To sleep or not to sleep: that’s an insomniacs question

I have been sitting on this blog post literally since I started blogging 6 weeks ago.  I feel I have to/want to write a post about insomnia and my sleep journey however it’s a very very difficult topic to write about without me getting sucked into what has by far and away been the worse thing I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. However, I’m hoping that if I do write this post that other sufferers will know that they’re not alone in this scary, insanity inducing sleepless world, and you never know I might be able to suggest something that you haven’t tried before.

Insomnia counting sheep

My insomnia journey started in January 2005.  We had just taken a long haul flight home from a holiday and I remember like it was yesterday turning to Mr P (my then boyfriend) and saying that I just couldn’t shake off the jet lag and I wondered why it was taking so long… I never did shake it off, but it wasn’t jet lag.

For about the first 6 months I just lived with it.  I could always get to sleep however I would wake up in the middle of the night and then no matter what I couldn’t get back to sleep. Looking back at my sleep diaries I think I was probably getting about 5 hours sleep at this time which although left me tired, very tired, was copeable (is that even a word?) and life did continue as normal.

By the end of 2005 however I was starting to struggle.  I went to the GP who wasn’t very supportive and prescribed sleeping pills however I didn’t want to go down that route as I wanted to solve my insomnia and not just plaster over it.  I read up on the internet and ticked off every sleep hygiene box:

  1. Exercise regularly but not just before bed
  2. Avoid napping during the day (no matter how tired)
  3. Avoid alcohol as much as possible (struggle with this one!)
  4. Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed (I don’t actually drink tea or coffee so this wasn’t a problem)
  5. Block out all noise
  6. Don’t go to bed hungry or on a full stomach
    etc etc etc

I also at this time started doing acupuncture.  I had read up on insomnia and a lot of people had solved their sleeplessness with acupuncture so I went in with high hopes.  I saw a lovely man every week for a month or two but it just didn’t make a difference.  I think I would have continued for longer at this point but we were getting married in the April and my mother-in-law had been diagnosed with terminal cancer so I just didn’t feel I was in the right head space to be spending that much money on something that wasn’t working immediately.

I remember going on my Hen weekend in March 2006 with my friends and breaking down on them because I was just so tired.  This was the first time that I’d told anyone outside my family.  I hadn’t consciously kept it a secret but I didn’t want to be seen as a moaner saying how tired i was the whole time.  They felt the most important thing was that I wasn’t tired for my wedding so I went back to my GP who prescribed me 2 weeks of sleeping pills for the run up to my wedding.  I slept and it was amazing but I always knew it was a temporary stop gap.

The next few years are a bit of a blur as to when I did what but basically my sleep deteriorated further without a nights break.  I had my eldest in September 2007 and life was hard.  Having a newborn is hard enough without having to exist on 3 hours sleep a night and without napping during the day.  By this time we were trying more and more things to help me with my quest of saving my sanity:

  1. Hypnotherapy
  2. Acupuncture
  3. Chinese medicine
  4. Cranial osteopathy
  5. Magnesium tablets
  6. Melatonin tablets
  7. Increased exercise
  8. Nytol/herbal nytol
  9. New mattress (my old one was a Tempur mattress which made me very hot and staying cool is a big yes for sleep)
  10. Switch off all technology a few hours before bed
  11. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time everyday
  12. Keeping a paper and pen next to my bed to write down my thoughts
  13. Keep a sleep, food and activity diary to see if I could find any pattern
  14. Changed my diet

I was becoming increasingly infuriated with my GP’s as well as I felt I had more knowledge than them and I was getting no help or referrals no matter how much I begged.

It also was continuing to get worse.  By October 2008 I was down to 45 minutes – 1 1/2 every night, every single night, week in, week out.  I then referred myself to the London Sleep Clinic on Harley Street.  It was here that I was taught about the insomnia technique of Sleep Restriction.  Basically I was only allowed to stay in bed for 5 hours a night.  I would go to bed at midnight and when I woke up if I couldn’t go back to sleep within a guestimated (as I wasn’t allowed a clock in the bedroom) 15 minutes I had to get up and do something relaxing (this is when I started sewing and crafting).  When I felt sleepy tired I could go back to bed however 15 guestimated minutes later up I got again until I felt sleepy tired and this continued until 5am when I wasn’t allowed back to bed and my day began.  As I never went back to sleep basically from 1am – 5am I was up and down like a yoyo which was beyond exhausting and such a very very lonely experience.

We found out I was pregnant with our daughter about 3 weeks into my sleep restriction training.  I had such hope and the doctor at the London Sleep Clinic had said that I should start seeing changes within a few weeks that I continued thinking that life would be improving very soon.  But it didn’t.  It just got worse.  Coping with insomnia is hard enough as it is however coping with insomnia and doing sleep training and being pregnant and having a toddler was beyond difficult.  I kept going and kept hoping until the April (I did sleep restriction for 15 weeks straight) when Mr P and my mother stepped in and said enough was enough.  I was sending myself insane with tiredness and it wasn’t fair on anyone.  We decided that while I was pregnant I was to get as much sleep and rest as possible even if it meant going against the rules.  I still didn’t nap during the day (as if I did I wouldn’t then get a minutes sleep at night) but I rested a lot and at night I would stay in bed reading rather than getting up.

I had also by this point found a GP who understood me and knew I wasn’t exaggerating and did her hardest to help find solutions.  My family and I saw her a few times to work out what we could do when our baby was born.  She researched sleeping pills that I could take while breast feeding so when my daughter was born we employed a Night Nanny who would work 4 nights a week and between her and my husband they would do all the night feeds while I slept in the spare room and took 14 nights worth of sleeping pills.  The first week it enabled me to get about 6 hours sleep a night and I was feeling a bit more sane and again I had hope that this is what my body needed to remember what it was like to sleep.  However by the 2nd week my body had got used to the sleeping pills and by night 14 it was only allowing me about 3 hours sleep.  I just couldn’t believe it.  I was on a seriously high dose of sleeping pills and even they didn’t work.  I then stumbled along with the help of family and a few pretty phenomenal friends and just about kept my head above water.  However, life with 2 children and getting no more than 90 minutes sleep every night just couldn’t continue.

My GP was continuing to be on my side and found a Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital who focussed on sleep problems.  I was referred there and due to having such a young baby I was bumped to the top of the queue and therefore started seeing her in January 2010.  She agreed that the only way I was going to beat my sleep was to try sleep restriction again however this time she was going to arm me with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tricks to hopefully allow me to cope better.  I also realised that I had to do something with my mornings from 5am as staying on my own when the rest of the house was asleep wasn’t going to be good for me mentally so I signed up to do a Triathlon in June 2010.  So at 5am every morning I would either go for a run, cycle or go the gym and have a swim.  it was bonkers but it kept me going.  The mornings when I didn’t go made the day so much harder.  Somehow having this focus gave me a positive reason for being awake.  Again sleep restriction didn’t work and after about 6 months I stopped.  I just couldn’t cope.  I was becoming a bad mother who was too tired to do anything and that was making me so sad and depressed that it just wasn’t worth it.

So since January 2011 I’ve been taking anti-depressants.  My GP had done some research and found some that have a side effect of helping sleep.  They work.  I’m probably now averaging about 3-4 hours sleep a night and I’m coping.  I started on the lowest dose and after about 10 months they stopped working so my GP increased the dosage and they started working again.  I’m in a stage at the moment where I can tell that the dosage is wearing off and my body is getting too used to it as my sleep is deteriorating.  I’m wary about upping the dose again as the next dose is the highest dose and then what happens when they stop working – that just doesn’t bare thinking about.  My daughter is now 3 and so my big game plan is to get her to school and once she’s there I will start sleep restriction again as I will have more time in the day to cope without the kids.

There are two people who have, without fail, been my rocks – Mr P and my mother.  Their lives have had to change dramatically in order to help me and support me through the last nearly 8 years of hell.  My mother has cancelled plans at the drop of a hat to come and help me with my days and Mr P has basically had to hold the family together and stop it all breaking down.  He’s had to cope with his stressful job by day and his stressed wife by night.  He is beyond amazing and there are literally no words to describe how grateful I am and how much I love him.

Whoever invented sleep deprivation as a form of torture was spot on.  Suffering from insomnia isn’t about being tired constantly because although I am that somehow isn’t the hard bit.  It is how it affects my mental health that makes it so hard – it basically sends you insane. There is no other way to describe it.

And… breath.  Phew, I’ve written it and I’m still here and not crying 🙂  It’s been a long old road and I know there’s a long long way to go however I do believe I will become a better sleeper some day and I believe the only way to solve it is with sleep restriction technique  however I have to be mentally strong to start that again especially if it may well take up to or over a year to make a difference.

I’m going to have a quick read through now and then just press ‘publish’ otherwise I might chicken out.

If you are reading this and nodding your head as you’re going through the same thing or know someone who is, please get in touch – either in the comment box or via email.  Ask any questions and I’ll try and answer.  Also if anyone has any other advice please please fire away. You never know, there might be something out there that I haven’t tried and that might be my solution!

Here are a few websites that have helped me with my insomnia journey:

London Sleep Centre
Talk About Sleep
Insomnia Lane

Thank you so much for reading