I have struggled with insomnia on and off for over six years, during which time there have been many moments when I’ve not been able to imagine ever sleeping normally again. I have tried almost every alternative therapy and remedy, from hypnotherapy to acupuncture, herbs and homeopathy; I have been on yoga retreats, and done meditation. I have been referred to sleep clinics and followed diets, and combinations of natural supplements. Although some have resulted in short term improvement, I am yet to find a cure.
It’s hard to imagine quite how debilitating insomnia is until you have experienced it. After just a couple of days of poor sleep, even carrying out basic daily tasks can seem like a major feat. As a qualified naturopathic nutritionist I am normally the ‘healer’ and if anyone is unwell around me I will find a treatment for him or her. But with insomnia I have been so consumed with the effects that I have barely been able to function day to day, let alone think of what I need to do to help myself.
What I have found most difficult is the isolation. It is a hidden disease, which no one remotely understands until they have been through it. You look and appear relatively normal (although haggard from chronic tiredness), you have no visible disabilities despite chronic low-grade ill health, and yet you go through unimaginable internal suffering – including depression and anxiety. There is no support, and no effective medication to treat it. So ultimately you are left feeling helpless and hopeless, so much so that I would often look forward to getting a bad flu or illness, as when I was very sick I would usually finally get some sleep.
CAUSE AND EFFECTS
So what is the cause of insomnia? I used to sleep perfectly - soundly, in fact, for between 8 and 12 hours every single night. Then when I was 32 years old I started to experience sleep disturbance. Nothing especially traumatic had happened to me, other than being burnt out from overworking and a stressful situation with a work colleague. All of a sudden I started waking in the night and lay awake for hours, my mind racing. I began by taking herbal Nytol every now and then; soon, I was taking them every night. After a few weeks I started worrying about going to sleep. The more I panicked, the worse it became. Soon I found myself unable to even fall asleep and I was awake all night. I'd finally drop off at about 5am, only to have to get up at 7am. This led, in turn, to days spent in a haze of nervous exhaustion and fatigue, and I would find myself crying in meetings at work.
The worst period came three months after the birth of my first child, when I stopped sleeping. I do not remember sleeping at night for the next 15 months. I was usually able to fall sleep between 5-6am, but just as I was drifting off my daughter would wake. I became so unwell that I couldn’t even eat. I went to the GP and begged to be taken to hospital and put on a drip, but was told that the only way that I could be admitted to hospital would be for them to section me and put me in a psychiatric unit. My mother started looking after my daughter in the mornings so that I could sleep.
So my life became more unbalanced; I would spending mornings sleeping, feeling guilty for not being there for my daughter and then I would drag myself around in the afternoon before facing another torturous night of insomnia. I hardly ever saw or spoke to any of my friends. There was an enormous amount of stress on my relationship with my husband, who I never spent any quality time with. I became increasingly depressed and hysterical. Insomnia had completely taken over my life.
I became pregnant with my second child after a short period of recovery - about two weeks of sleeping normally again. But the pregnancy was punctuated with sleeplessness and then I continued to be an insomniac for a year after her birth. When my marriage finally broke down and we separated, I found myself on my own with two children - still struggling with severe sleeplessness.
I’ve tried many sleep clinics and I’ve always been left disappointed by their ‘one treatment fits all’ attitude. I joined a group of ‘insomniacs’, who all suffered for different reasons and yet we were all lumped together, and put on a rigid bootcamp. We were told that there are some people who simply do not need as much sleep as others. That people have different body rhythms, and that might mean that they do not need to go to bed before 2am. I was advised to practice sleep restriction (a type of therapy in which the number of hours of sleep are restricted), that I should never go to bed before midnight and to get up at 6am no matter how little I had slept. I had to get out of bed if I had not fallen asleep after 15 minutes, and to only allow myself to be in bed if I was actually sleeping. So no reading in bed, lying in or relaxing watching television (all things which I have always loved doing).
Last week, however, I had the opportunity to have a consultation with Dr Guy Meadows of the Sleep School , and so with fresh hope I put my scepticism from previous experiences aside to see what he had to say.
To my great relief, Dr Guy Meadows negates these traditional methods. He believes they are simply reinforcing more control and fear around sleep, which is ultimately the insomniac’s main problem. Instead, he advocates facing your fears of insomnia and changing your relationship with sleep. He also says it is far better to stay in bed and rest than to be wandering around the house all hours of the night. He recommends doing anything to normalise your life and relationship with sleep, and encourages people to get out and do fun social things and engage in life as much as possible - this already sounded like a far better approach.
Dr Guy Meadows makes you feel immediately at ease; just one session with him made me feel more relaxed about my condition and for the first time in six years, hopeful about curing it. He is an academic doctor, not a medical one. Using a combination of Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dr Guy Meadows teaches you to be more playful and accepting. Setting fearful thoughts to a soundtrack, for example “If I don’t sleep, I can’t cope” to the tune of Happy Birthday can help; by repeating it over and over it loses its emotional ‘charge’ and the fear dissipates. What is most empowering is that he offers a natural method that you can learn and practice to cure yourself of insomnia - it doesn’t rely on any props, pills or potions. It is not an overnight cure, but it is one that is potentially lasting.
I am just beginning the Sleep School method, which is designed to work in five weeks. I have the book, app, and a personal programme that I am following. I have to admit that as a single mother of two young children and seriously sleep deprived, finding even three minutes, three times a day to practice simple mindful exercises, or even remembering what I am supposed to do is challenging. However, I have come to believe that insomnia is caused by a major imbalance, which affects the mind and body. The question is how to identify what the imbalance is, what caused it and how to rebalance it. My personal journey of suffering with insomnia has left me with a desire to become a specialist, to find a cure for myself and to help others - so here’s hoping Dr Meadows might have the answers. I’ll report back; watch this space…