My relationship with sleep has always been complicated. As I lay in bed last night, exhausted yet unable to shut down and sleep, I was reminded of just how complicated. Since I was a young girl I have had difficulty turning my brain off. Obsessive thoughts and fears plagued me when I tried to sleep. I remember being terrified that my house would catch on fire. I would lay in bed obsessively making lists of which items I would save and in which order I would grab them as I escaped my my burning house. I went so far as to get back out of bed and surround myself with the toys and things that were most important to me. As I got older my obsessive thoughts evolved, but never went away. Often I would create fictional conversations in my mind. These conversations were about fictional events that I was anxious about. I would plan for each possible variation that may or may not occur with obsessive attention to detail. Fictional conversations like this could go on till the wee hours of the morning preventing restful sleep.
When I finally managed to defeat the obsessive thoughts and sleep found me, I was plagued with nightmares. My dreams were so vivid and realistic that I had difficulty distinguishing reality from dreams when I woke up. I would be in a kind of fog that I could not find my way out of. I had a particularly terrifying dream in high school that I have never forgotten. The next day deeply shaken, I was unable to forget the physical sensations I had experienced in my dream. I sat in the cafeteria before class and cried my eyes out. I spent the entire day plagued by the feelings the dream had left me with. My concentration was obliterated. I was unable to learn from my classes. It felt like I was still walking through my dream.
Sometimes when I woke from a bad dream in the middle of the night, I could not go back to sleep. I would wrap the blankets tightly around me like a cocoon. I held very still, clinging to my teddy bear. It was so hot and I was sweating, but I was certain if I moved the monsters would find me and hurt me. I was convinced the only thing that could save me was turning on my light. So I would build up my courage and very quickly sneak my hand out from under the covers to pull my light cord. As the light flooded my room my fears diminished but did not go away. I sat holding my teddy bear tightly as I looked around my room. I checked every corner to be sure nothing was there to hurt me. I dared not go back to sleep. I needed to be vigilant and keep watch. The very minute I relaxed something tragic was sure to happen. If the constant nightmares and vivid dreams were not bad enough, there were also times when I suffered night paralysis. I would wake up feeling like I could not move. I could feel my sheets tighten around me like plastic wrap trapping me on my bed. I tried to scream but no sound came out. I saw demons sitting on the end of my bed or standing next to me, trying to touch me. It was terrifying. I thought I was being hunted by demons or evil spirits. Both these phenomena happened well into my adulthood and I still sleep with a stuffed animal friend.
My persistent troubles with nightmares, and my overactive brain are only one half of my troubled sleep equation. I was always tired even on nights I felt I had slept well. I seemed to need an extraordinary amount of sleep to feel like a human being. The recommended amount of sleep as I understand it, is eight hours a night for an adult. For me ten hours a night was the magic number. Sleeping for long periods of time felt natural to me. I could easily sleep twelve or fourteen hours. Napping was a pretty regular occurrence for me as well. None of these things are “normal” sleep patterns. Yet they were very normal for me. No one understood why I slept so much. My mom used to take me to the doctor. She was concerned that I had Mono or some other virus. No one could explain why I was so deeply affected by my dreams. Over and over I had arguments with loved ones who tried to convince me that all these sleep issues didn’t really exist. All I had to do was train myself to sleep regularly. I was told I could overcome these issues, because I was causing them myself. But none of that was true! I could not control my sleep challenges, train myself out of them, or wish them away. I felt alone and deeply misunderstood.
The fact is that all the difficulties I was having were actually caused by my mental health conditions. Depression was the culprit for my constant low energy and need to sleep. Anxiety was one of the causes for my restless thoughts. I think the nightmares were also reflections of my anxiety. They may have also been the result of my mind trying to process the trauma I experienced at such a young age. I came to understand with therapy and self reflection that not communicating with my other personalities complicated my already complex sleep issues. They wanted my attention desperately. It was always easier to get it when my defenses were down when I tried to go to sleep.
Those of you that have sleep troubles might not experience them the same way I do. However, I am willing to bet that at least some part of what I deal with is familiar to you. When sleep is your frenemy it steals your concentration. It makes it so much harder to engage in your life. I could not hold a job and I had trouble relating to people. I was sleeping my life away and I was miserable.
I still have times when I struggle but with the help of therapy and medication much of my conflict with sleep has been resolved. I had to be willing to ask for help. I had to be brave and put in the work. I discovered that I was not alone. So many people suffer from mental health related sleep problems. I was able to build a support system. I have also found that white noise helps me quiet my mind. I have an app that plays several different white noise sounds. My personal favorite is the fan sound. There are many techniques out there that can help you get good restful sleep. Try meditation, warm milk, no caffeine after a certain time of the day, yoga, a bed time routine or perhaps writing in a journal to get those thoughts out of your mind. The important thing is a willingness to try different things until you find your own way. Don’t get discouraged if it takes time, you will get there! Sleep is now my friend. The world is so much better for me now and I can finally be a part of my own life. I have faith that each one of you can succeeded in your own personal journeys. I believe you can make sleep your friend too. Reach out and take that chance on yourself. You are worth it!