Going Mental: The Impact of Insomnia on My Mental Health

This is the story of a woman who went mad. Lack of sleep will do that to you. When I was a baby I didn’t sleep fantastically well. Things haven’t improved.

Sometimes my insomnia relates to restless legs syndrome.

Sometimes it relates to hyperarousal.

Sometimes insomnia just is. And it sucks.

Trying everything but finding no relief

I’ve tried to manage lack of sleep in every way known to womankind. I’ve done the hot baths and no caffeine, avoid anything entertaining before bed. None of it made a scrap of difference. I tried over-the-counter sleeping potions and melatonin (everybody tells me to try melatonin because they think it’s a magic cure for insomnia).

My sleep got worse – primarily because those things antagonise restless legs so I became even more tired and even less able to sleep. Not a great combination.

Out of control sleep disorders

I remember 2003 like it was yesterday. That was the first year where complete insomnia hit me. The most obvious cause was out-of-control, untreated restless legs. Eventually, I got no more than 20 minutes sleep, once or twice in a 24-hour period, for months and months on end.

At that time, I was a flautist performing pit work in musicals. I’d finish work at around 11 p.m. then drive home, fighting the overwhelming urge to swerve into a tree. I didn’t feel suicidal, just psychotic.

I talked to my doctor but at that time in Australia, the only available medications were benzodiazepines. I took the prescription home and rejoiced in 4 hours of broken sleep. As benzodiazepines can potentially lead to tolerance and dependence I was loathe to use them regularly – so I’d take them once or twice a week just to relieve the growing insanity I felt. Perhaps in hindsight, I should have taken them and dealt with dependence if it came along. But alas, I did not.

Grief meets insomnia

A couple of years later, anti-Parkinson’s meds were available and my restless legs were finally relieved. My sleep was better but other insomnia issues were now more obvious. I had difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, and once I was up I was up.

In 2009, my slow decline began. My father-in-law died and then I watched my mother pass away. It was the beginning of a long string of deaths bundled up with other major stresses. Grief met insomnia and I became a blithering mess, the lack of sleep making it nigh on impossible to cope with anything.

I developed maladaptive coping skills for my psychological decline, but nothing worked for sleep. I’d spend days on end not even getting into bed. The sight of my pillow stressed me out. Decades of unacknowledged depression and anxiety bloomed into a veritable garden of self-destruction. I lost my career and sense of identity.

Getting treatment for psychological distress and sleep issues

In 2016, I had my first inpatient stay in a psychiatric facility. They trialled medications to get a solid sleep and relieve psychological distress. After a month, I was stable enough to return home.

I worked hard not just at psychological therapies, but at managing sleep as insomnia always makes things worse. Nights spent wandering around the house alone left me slipping into insanity. Medications sometimes worked but mostly didn’t.

Come 2018 and I was back in hospital, this time for 7 weeks. I was dosed with benzodiazepines while again working on managing emotional and psychological distress. I came home more stable but still on short-term sleep meds. I spent time with psychologists talking about strategies to improve sleep – much of which involved mindfulness and meditation to get anxiety under control.

Descending and emerging

Roll on 2020 and my sleep deteriorated so badly I no longer slept at all. I was awake from January to March and my already poor psychological health disappeared. I spectacularly imploded and returned to hospital, this time for 9 weeks. I spent 8 nights in the psychiatric ICU before joining the other patients. In ICU, they watched and documented my sleep, concluding I wasn’t exaggerating about my insomnia. Different medications were introduced to see what worked. I had 3 sleeping meds, finally receiving blessed relief.

The doctors worked hard to find psychiatric medications that didn’t exacerbate restless legs, were safe to take long-term and resulted in consistently good sleep. By the time I left, my 3 medications were whittled down to 1 and I can confidently say at this stage, it’s still working.

Where am I now?

I consistently sleep 7 to 8 hours a night. I’m a different woman. There are occasional nights where my head’s so noisy I can’t stop the anxiety and sleep is broken, but that’s the exception, not the norm. I sleep enough to settle my sanity. I confess, there were months at a time where I didn’t believe this could ever happen. Where I felt I would be awake for the rest of my natural life and never able to function again.

Today I’m still finding my feet because everything has changed and a lot has been lost. Chronic, persistent insomnia took so much from me. It broke me. But the ancient art of kintsugi says the chipped, cracked broken bits can be healed and made even more beautiful. I believe in the beauty of imperfection and hope my new reign of sleep-filled nights will bring me out of the era of insanity I have endured.

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