A person pushing a rock up a hill

How Do You Cope?!

If I had a penny for every time someone asked me, how I cope with insomnia, I would be a very rich woman indeed. So how DO I cope?!

The simple answer I used to tell everyone is, what choice do I have? I mean honestly – aside from “coping,” what can you do when you’re permanently running on empty? If the car runs out of fuel and you have to be somewhere, the easiest option is to push it. And that’s what I’ve done most of my entire life.

I’ve pushed through. I pushed and pushed and pushed until I could push no more.

No time to be tired when you are young

For many years I was young. Oh, I miss those days! Young people seem to have a natural tank full of fuel and when it gets a bit drained, there’s still more in the tank. You can have a rotten night with 4 hours of broken sleep and still get up when the alarm goes at 6 AM to head to university and study all day long.

Then come home and eat and study a bit more. Then go out drinking for a few hours. Head back to bed and hope for the best. Do it all again. Everyone talks about what a crap night they had and how there’s never enough time to sleep and we’re all tired and that’s okay.

We just push on through. There’s social contact and life’s full of distractions and there’s no time to be tired! Things to do. Places to be. Dreams to be pursued.

Everyone is exhausted in their 30s

Then the 30s come around and there’s a husband and kids and work and a house to be cleaned and groceries to be done. Endless, endless groceries to feed the growing horde. Life is full of responsibilities and my needs come last. Absolutely everyone else is exhausted with their little people keeping them awake at night and never a moment to sit down during the day.

Every cup of tea with a friend is a litany of woes about lack of sleep and daily exhaustion. The other mums might not have clinical insomnia but to be brutally honest, we’re almost all surviving on 4 hours of broken sleep. And some days we’re grateful to get 4 hours.

We start looking for under-eye creams to conceal the bags.

Then comes the divergence

Gradually the babies turn into teenagers and we’re kept awake with worry. But friends start sleeping more – I’m sure of it. My body gets older but my sleep gets worse. The divergence is beginning. Don’t get me wrong – we’re all still tired. I barely know a single human that doesn’t complain about being tired. We live in a busy, busy world and the price we pay is fatigue.

But for those of us with insomnia, the exhaustion really starts to set in about now. It’s been going on for so long. All those years, we’ve been waiting for it to get better and just as life – to some degree – starts to settle down – the sleeping gets worse. But the days are still filled with work and bills and aging parents and house renovations and learner drivers and a mid-life crisis. With just a few broken hours of sleep each day, it’s hard to push through.

But push through I did. Eat well and move well – go to gym classes. Put the feet up when there’s a moment. Look after mental health by debriefing with friends on a regular basis.

Fatigue dripped from my fingers

By the time I turned 50, fatigue dripped from my fingers. The bags under my eyes looked like they could hold a good volume of groceries. But the sleeplessness was by now so significant I would oscillate between too tired to stand and overwhelmed with energy. Driving was a precarious situation. I was running on adrenalin and going manic.

I also started to experience debilitating episodes of depression. I slept through nothing but I still functioned. All that work. All those gym sessions. I was afraid to stop because... what then? I kept saying yes to everything and the fatigue got worse.

People kept asking me how I coped. How did I cope? I just accepted the fatigue and refused to let it stop me from doing the things that needed to be done. I knew better than to put things off until I had a “rested” day. I never had rested days. Keep going and don’t complain was my motto.

At age 54, I had a complete nervous breakdown.

All those decades of physically coping with sleeplessness left me psychologically broken. Sleep was pharmacologically forced upon me for 9 long weeks. It changed me completely.

I finally knew what everyone else was talking about – what it felt like to go to bed, fall asleep and see a whole lot of hours had passed when I next saw the clock. Sometimes 6 or 7 hours in a row. It was an unheard-of situation.

I left the hospital with a new medication regime and for the past 18 months, I have – for the most part – been sleeping quite well. I always get at least 3 unbroken hours, and while that may not sound like a lot to some people, it had never happened before. I was grateful. Most nights I get a lot more.

No more pushing through

But I cope with poor sleep much less well now. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m just that little bit older or if the reality of receiving physical rest has taught my body how much it needs it. I am no longer busy all the time. I say no. I put my feet up. I have cups of tea. The overwhelming responsibilities and stressors of my 30s and 40s have passed by – for now.

I always cope without sleep – I always have – but these days, I yawn a lot more. I don’t push and push because I know what the consequences are. My tank is topped up each night and if it runs empty for some reason, I refresh with a cup of tea and a nanna nap.

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