It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. And while my intentions were to blog every fortnight, this post has been extremely tough to write. For once I found it quite difficult to articulate my feelings and experiences, because of the personal nature of what I’m about to tell you.
A few weeks ago, I found myself chatting to one of my new friends, who is also an amazing business coach and mentor. He asked me how things were going aside from business, “how are you feeling, just in general?”. I thought about it and said, “did you know, this is the first time in five years that I’ve been able to sleep without taking a pill?”
Insomnia has been affecting my ability to sleep properly since late 2010. It was kicked off by a freak hockey ball to the head incident, which then transpired into mental health problems (thanks, brain). Around 1 in 3 people have or have had some degree of insomnia in their lives. For an unlucky few (like me) insomnia is/was chronic. If you’re one of them and are reading this, know that it’s okay, there IS a way out.
Back in 2010 I got a wild smack to the forehead from a fast flying hockey ball, I was briefly knocked out and I opened my eyes not even realizing what had happened, but bizarrely, I was laughing! It wasn’t until I felt the huge lump on my head that it suddenly hit me (hah, pun intended). Soon after this, I had developed intense trouble sleeping and experienced extreme headaches and photophobia.
In my traditional headstrong fashion I refused to go to the doctor, that was a bad decision. Months later things seemed to be getting worse in my head space. After seeing a bunch of specialists and getting an MRI and all that, it was concluded that I had Post Concussion Syndrome (a minor form of traumatic brain injury).
Because of this, my health took a drastic downward spiral. I was lethargic, had constant headaches, was depressed, irritated, and slightly delusional. The doctors prescribed me dozens of painkillers to cope. I was studying a BMA at the time, and working so I could afford to live out of home and… life spun out of my control. The brain does crazy things when it experiences trauma, and for a long long time I was not myself.
I was enrolled in a national head injury study. They interviewed me about the events and my experiences, then they interviewed some of my friends and family. Every six months my reaction time and short-term memory were tested, as well as my mood and general quality of life. It took almost two years for me to get back to ‘normal’. I don’t know why it was such a long time, perhaps some people are more susceptible to these kinds of things. A lot of people in my family battle with mental illnesses. But even when I was feeling better, I still had to rely on medication to sleep.
Luckily for me, my doctors had refused to give me traditional sleeping pills such as Zopiclone, because of their addictive qualities. That was fine by me, I never intended to be stuck taking pills before bed. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t survive without them. At first it was Amitriptyline, a drug in high doses used to treat depression, but I was on it for headaches and as a muscle relaxant.
Sometime after I finished my degree in late 2012, I changed doctors due to not having access to the medical center on campus. My new doctor tried to wean me off taking the medication, I was all in. But it just didn’t work. I went back to him after slowly reducing my intake at his guidance and tried a few months without anything. In mid-2013 I had more responsibility with my job which added some stress, and without any pills before bed I was getting between 1 and 5 hours sleep a night. I got sick a lot, gained a lot of weight, my mood was unstable, and I was quickly becoming very unhappy.
So I went back to my doctor, I was attempting to tell him that I still haven’t been able to sleep but I sat there crying in his office because I was just so exhausted and frustrated. I just wanted sleep. He recommended putting me through a sleep study and to see a sleep therapist, but this wasn’t subsidized and I wasn’t financially able to pay for such expensive tests (startup wages, am I right?). So, I opted for the easier ‘just for now’ option. We tried something new, Quetiapine, an antipsychotic drug which in high doses is used to treat people who are bipolar or schizophrenic. I didn’t get a large dose, only small enough to help me sleep. But even then I woke up every morning with a drug hangover and it took me hours every day before I could feel completely awake.
I lived like this for a long time, always having to take a pill before bed. Sometimes that didn’t even work. I vividly remember how I felt after a huge hike over NZ’s Tongariro Crossing and then the 2-hour drive home. I was so tired, so exhausted after that I could hardly eat. I was thinking ‘surely, surely I am this tired I must be able to sleep’. But then as soon as my head hit the pillow my mind became awake, overactive and as much as I tried, I couldn’t settle it down. A few hours later I begrudgingly got up and gulped down that damn pill, desperate for the relief of sleep.
This is when I started researching sleeping techniques. Over the past year and a half I have tried everything; yoga, meditation, walks in the evening, less coffee, less sugar, evening protein, writing down to-do lists and thoughts in a journal beside my bed, sleep tea, calm tea, chamomile tea, peppermint tea, Chinese herbs, sleep drops, lavender under my pillow, hops under my pillow, sleep apps with meditation, hypnosis, screen dimmers, installing Flux on my computer, melatonin, no screens (mobile, TV, Computer) two hours before bed, non-fictional reading before bed, homeopathy… just everything.
Sometimes it would help, I’d feel sleepy, try to drift off, then all of a sudden my mind would wake, even though I’d be so so physically tired. I didn’t know it was possible to feel so exhausted and awake at the same time. So I would carry on using my little pills to sleep and feeling hungover in the morning. I hated it, I never truly felt awake in all that time. And if I ever went somewhere and forgot my pills I’d always get restless nights with little or no sleep.
A lot of time went past, living like this. After deciding to leave Hamilton to travel, I ended up in Perth, Australia. By the time I got here my little box of magic sleeping pills from New Zealand had run out. I attempted fate once more and tried to cold turkey my way to sleep. It really wasn’t working out for me. The smallest noise, a single thought, any slight disturbance would set me off and my mind would begin racing once more. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t sleep. There is nothing worse or more hopeless than the feeling of wanting and needing sleep so badly but you just can’t get there and you realize your own mind is the only barrier to falling asleep. I remember thinking, ‘how hopeless am I that I can’t even perform the simple human function of sleeping?’.
The one good thing that came out of these few weeks was my deep inner search for a reason. I didn’t feel like my head injury was the cause of not being able to sleep, it just seemed like some sort of instigator. I’m not going to share the details, but what I realized was that I had become afraid of sleep, and everything else was just an excuse.
I ended up seeing a wonderful doctor here who prescribed me some medication to sleep again and referred me to a counselor who specialized in sleep therapy. I gladly took the medication and debated whether I was ready for a counselor. I wanted to overcome my insomnia on my own (I had only just started acknowledging that this is really what I had), but sometimes you can’t do everything on your own, sometimes you need to accept that you need a bit of a helping hand. And this is what I did.
The first session with my counselor was amazing. She knew what had happened without me having to say much, she said it and I sat there and cried. I cried as years of pent up emotion and holding back just escaped from me and it was so relieving. Her theory was I had developed an unconscious fear of sleeping because I lose control over myself and have to give in to the environment around me. I didn’t feel safe. Of course, I knew logically that I was safe, but there was a deep fear within me that I had never let go of, a blocked memory; trauma. It had nothing to do with my head injury, that was a catalyst, as well as some other events that happened between then and now.
And so started my road to recovery. I went to the counselor once a fortnight. We didn’t just talk about sleeping, we talked about a lot and it was really nice. I finally found an app that helped ease me into the sleeping mind-frame, Pzizz. Every morning within half an hour of waking up I get at least an hour of exercise outside. If not, I try to sit in the sun for 20 minutes or be active in some other way. I don’t drink coffee after 3pm and limit myself to two a day (on bad days). I don’t have much processed sugar, I write to-do lists every day in my diary so I don’t lie in bed and think about everything I have to remember to do tomorrow. My bedroom has become an area for sleep — every time I watch something on my laptop in bed it affects the amount and quality of sleep I get, so I’ve stopped doing that.
Routines are also very important I do the same thing before bed every night. I also try to stick to the same hours, but I’m still learning to sleep so I haven’t been using an alarm, just trying to slowly get back into the right rhythm. Right now I usually fall asleep between 1–2am, wake up at about 6, then go back to sleep until 9 or 10. It’s not the pattern I love, and I still have many days where some nights are better than others, but I’m getting there, I’m improving and I’m not giving up.
My mood has become better, my skin clearer, I’m no longer getting sick every few weeks and my focus levels are at an all-time high. I still have a lot of work to do, but for the first time in over four years I can sleep without medication, and it feels so damn good.