect it to ever go away, so what do I do? Is there anything I can do beyond what I’ve already tried? I don’t think so. I feel like I’ve tried everything. And yes, before someone suggests it, I have tried meditation and mindfulness exercises. Those things are about as effective as everything else I’ve listed.
I’m anxious. I’m an insomniac. These things are a part of me, a part of my package. I seem to have been born with them. I doubt they’ll change or go away. Sometimes, they’re relatively mild and easy to live with. Sometimes, they flare up and significantly impact my ability to function. It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting! But also, it is what it is. I don’t know if it’s worth my sometimes very limited energy to fight something that may, very well, just be an integral part of my existence.
I read once that there’s an evolutionary advantage to some folks being light sleepers because if there’s trouble at night, the light sleepers are more likely to wake up and alert everyone. Perhaps this is true of insomniacs as well. We keep odd hours and are often hypervigilant in the middle of the night, aware of whatever may be lurking in the dark while many are blissfully asleep. Perhaps my insomnia isn’t purely negative and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Yes, it makes functioning in the nine-to-five world difficult, but I solve a lot of problems at night, I process things, I remember important things I’d forgotten during the day, I read, and I write. When I’m not totally consumed by anxiety, which often results from me resisting the insomnia, it can actually be a thoughtful and productive time. I’m able to look at things from a different perspective than I do during the day. I wrote a poem once that captures this:
wide awake at 4 am
getting my tasks done
my boxes checked
my ducks in line
what would i do
if it wasn’t for
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
of messages to send
of supplies to bring
of work to plan
what would i do
if i didn’t
wake up & worry
in the morning
slip up probably
be stressed probably
it’s 4:20 now
i’m writing this & thanking
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
the 4 am that’s saving me
There’s research that shows that humans are not necessarily meant to sleep solidly through the night but in two stages, which would explain why so many of us deal with insomnia. It may actually be hardwired into us to be alert for a few hours when we think we should be sleeping. Unfortunately, we’ve created a society that doesn’t accommodate that. I’ve thought about how much easier my life would be if I had time to take a nap during my lunch break or sometime in the afternoon, if I could split my sleep and my workday in two. What makes me anxious is knowing that I have to get up early in the morning and then muster the energy, regardless of how little sleep I get, to go go go all day without any breaks, rest, or downtime.
Wait a second here, might the problem actually be… capitalism?
Might it be how we’ve structured the workweek to maximize our labour rather than fit comfortably with the rhythms of our bodies and minds? Hm, there’s a thought. I know during times in my life where I’ve had more flexibility with my schedule, where I could choose when to sleep and when to work, insomnia hasn’t been an issue in the same way.
Okay, so now I’m thinking that rather than mindfulness exercises, to deal with my insomnia, I should be using my sleepless nights to work on overthrowing capitalism. This would also give me something to focus on rather than my anxiety about not sleeping. Alright, there’s one thing I haven’t tried. I’ll give it a shot.