Sunday, December 4, 2011

Insomnia... how it all began.

I don't recall very well how my insomnia took hold. There never was a sudden onset, I just felt, as time went by, that I would have increasing trouble falling asleep.

I don't remember very much from my early childhood, but from the little pieces that I do remember, I can put together the image of some quite good nights of sleep. Of course, my parents would occasionally remind me of how hard I was to put to sleep as a little child, but then I imagine that wouldn't be unusual for a baby.

However, I do distinctly remember noticing around the age of 12 that the moment of going to bed was never followed shortly by the moment of falling asleep (as it had been the case throughout my life up to that point). I remember one day realising that perhaps it's not normal to lie awake in bed for a few hours past regular bedtime. That's the first memory I have of trouble sleeping, but it hadn't even started developing into what it would later become.

As time went by and I became a teenager, my evenings would be constantly plagued by quarrels with my parents over sending me to bed. That, of course, is normal as well, for such behaviour is to be expected from children. But apart from that, the hour of falling asleep, too, kept creeping up one steady step at a time. I think by the age of 15 I could no longer hope to fall asleep by midnight on regular nights, and by the age of 16 it would be impossible for me to rest before 1 in the morning, on average.

And I found ingenious ways of coping with this and saving face with my parents. In the beginning, one of things I loved doing was thinking. I would pick a theme, or a subject, and just think about it for hours on end, till I had exhausted all possibilities. As I grew more experienced at overstaying awake everyone else in the house, I got bolder and I would read under the covers with a flash light, or watch TV with the sound muted (this was a dangerous one, because of the light that the TV would cast through under the door).

At the age of 16, my mother caught me awake reading at 4 am in the morning. I wasn't tired a bit, which she thought was odd, so she kept spying on me. Of course, I didn't sense that, but a few weeks later, my parents confronted me and asked me how it was possible that I would rarely sleep over 5-6 hours a night, and for how long I had been hiding it. Since the cards were all out on the table, I told them the real time I would go to sleep.

So, this having been said, they tried to take me to the doctor. As expected, he wasn't much help. After an ever lasting lecture about the importance of sleep (they were convinced I was intentionally keeping myself awake, which looking back, is a fair assumption), he gave me sleeping pills. Now, if I was OK without sleep, I was NOT ok with sleeping pills, as they would leave me in a state of drowsiness and drained me of energy. I've hated them ever since. I can't stand them.

By the time I turned 17, things had become critical. On bad episodes of insomnia, I would go without effective sleep for a few days in a row, and this is the time it was taking a significant toll on my daily routine. With my 18th anniversary, I reached a new level, with episodes of insomnia coming right one after each other (as soon as I had come around from one, I would recognise the signs of the following one), and this all culminated with my 19th anniversary, and the two months following it, which were the most miserable months of my life. I was forever tired, but what's worse, I could never seem to forget the memories from the previous day. It's like all the days continually added to a pool of already saturated short term memories, leaving little room for learning new things, being able to pay attention, and everything that comes with it. It would be almost impossible for me to focus for more that 10 seconds on anything, and the impossibility of turning down the volume of my thoughts at night almost made me insane. I was quite literally, losing it.

As high school was coming to an end, the insomnia suddenly broke. I don't know why or how it happened, but I am glad that it did, as I was able to quickly pull myself together and focus on getting into university, which I did rather easily. Later on that summer, I had another episode, but it wasn't merely as bad. It seemed as if the worst had been over.

And in a sense, it had. For a couple of years, the insomnia decreased in both intensity and frequency, but it by no means disappeared. Then, at the age of 20, I lost it again. Once again, it all started in late February and early March, and it kept coming back for almost three months. Then I had a small recovery and in February the following year (now aged 21), it hit me again, the second worst three months of my life (better only than at 19). And then it subsided again, and came back right before Christmas, but this time it didn't go away and only amplified in February. By May, in my 22nd year, I was such a mess that I lost almost all contact with reality. This was a new minimum, probably equally worse to my experience at 19, but since I was now much more prepared to cope with it, I rated it as not being worse.

And then it kept oscillating through the summer, only to have stabilised in late October (and by stabilised, I mean constant frequency). To be honest, I don't think I've ever had more than 10 continuous nights of good, restful sleep in the past 6 or 7 years.

I learned that the ability to sleep is not in fact affected by stress too much (I'll cover the relationship between stress and insomnia in more detail in a different post), and that it is possible to sleep for a few hours a night and still not realise it and wake back up with all of the memories of the previous day (I call this "fake sleep").

I don't know what the future holds, but I am confident that I learned enough about insomnia to not let it affect my life. In some instances, it did give me more time and opportunities for introspection, which I am grateful for. On other occasions, it made my life miserable, but with enough experience, I can reduce those to a minimum.

I also learned that it's not something that will go away, as the stages of sleep are regulated by chemicals in the brain, so I am quite at peace with it. However, many people around me are considerably less informed and have some terrible preconceptions about insomnia, so that's why I felt it was my duty to start this blog and explain a little.

Stay tuned for more...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Insomnia... the backstage.

It's 4:35... am...

I'm quietly staring at the ceiling, I've been doing so for almost 4 freakin' hours. I almost ran out of stuff to think about, I've already played and replayed the past week and yesterday about three times each in my mind. I last slept on Wednesday (and now it's Saturday, and by the looks of it, it's also the peak of this cycle - a thing I'll explain later), and I haven't lost consciousness ever since, so memories from all the days started blending in. I can't tell Thursday from Friday any more, I have to stop and really think hard. And I feel like it doesn't all fit in my head, it's just like I need a fresh start, but I can't fall asleep.

I'm too tired to think about algorithms and maths, way way too tired to think about the design of that new thing I'm working on... I feel that my brain is slowly caving in.

I look out the window, it's still very dark outside but I know it'll be cracking dawn in a few hours. That's when it's worst, at the dawn. When you see the sky turn red, the pink, then pale blue, that's when you break down emotionally. You feel like stuffing your face in the pillow and screaming for all the fatigue that has been building up within you. But you can't... you're too tired. It works much like a deadlock.

And then I get up from the bed, wander around the room a few times, watch a stupid cartoon or read the news, perhaps WikiPedia, have a glass of water, reply to a few emails, listen to some music. Reading is what I've come to enjoy most during these times. As for sleeping, it's pointless, I surrendered. I'm not going to fall asleep tonight.

And then comes the sunrise, and I start seeing light around the room. It always seemed to me that light has a strange colour when you haven't slept in a few days, it catches on an orange tint that I can't explain. It's like having coloured sunglasses. I don't always notice, but when I do, I don't freak out any more. Another cool thing that comes with it is that you start noticing light artefacts a lot better, you become sensitised to shiny objects and light sources.

About half an hour after my eyes get accustomed to the light, all the fatigue sensation suddenly disappears. It's like I hit rock bottom, and bounced back up. But I don't let myself fooled, I've come to know exactly how this works. I only feel normal, but on the inside, I'm still tired and slow. It shows when I code or do mathematics.

So here we go... the third consecutive day of "today". If I've kept my logs correctly, I'll start sleeping well again in about 2 weeks.

That's because my insomnia happens in cycles. There's a about three weeks or so of normal, healthy sleeping. By healthy, I mean that your short term memories of the day before are lost during sleep and you truly wake up to a new day.

Then, one night you start dreaming, and the dreams progress daily until you are under the impression that that's all you do, dream all night long. It leaves you tired in the morning, but at least you only remember the dreams of the night before, and the day is still sort-of fresh. I've come to learn that sleep actually becomes shallower, and in fact your dreams are much closer to the waking state. That's why you remember everything.

And then about a few days in, you start waking up between your dreams. That's because your sleep has eroded away to the point where you can't maintain deep sleep any more. You just dream and wake back up.

Then the dreams slowly subside altogether (your sleep is so shallow you never get to that point) and you stop losing memory of the day before. That's the beginning of the last phase: full blown insomnia. This may last from a few days, to whole weeks (my worst was in the spring of 2008), and it destroys your self esteem and your mental health.

Then, as that phase is running out, I start falling asleep uncontrollably. In fact, I can't even wake up any more, it's simply beyond my control. This gradually subsides over two weeks, and eventually I come to realise I've survived yet another insomnia episode.

So, buckle up for the next one, ever since I hit 12, it ALWAYS comes back.