When Sleep is a Problem

“I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink
      I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink”
                                                          –John Lennon/Paul McCartney

Insomnaic woman
Sleeplessness can be a problem.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.com

I’m tired.  Two simple words, but they can mean so many different things.  Sometimes, it seems like I’m always tired, and have been for years.  One might assume that it’s because I’m a mom, and I’ve gone from pregnancy insomnia to the endless nights with a newborn to the teething months, to adjusting to life with a preschooler, which isn’t untrue.  In fact, insufficient sleep is not an unusual problem in our society.  According to the CDC, about 35% of American adults average less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  Between having a preschooler and being a night owl who finds it hard to settle in before 11 each night, it isn’t surprising that the snooze button is my best friend.

That said, mom life and night owl status are not the main enemies of a good night sleep for me.  No, one of my first (and worst) depression symptoms is insomnia, which means that sleep is another venue where depression and I go toe to toe.  I’ve been working on finding and keeping to a bedtime routine, to get “enough sleep” (based on the suggestions from my therapist for basic self care), but it is a constant struggle, and one that I have a much harder time with than going for a walk.

When my depression starts creeping back in, it gets harder and harder to quiet my mind and fall asleep each night.  I’ll be exhausted from, say, 5-8 every evening, but, once I lay down, my eyes pop open, or my mind will just keep going.  I struggle to find a comfortable position.  No matter how good of an environment I create for sleep, how peaceful the music is that I play softly in the room (to distract from the freeway sounds coming in through the window), no matter how many pages I read on my Kindle, I just can’t settle.  Before I know it, my 60 minute music timer has worn out, and I’ve read multiple chapters, my husband is snoring beside me, and my eyes are still open.  Everything seems to get in the way, from my hair to my bladder, from his snoring to the position of my pillow.  Nothing seems perfect, and anything becomes a barrier to sleep.  Eventually, I’ll find the right position, nod off, and get some rest.  At this point, I’m usually averaging 6-ish hours of sleep a night.

empty bed
Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash.com

As this continues, day after day, sleepiness crawls farther into my day and evolves into fatigue.  Basic self care tasks, like my walks, and even brushing my teeth twice a day, start falling off the radar.  It gets harder and harder to make healthy food decisions.  Depression no longer needs to sneak in; sleeplessness and fatigue have blasted a hole in the wall of my defenses, and depression starts grabbing the reins of my life.  With depression at the helm, I stop caring about, well, a lot of things really.  Every day feels like another day of just existing, just another series of hours to get through in a gray fog.

At this point of the downward spiral, my sleeplessness isn’t just from a mind that won’t wind down.  After enough months of depression chipping away at my defenses and my sleep, things get worse until I hit the point where most nights I start dealing with my mind replaying images from a time in my life when I battled with suicidal ideation.  On these worst nights, every time I close my eyes, my mind imagines things like guns, nooses, other instruments of death.  Because I haven’t battled actual ideation in several years, I refuse to entertain any of these thoughts, but, since these unbidden images persist, I enter a phase where I start forcing myself to stay awake until I am so exhausted that the only thing that greets my closed eyes is a dreamless sleep.  On nights like this, I’m lucky to get 4 hours of sleep.

Lavender sprigs on sheets
Sometimes, you have to make every attempt to find sleep.
Photo by Jacalyn Beales on Unsplash.com

Once I realize that I’m averaging less than 5 ½ hours of sleep each night, I try to make a change.  I try to build a healthy pre-bedtime routine in an attempt to prevent another round of the worst nights.  I avoid TV, computer, and phone screens right before bed. I find even more soothing music to sleep to.  I put lavender linen spray on my sheets and pillow.  I brush my teeth and lay down earlier than usual, to try and wind down and go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Even when it does, until I take other steps to control my depression, inevitably I’ll end up back at an average of 4-6 hours of sleep each night.

When depression has stolen my sleep, when I’m having a lot of “worst nights,” I live in a fog.  It’s hard to focus.  It’s hard to control my emotions.  It’s hard to make healthier decisions.  All I want to do is hide in my bedroom and not deal with anyone.  My self esteem takes a hit.  I have no interest in doing anything that would make me feel better.  Not just that, I convince myself that not doing things, not seeing people is self care, because I can take the time to rest and try something else, even if the thought of trying something else never realizes.  I stop wanting to go anywhere.  My days become the most basic of routine: I get to work, survive the day, and go home.  That’s about all I can manage when things devolve to the pits of depression.  All I want, the one thing I want all day, every day, is to do is to sleep for weeks on end, which is to say, all I want is the one thing that seems physically impossible.

Feeling like something's missing
Without enough sleep, I don’t feel like I’m really “there” anymore.
Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash.com

I’ve ridden this roller coaster several times over the past 20-ish years.  This last time, the downward spiral was very slow, and the fatigue and sleep loss was masked by the realities of being a working new mom with an infant, and then with a toddler.  Other “new moms” in my life also complained about lack of sleep and exhaustion, so I thought that everything I was experiencing was normal.  I realized shortly before Christmas this past year, though, that my depression was back, with a vengeance, and that something needed to be done.  One of the things that really brought this to the forefront was a number of really bad nights, nights like the “worst nights” over a period of a couple of weeks.  In addition to getting in touch with my doctor to go back on antidepressants, and asking for a therapist’s contact information, I really prioritized getting enough sleep, or at least more sleep.

Even before I went back on my meds, thanks to some time off, I got some rest, which helped a bit.  Then, once the antidepressants were in my system long enough to start affecting my symptoms, sleep got a bit easier.  This happened to coincide with my first couple of sessions with my therapist, when I started focusing even more on some basic and specific self-care behaviors.

Sleep is still not an easy thing for me.  Between work, family, dance, hobbies, and now blogging, it feels like there’s always something else I could be doing.  Like my daily walks, getting to bed on time often feels like something that is optional, something that I can forego in favor of something that seems or feels more important.  It becomes an exercise in reframing how I think about these basic self-care tasks, though, because as “unproductive” as walking or sleeping can seem, in the context of a to-do list, without maintaining my physical and mental health, the more visibly productive tasks only get harder and harder to work through.

Feeling hopeful about sleep
Since my nights are slowly getting better, I’m feeling hopeful about sleep again.
Photo by Toa Hefitba on Unsplash.com

I don’t have it all figured out, and I’m not sure I ever will, but, on average, things are getting better, and my sleep average is generally moving in the right direction.  Most nights, I’m now averaging between 6 and 7 ½ hours of sleep each night.  I’ve even had weeks where I’ve averaged 7 or 7 ½ hours of sleep each night, which feels pretty close to what is “enough” sleep for me, because, when I average that much, I’ve had great focus, I’ve been able to be more physically active, and I’ve taken better care of myself.

Occasionally, though, sleep still eludes me.  Right now, it’s usually due more to an overactive mind than anything else.  Just like my refocused efforts to get out and walk daily, I’m constantly looking into ways to get enough sleep.  I’ve set a reminder on my Alexa speaker suggesting that devices get turned off at 9:15 pm.  This doesn’t always happen (in fact, I’m working on this after 10 pm), but it’s a reminder, and it helps with being mindful of how late it is.

In spite of all of my best efforts, as I work through some of my past pains, some of my depression symptoms keep popping back up here and there.  I was warned, at the start of my journey with my therapist, that things can get worse before they get better.  Since we’re re-opening some of my old wounds, in order to let them heal in a more healthy manner, my body and mind will be re-living some of the rougher patches of my life in various ways.  Because of this, I am using a number of tools to try and maintain as many healthy habits as I can.  I wear an activity monitor, which helps me make sure I’m getting enough physical activity each day.  I track my feelings and symptoms in my bullet journal each night, including whether or not I’ve been struggling with insomnia.  And I try my best to do what is best for myself.  I try to be gentle with myself if I fail at one or more of my healthy habits on any given day.  And I hope and pray for restful, peaceful sleep.

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