‘I Have Chronic Insomnia—Here’s What A Week In My Life Is Like’
“My alarm goes off. I’m up, but I feel like I’ve just gone through a battle.”
By Hallie Levine for Prevention
May 15, 2017
I’m lying in my bed, listening to the sounds of everyone else in my house sleeping. There’s the snoring of Ivry, my 10-year-old black lab who’s right next to me, the soft whimpers of Wiggins, the family’s new 3-month-old yellow Labrador puppy as he slumbers in his crate, and the various snorts and grunts of my three small children (ages 9, 7, and 5) as they sleep in their bedrooms across the hall.
Meanwhile, I’m wide awake. And it’s a problem.
I seem to be struck with insomnia, a sleep disturbance that chronically plagues about 10% of the population, according to the CDC. And this happens to me frequently, most nights of the week. Normally around this time I’d take a sleeping pill like zolpidem (Ambien) to get myself to doze off, but lately I’ve been resisting. I don’t like to rely on artificial ways to force myself to sleep, and besides, research has shown women appear to be more susceptible to its effects, which is why the FDA recently recommended we halve the dose.
I fight back the urge to grab my phone and start scrolling through Facebook posts, as I know the blue light it emits can impact sleep. So I get up and go downstairs to read the latest copy of Us Weekly in dim light. It works: Within about 20 minutes, I start to feel tired, so I go upstairs and fall asleep within minutes.
This is the best way to get a better night’s sleep:
I feel a cold, wet nose against my hand and warm, smelly dog breath in my face. I open my eyes to see Ivry staring at me. I groan. “No!” I say sharply, but she’s insistent, batting at me with her paw. Wiggins starts whining too, and a whole cacophony of barks and whimpers ensue. I stagger out of bed, find my glasses, and take both dogs out to pee and eat their breakfast. There’s no chance I can slip back into bed for more shut-eye: Wiggins is in full-on play mode. I stumble over to my Keurig, fill it up with water, and silently press the power button. It’s going to be a six-cups-of-coffee kind of day.
All three kids are dressed, fed, and on the school bus, and although I’m exhausted, I grimly pour myself another cup of coffee instead of heading back to bed. I know that if I nap, even for a short while, I may pay for it by not being able to sleep tonight. So I slip on my sneakers and go for a three-mile run: I know that exercise, particularly in the AM, can help combat insomnia. Then it’s off to cranking out a few articles while my small children are in school. Between my morning workout and multiple cups of java, I’ll somehow power through my day.
The kids are home from school, and I’m exhausted. I need an IV infusion of caffeine to power me through unpacking backpacks, sorting through school notices, supervising homework and outdoor playtime, and whipping up some sort of gourmet concoction for dinner that my brood will actually eat (dream on!). I know, I know, I know, I should stay away from the Keurig, but it’s either that or a giant bag of Hershey’s Kisses. I opt for the former. As I savor each sip of my French Vanilla coffee, I tell myself it’s worth tossing and turning a bit tonight. There are always trade-offs. (But you should know that chocolate can actually be good for you—science says so.)
Everyone’s in bed and the dogs have been fed and taken outside to do their business. I quickly go into uber-mom mode, packing snacks, cleaning up the kitchen, throwing in loads of laundry, paying bills. By the time I finish it’s 9:30, and even though I feel wiped, I’m still wired. I resist the urge to turn on CNN, which I know will just agitate me, and instead hop into the shower and then crawl into bed with a book. A half hour later, I’m sound asleep. Victory!
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Uh oh. I’m up. I’m not sure what woke me, but suddenly I’m wide awake. I sneak a peek at my phone, and then, somehow, I find myself scrolling through my Facebook feed. Within minutes I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and am immersed in a slew of news articles. Bad, bad move. My mind starts racing a million miles an hour. (I’m not the only one this happens to: A study published last November in the medical journal PLOS linked smartphone use before bed to poorer sleep quality.) It takes a full hour for me to fall back asleep.
I’m woken up by a small child crawling into bed with me (too tired to open my eyes to figure out which one), telling me he had a bad dream. I roll over and fall back asleep for a blissful 45 minutes.
My alarm goes off. I’m up, but I feel like I’ve just gone through a battle. All these bits of fragmented sleep are leaving me groggy and fuzzy-headed. I make myself get up and bring the dogs outside for a half hour of playtime. I may not be getting exercise, and it’s freezing, but I’m hoping that spending time outdoors will do me some good: People who get more natural light exposure in the early morning sleep about 46 minutes longer per night than those who don’t, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. (This is how much exercise you need to do before you start seeing benefits.)
I have an appointment with my therapist, who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy. It’s not specifically to treat my insomnia, but to help manage the anxiety that’s returned full throttle since the presidential election. We go over some deep breathing and relaxation exercises I can do at night, both before I go to bed and when I wake up in the middle of the night. (CBT is considered the gold standard when it comes to treating insomnia.)
Instead of turning on the TV, I grab a notebook and pen and spend some time journaling, which research shows can help manage anxiety and thus promote better sleep. The hope is that transferring my worries from my head to a piece of paper will prevent them from bouncing about my head as I try to fall asleep (or wake me up in the middle of the night). It’s much tougher for me to jot thoughts down the old-fashioned way, but writing on my computer this close to bedtime is just too stimulating. It works: I’m asleep an hour later.
I’m up, yet again. This time, I’m sweating, something I’ve been experiencing way too often recently. (More than a 1/3 of perimenopausal women like moi suffer from insomnia, according to the North American Menopause Association.) My guess? I’m having a hot flash. I turn the thermostat way down, something I don’t do often enough: Most folks sleep best when the room temperature is around 68 degrees, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
My mind instantly starts racing to everything I have to do today—work, Cub Scouts meeting, pull together costumes for the school play—but I force myself to count backward from 99, and I manage to fall back asleep fairly quickly.
I wake up with a migraine. Ugh. I’d love to close my eyes again—sleep is the one thing that usually eases my migraines—but with two frisky dogs and a houseful of children, that just ain’t gonna happen. Instead, I take my migraine meds and make my bed: People who make their beds in the morning are 19% more likely to get a good night’s sleep every night, according to a poll done by the National Sleep Foundation. Here’s hoping…
I cave and take a two-hour nap. When I wake up, my headache has lifted, but the combo of my meds and a mid-morning snooze makes me feel groggy, like I’m hungover. (Although, napping does have a few weird benefits.)
I’m on my sixth cup of coffee today, in an effort to cure the fog in my brain. This isn’t going to be pretty.
I cave and have my seventh cup. This is it for the day. I’m done; I swear.
I’m frantically finishing up some last-minute work, since I lost two hours this morning. Thanks to the caffeine, computer lights, and the adrenaline from scrambling to meet a deadline, I’m wired. I take a warm bath and drink a cup of chamomile tea, then watch an episode of “Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu.
“Handmaid’s Tale” terrified me and just riled me up even more. I have a glass of wine.
I can’t sleep. I have another glass of wine and stumble into bed. I fall asleep for an hour, but when the alcohol wears off, I’m wide awake. I lie in bed, eyes wide open, stressing about the fact that I can’t sleep. It doesn’t help that both dogs are snoring. I finally get up, go downstairs, turn on some classical music, and fall asleep on the couch. I wake up at 6 AM, stiff, sore and feeling like death on wheels.
I’ve only been up for an hour, but already my thinking is crap. My middle son, Teddy, is obsessed with the 2016 presidential election and is grilling me on which states went blue and which went red (he knows all 50 by heart). I can barely sort out what to make for breakfast, let alone discuss politics with a second grader. Everywhere around me is chaos: children screaming, dogs barking, and sleep deprivation has left my patience paper-thin. I snap, I yell, I cajole, I threaten, and after herding kids onto the bus, I collapse on my couch for a solid hour of sleep. I wake up feeling more refreshed, only to discover Wiggins has eaten a chair while I was slumbering. Oops.
I have my last cup of coffee for the day. I don’t care how excruciating, how agonizing it is, I’m cutting myself off. I CAN’T HANDLE ONE MORE SLEEPLESS NIGHT. I JUST CAN’T.
I’m supposed to drive Teddy to soccer, but once we’re in the car I forget where we’re going. He reminds me. Then I can’t remember where the soccer field is. (Thank god for the GPS.) I haven’t felt so zoned out since my youngest was a newborn. I decide to head home and ask my sitter to drive him to practice. I don’t trust myself behind the wheel right now.
I get everyone into bed a half hour early. There’s a lot of grousing and complaining—don’t they know I would kill to be them and just be allowed to go straight to sleep? I decide to skip my typical nighttime routine: no cleaning the kitchen, packing snacks, or paying bills. I take a bubble bath with soothing lavender bath oil. (Taking a hot bath is good for your heart. Prevention Premium explains why.)
I crawl into bed. I’ve never been so happy to slip into cool sheets in all my life. I’m asleep within minutes. RELIEF.
Geoffrey, my youngest, is in my room. He’s had a bad dream. You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me. I sigh and let him into the bed. (Here’s what your dreams are trying to tell you.)
Geoffrey is tossing and turning and snoring like a drunken sailor. And someone’s farting. I’m not sure if it’s a canine or human fart, but it’s keeping me up just the same.
Snore. Fart. Yip. Yip. (Wiggins is having some sort of exciting dream.) Do I stay in the room, in my comfortable bed, or do I make my way to the couch downstairs? It’s either my back or my brain. I vote for my brain. I grab a pillow and blanket and make my way downstairs, but I can’t get comfortable. I finally make my way back to my room at 5 AM. Everyone is quiet. I reset my alarm and finally fall back asleep.
I wake up a couple minutes before my alarm goes off and actually feel, if not refreshed, at least alive and able to function. I can do this. Just one more day until the weekend.
I’ve managed to get through the whole day and have just dropped my kids off at their dad’s for the weekend. I putter around the house for a while, cleaning up, playing with the dogs, sipping half a glass of wine. I settle down to watch an hour of TV, vowing to be in bed by 11 PM. I know it’s key to stay on a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends, so I don’t mess up my body’s circadian rhythms and end up facing another round of insomnia on Sunday night.
Famous last words. I’ve been binge-watching “Handmaid’s Tale” and feel riled up. I sigh, cave, and take half an Ambien. With no kids in the house, I don’t worry about sinking into a drug-induced deep sleep for eight-plus hours. (Here’s what happened when one of our writers tried Gwyneth Paltrow’s “clean sleeping” regimen.)
I wake up naturally, without an alarm clock. The dogs are quiet—they’ve let me sleep through the entire night (or if they were yipping, I didn’t hear them.) I actually feel rested. I vow to work out this morning, stop drinking coffee by noon, and to be in bed by 10:30 tonight. If I can follow this pattern for a couple days, hopefully I can break the insomnia cycle for good.
The article I Have Chronic Insomnia. Here’s What A Week In My Life Is Like. originally appeared on Prevention.
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