Crafting a Memoir With Insomnia

I’m an insomniac. It’s part of my identity.

I’ve lived with insomnia all my life but it only became chronic and debilitating when I was in my forties. Until then, I just categorized myself as someone who slept badly – after all, I got a small amount of sleep each night. Nowhere near enough, but it was something. Over time, the little sleep I had whittled away to dangerously low levels, and my mental health shattered.

Through a series of unfortunate events, I had a nervous breakdown in 2016 that continued on and off until everything came to a head in 2020. During my insomnia, I began writing a book.

Writing a book

The greatest tool for managing my out-of-control mental health decline was writing. As I shed all the identities I’d gathered over 50 years, I clothed myself in the name ‘writer’. I’m a writer. Whether or not I’m a good one is a moot point. I identify as a bushwalker and I’m not very good at that. It’s not a competition.

To accompany my new identity, I wrote a book – a memoir about my struggles with mental health, grief, and an eating disorder. I began journaling in October 2016 and Stalked by Demons, Guarded by Angels: The Girl with the Eating Disorder was released in 2022.

That’s 5 and one half years from planted seed to full-blown fruit. A big chunk of my life – much of which was spent awake as I tried to manage declining insomnia concurrently with declining health.

The heavy price to pay

Like most things in life, there are degrees. I had a very high degree of insomnia. The sleepless nights saw me tap, tap-tapping away at the keyboard for days on end without break, my mind highly focussed and enveloped in a waking dream of memories that metamorphosed into chapters appearing on my page. But I paid a heavy price.

Middle age comes upon all of us lucky enough to live that long and is accompanied by a myriad of issues: declining eyesight, worsening sleep, a spreading waistline, frequent trips to the bathroom, an unwillingness to tolerate bullshit, empty nest syndrome, career burnout, aging parents, and an increasing number of people in our personal world becoming ill. And dying.

All these things happened to me. I learned in a most undignified manner that I wasn’t emotionally equipped to cope with a cascade of grief.

From journaling memories to book creation

Writing a book is a solitary venture. I turned a private journal entry into a public story. It involved 5 years of writing, reading, editing, mentorship, and the terrifying journey of navigating the world of publishing to share my story of secrecy and shame. It took 3 psychiatric inpatient stays and a truckload of encouragement from psychologists, psychiatrists, inpatients, editors, authors, mentors, family, friends, and sometimes complete strangers to bring my story to the light.

Insomnia's part in writing my book

Chronic insomnia leaves a lot of hours for writing and tapping away on a keyboard. It is an activity that can be done at 3:00 AM without disruption to others. So sleepless nights felt like both a curse and a blessing.

As I lay curled up for a week in the ICU of a psychiatric hospital, I journaled franticly. Who am I? What is my purpose? Again and again, my answer was, ‘writer’.

Psychiatrists medicated me to the eyeballs to get me started with just a few moments of sleep. Eventually, weeks passed, medication kicked in, and I slept more and more. My body had forgotten how to sleep – slowly it relearned. The lost threads of my sanity started to return. I spent 9 weeks in hospital and left with a medication regime to enable regular sleep and stabilize my mood (I take 5 medications to support sleep). And I walked away with a new goal – I was going to publish my book.

How I became an author

At this point in time, I was terribly grateful for the regular sleep I received courtesy of my heavy drug routine. In August 2021, I signed a publishing contract and on January 11, 2022, my book was released. We’d tweaked it, twirled it, and wrapped it in a pretty cover. It was laid out and edited within an inch of its life. A book was born. I’m officially an author.

While I’m now the happy recipient of medically-supported regular sleep, I can still lie awake worrying. Midnight rumination is a frequent companion for insomniacs. When my sleep was at its worst, I was more energetic – hypomanic is the term doctors used. Now that my body has learned to sleep regularly I have less energy which feels both ironic and healthier.

Much of my memoir was written through chronic insomnia. Now, tucked into my metaphorical belt, is book 2 – the sequel that was birthed in a blaze of sleeplessness.

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