As long as I can remember, sleep has sadly been a challenge for me. Whilst I was scared of going to bed and falling asleep as a child, later, when I moved to Berlin as a student, I remember being most scared of noises both in- and outside the house I lived in. I don’t quite remember the time when my difficulties to find sleep turned into an actual disorder, however, it is a fact that, for quite a few years so far, I struggle to sleep – sometimes more, sometimes less. I am currently stuck in a “bad“ phase, and since I think about sleep a lot anyway, I thought I finally want to write about it, too. Perhaps to give those of you, who have similar problems, tips, and to help others to better understand what it means to suffer from insomnia.
In the current issue of GEOkompakt (German) I read that experts talk about a sleeping disorder if one is unable to recover during three nights per week for the length of a month. I felt caught, facing difficulties to find sleep on a regular basis for quite a few years now. Both the quality and quantity of my sleep depend on how much is going on in my life, and as I am currently going through quite a lot of changes (good and exciting ones, that is to say), I struggle to calm down and find sleep at night.
First things first: falling asleep
Let’s start from the beginning though. I assume that my sleep is genetically not the best, with a father who is a doctor and not often able to sleep more than four to five hours at once, and with a mother who also has a very light sleep and often lies in bed at night, trying to sort her thoughts and solve problems. Hence, I have a very light sleep, too, in fact, even just to fall asleep is a torture. No matter how tired I am, how early I switch off my phone, how many calming activities (such as relaxing yoga) I do and how many pages in an easily digestible novel I read: It will take me roughly an hour until I doze off, and until that time I vainly try to switch off my brain.
Lights off, brain off? I wish
Now, here’s the problem: my brain. If I was to have one superpower, I wish I could be able to empty my brain. Unlike most brains, my very own one seems to simply continue to work after the lights have been switched off. I feel that my brain does not know (or like?) the mode “sleep“, hence, it also happens quite usually that I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, and ass soon as I enter the bathroom, all of a sudden my brain is widely awake: What time is it? What day is tomorrow? Did I prepare everything? How many hours do I have left to sleep?
3 o’clock, my personal low point
Back in the bedroom, the actual nightmare is just about to begin – the reason for my exhaustion, stress and anxiety: I can not go back to sleep. I often wake up around 3am to then toss and turn sleeplessly in bed until dawn. I might give up trying for a while around 4am, read a few pages or write something, to then give sleep another try around 5am. However, by that time my stomach is normally superacid and bloated due to stress, my heart beats fast and my hands are shaky, so that I get up at 6 to go for a run or swim, or start to work, to distract my mind.
The elephant in the (bed)room
If you have gone through a sleepless night, you may have noticed that problems seem so much bigger during the night than day. Plus, being what feels like the only person awake in a world that sleeps and is so, so quiet, makes you feel extraordinarily lonely, even if – actually: especially if – there is another person lying next to you sleeping and not realising anything of your own struggle.
At one point last year, I had a couple of very tiring (as in: sleepless) weeks behind me, I felt that I could no longer fight the night and its heaviness as well and my fear of it without professional help.
I took some time off and started a behavioural therapy, in which I learnt to better understand and modify my sleep, my constraints and my thoughts. Yet, the main thing I learnt was to take sleep more easy. By not overthinking it too much I am able to sleep a lot better, hence, so far, I have learnt that the odd sleepless night won’t harm me much. Actually, quite the opposite is the case: I know that sometimes I even need that extra time at night to think, as well as I know that I can be super creative and focussed at night – more than during the day actually.
However, if there is more than one night of hardly any sleep, those three to four hour nights do wear me out. My heart beats fast the following day, and I am irritable and sensitive, I feel dizzy, and in the evening sadly there is no way I feel like I want to make any social plans.
Habits and sleep hygiene
To improve the quality of sleep, experts advice to develop habits and to improve the sleep hygiene, with the latter meaning to minimise noise in the bedroom, to improve the quality of air, and to change sheets more often, for instance. Almost two years ago I went to see an acoustician who made me custom-made earplugs from silicone. I wear them every single night, and they honestly have changed my life, in a way that I now don’t need to be scared of “unknown“ nightly circumstances, when visiting friends, for example, or being on a holiday.
Habits are a different thing, and honestly not an easy one for me to write about. I assume that I have to live with the fact that I never was and never will be a party queen, but instead need a lot of time and quietness in the evenings to process the day and get (mentally) ready for the night. I generally wake up early in the morning, hence, I have to make up for every hour I “lose“ in the evening (by going out for drinks, for example) the morning after.
Long story short
Sleep, to me, sadly does not just mean to shut my eyes and drop off. I can only ever sleep when it is dark (as in: during the night – so no, I cannot nap, it’s simply impossible), when it’s quiet, when I lie in a bed. Long flights, night trains, camping and sleeping on the floor? There is no way I will be able to find sleep.
Yes, my sleeping disorder restricts me, that is out of question, but luckily I am more easy about it with 27 than I was when I was 20. Yet, it isn’t always simple, and I still feel that I have to justify myself often when it comes to going out at night and I – once again – say I’m unavailable. However, what I have learnt is that my sleeping disorder also has to do with the fact that I always want things to be perfect. Not being able to find the perfect sleep puts me under a lot of pressure, and that, obviously, doesn’t help the whole thing either. So, calling off in order to think about myself, my “disorder“ and my own needs, is my way of being imperfect.
I call the day my friend: Even if I get out of bed in the morning being absolutely knackered, it does not require much to make me the person who I am when I am well rested: perhaps a morning run in the park, a cup of coffee, or a chat with a beloved person. I quickly forget about the night behind me and am as happy and social, chatty and focussed as always. Exercise, a daily routine and healthy food help me to go through the days, and I am very lucky to not tend towards depression, I suppose. It is only when a new night is about to fall, that I become a little unsocial and feel the need to retrieve in my shelter, hoping that, this time, I will be spared from any nocturnal exertions.
How about yourself? Do you suffer from a light or bad sleep, too?