A sleeping woman reflected in an open eye

What Does Sleeplessness Look Like?

Last updated: March 2022

“I got no sleep last night,” is a common complaint of the chronic insomniac. But is it true?

Occasionally, definitely a possibility. Most of the time, not so much. The average nightwalker is still getting a couple of hours most nights.

Bits and pieces of sleep

When I had my complete breakdown at the start of 2020, I would say I hadn’t slept from January through to March – when I was hospitalised and sleep pharmacologically forced upon me.

While my insomnia was chronic, persistent, and extreme, and it certainly felt like I hadn’t slept at all for 2 months, the reality was I did get bits and pieces of sleep here and there. Just not enough.

The extreme end of my extreme insomnia

On a bad night, I had zero sleep. I would be awake, working or walking or talking day and night, quietly going completely insane. I didn’t go to bed or even lie down for a rest. That would happen for 1 or 2 nights, and then eventually, my body would crave sleep so badly that I would lie on the couch and fall asleep for 20 minutes, and that 20 minutes felt like a lifetime.

For days at a time, I would get pockets of 20 to 60 minutes of sleep — maybe 4 or 5 times over 24 hours. Then I’d be back to complete wakefulness for a day or 2.

That was the extreme end of my extreme insomnia. But the reality even then was that I did get little bits of sleep. Not enough to stay sane but enough to keep my body functioning. Despite the way it felt, I wasn’t awake for 2 whole months.

Most insomnia does involve some sleep

The record for the longest period of time without sleep is 264 hours (11 days). And a handful of studies have shown patients staying awake for a week or so. Soldiers have been known to stay awake for up to about 4 days, and psychiatric illness can impose mania, keeping patients awake for 3 to 4 days. But these are extreme and rare circumstances.1

Most insomnia does involve some sleep. As frustrating and exhausting as it is to survive on 3 or 4 hours sleep, it is not the same as no sleep at all.

Not enough sleep feels different than no sleep

When I had my sleep study done, I would have sworn that I barely slept at all despite the 8 hours I spent in bed. But the study showed otherwise. I had slept several hours – in fits and starts. Monitoring the electrical activity in my brain showed I had definitely been asleep for periods of time despite my self-analysis of practically no sleep.

It seems important to remember that not enough sleep feels very different from no sleep. And the greatest tool I have learned in managing insomnia has been acceptance. I am no longer angry and frustrated when I can’t sleep. I have stopped fighting the wakefulness.

When I lie in bed, my eyes heavy, my body craving respite from the day, I lie there and search for peace. I consciously relax my muscles and try to bring as much rest to my mind and body as I can. The peace and relaxed state often leads to periods of sleep, which is a long way from my days of panic attacks at the mere sight of my pillow.

Accepting what my sleep looks like

My insomnia is now well managed with medication. I have accepted the fact that sleep is basically a disability for me – it is not something I can do unassisted. Even with medication, my sleep habits vary – while I routinely spend 8 hours in bed, my actual sleep can be anywhere from 3 to 7 hours. My average night would be 5 to 6 hours. And I am enormously grateful for those hours. They save my life. I have also come to embrace naps on my couch. Those little cat naps revive me throughout the day. I feel well-rested.

While I consider myself to be someone with chronic insomnia, it is now beautifully controlled, and if I stay vigilant, I get enough sleep to stay sane. And that sanity is as precious as gold dust.

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