I always had a degree of insomnia and like most insomniacs, I would give anything to fall and stay asleep, but nothing really worked, until now.
My History of Insomnia
When I was a teenager, falling asleep in less than 45 minutes was a blessing. That continued into my adult years, but in my mid-20s, my insomnia grew exponentially worse. Instead of having a little trouble falling asleep, I couldn’t stay asleep. I would wake at one or two in the morning, my eyes snapping open in the dark. I would lie in bed for thirty or forty minutes, trying to fall asleep (nothing in more futile than trying to fall asleep…just ask any kid on Christmas Eve) and usually resort to getting up and turning on television.
Real insomnia puts you into a borderline-fugue state, where productive thought and action seems just out of reach. I always likened it to feeling like the bottom of a burnt coffee pot. I limped through this for years. Months of insomnia followed by months of normal sleep, back and forth, back and forth.
Breaking Down to Seek Treatment for My Insomnia
I remember the exact moment I decided to seek treatment. It was at four in the morning on a work day. I had gone to bed at ten-thirty and had to get up at five-thirty. Four in the morning is a very ugly time when you don’t WANT to be up. All my strategies that occasionally worked failed me that night and when four rolled around, the thought of slouching through the day on ninety minutes of sleep horrified me. I took the day off, called a psychiatrist in my PPO and made an appointment.
Given the length of my insomnia, my diagnosis was (obviously) chronic insomnia, prompted by generalized anxiety disorder. The anxiety disorder was nothing new, and my career as a teacher certainly didn’t help. Surprisingly, drugs would not be part of the treatment. Although sleeping pills are tempting and effective for the short-term, both a tolerance and a dependence on them develop quickly. I know from experience.
Sominex might work a night or two in a row, but after that, you wake up just as groggy as if you hadn’t sleep at all. Prescription hypnotics might last a little longer but still fail in the long-term. I want through the usual array of cognitive therapies: meditation, attempting to stay awake, exercise, better diet, eliminating all stimulants. Nothing worked. Instead, my psychiatrist shared an interesting and rather odd therapy. I can get more sleep…by getting less sleep.
Sleep Deprivation Therapy for Insomnia
Out of all the techniques I tried (and I tried a lot) this has had the most positive effect. The idea is that creating a state of nearly perpetual sleep deprivation, your body is forced to sleep, despite any anxiety. During bouts of insomnia, I generally grabbed four hours of sleep. If I intended to use sleep deprivation therapy, I had to limit myself to four hours of sleep and no more. Even if I wanted more. The first week, this voluntary deprivation weighed on me.
I was used to involuntary insomnia but not voluntary insomnia. Every few days, I added an extra fifteen minutes to the four hours. By the end of the month, I was sleeping for five-and-a-half hours. Two months later, I had trained my body and mind to sleep a solid eight hours.
Sleep Deprivation Therapy: Not a Miracle but Certainly Helpful
It sounds obscenely simply, and it is…if you are willing to adhere to a strict schedule. The hardest part isn’t forcing yourself to sleep; it’s forcing yourself to wake up. Insomniacs learn to snatch any minute of sleep they can get, and cutting off sleep early tears at you. But it works. It’s not a miracle cure. I still have short bouts of insomnia, and I still sometimes see the ugly side of 4 AM.
But insomnia lasts a few nights rather than weeks or months. And I no longer have that burnt-coffee feeling. For me, and for most insomniacs, any cure or therapy is welcome if it gets me a few minutes of sleep. And sleep deprivation therapy did a whole lot more than that!