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9 Dec

Living With Insomnia

I have refrained from writing this article for two months because:

A.) I wanted to write about it when I finally had a solution for it.
B.) I didn’t want to air my dirty laundry.
C.) I hate showing weakness.

So why am I writing about this now?

A.) Because I have realised that there is no easy solution or quick fix for insomnia.
B.) I don’t really care about airing my dirty laundry anymore, because I have learnt that other people are just tumble-drying theirs.
C.) This does not make me weak.

2016 has been a tumultuous year for me for many reasons – all of them health-related. When the time is right, I will write about this as I believe it can help many women out there.

Today I would like to talk about the thing that has haunted me the most: insomnia. I stopped sleeping four months ago and I have learnt three important things in this period:

1. Most people think you can only get insomnia when you have a baby. I have had to endure many a snide comment about “waiting until I have a baby” to feel what true insomnia is. This is pretty much as bad as telling someone with depression to just “go for a walk” to feel better.
2. The word “insomnia” gets thrown around very easily. Having a few sleepless nights does not make you an insomniac. It is natural to sometimes have difficulty falling/staying asleep. It is not natural to have four consecutive weeks of three hours off sleep per night.
3. You can’t necessarily stop chronic insomnia by yourself. Drinking a glass of milk before bed won’t fix it. You need help, and sometimes that means taking medication.

When my insomnia initially started four months ago, I told myself: this is temporary, you’re okay, you’ll sleep again. But a few weeks passed and every night consisted of me lying awake in a state of anxiety, panicking about the next day while I counted the amount of sleep I’d have to operate on. Five, four, three…

As sleep left my nights, happiness left my days as I battled with extreme fatigue and anxiety. I started drinking two cups of coffee in the morning to keep me going until 12:00, then another cup in the afternoon to get me through the afternoon.

By 15:00 every day I am as tired as most people are before they go to bed at night. I then still have two hours of the day to get through. Those are the hardest.

When you stop sleeping, your body stops producing serotonin the way it usually does. And this is the real kicker about insomnia: depression.

It gets harder and harder to feel happiness the way you used to. Your body is literally too tired to feel emotions at the same level it did previously. I’ve made no secret about the fact that I am not the biggest social butterfly on earth, but insomnia has made it even harder for me to socialise. I am either too exhausted to go out, or when I’m out I get tired too quickly to enjoy myself.

When did I decide to seek help?

I was in denial for a long time. I thought that I could overcome it myself by changing a few things.

I basically tried everything you can think of – changing my routine, going to gym, not using my phone too late, taking over-the-counter sleeping meds, using natural remedies, getting earplugs… The list goes on and on. When that didn’t work, I tried attacking it with logic. I started reading article after article about insomnia, trying to find a solution. I can tell you everything under the sun about sleep hygiene, melatonin and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia.

But still, I lay awake at 3 am every night, crying because I was tired beyond comprehension but I couldn’t fall asleep.

I decided to speak to my GP about it and I was put on a sleeping tablet called Dormonoct. It went well for a week and a half, and then I was back to square one again.

If a sleeping tablet can’t make me sleep, then what will?

Sleep became even more of an issue after that, as I would take my tablet at 21:00 and lie awake until 24:00 – freaking out over the fact that it wasn’t working.

I wish I could tell you that I have conquered insomnia. I wish I could say that I am now sleeping seven hours every night and that I don’t feel blindly tired by 15:00 every day, or that I don’t get headaches from tiredness anymore.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

But I am adamant to fight this, and I have a game plan.

1. I am going to a doctor next week who is an expert on hormones and the role they play in our bodies. It is no secret that The Pill and depression are linked, and throughout these four months it has been at the back of my mind that all of this might be because of it.

2. I will go to a psychologist. I know that depression causes insomnia. So it is very likely that I have it the wrong way around, and that my insomnia is not causing my depression – but that depression is causing insomnia. (That’s quite a mouthful.) I have tried everything in my power to avoid going on chronic antidepressants, but if that is what it will take to sleep and be happy again – so be it. I am grateful for modern medicine and that there is help out there. I also know through my extensive Internet research (seriously, like every article ever) that psychologists can help you overcome sleep anxiety.

3. I am moving in January 2017. My current living situation has not been conducive to a healthy sleeping cycle, and I am hoping that when J-P and I move next year it will help me to have a new environment and a fresh start.

The main reason I decided to finally write this article, is because I feel like I am living a lie on social media. So often I’ve posted a photo of myself looking happy and ‘living my best life’ while I was feeling like complete poo. Of course I have my good days, but I feel that it is unfair to pretend that my life is just rosy.

Another reason is that I think that there are people out there who are either going through this, or who have gone through this. Misery loves company, especially at 3 am.

Lastly, I decided that I owe this article to my loyal readers. I have not had the energy to blog in ages, and I would like to get better so that I can go back to dissing Heidi Klum’s presence at award ceremonies and write letters to celebrities who will never read it.

I promise to write a follow-up post next year after I have made the changes and been on holiday. I hope this post makes you feel less alone in this world. And I hope you know that no matter what, there’s always help.

  • Emma-Jane Harbour

    I’ve been wanting to write something similiar to this for a while, with all the solutions that help me sleep better! But my insomnia comes and goes, ebbs and flows. I don’t think there’s a magical formula.

    I sleep with ear plugs, and an eyemask every night. I drink chamomile when I remember, sniff lavender oil sometimes, do breathing exercises, switch off screens at least 1 – 2 hours before bed, cool down our bedroom. Sometimes it works like a charm, other times it doesn’t.

    I’ve found I can’t drink more than 1 cup of caffeine a day, or 1 unit of alcohol at night. It stimulates me and gets my adrenaline going way too much.

    It just sucks to have something that seems to come so naturally to humans doesn’t work in your own body!

    Keep us posted on the progress!

    I hope it gets better!

    December 9, 2016 at 09:31 Reply
  • Wendy

    Try visiting the sleep clinic, I have had what I thought was insomnia my entire life – memory and mood suffered and immune system became pretty much non existent
    Anyway turns out I was researching and trying to solve the wrong problem all these years – finally at 42 I was diagnosed with narcolepsy
    Honestly it changed my life
    Get a proper diagnosis from a specialist and in the meantime get your GP to prescribe provigil for you to get through the days
    Good luck, I know EXACTLY how this feels – I really hope you find some peaceful sleep soon!

    December 9, 2016 at 18:00 Reply
  • Anon

    Hey Anja,
    Thank you for sharing this! It is going to help a lot of people!
    I want to share my story with you, not as advice at all, I have no medical background and everything I know was either from books, internet or my dad (pharmacist). 🙂 Even though my dad is a pharmacist we always grew up with the idea that one should avoid antidepressants and anxiolytics until absolutely necessary. So we had “Die kinders in die pille huis kry nie baie pille nie”.

    When I was in matric I struggled with insomnia. My body was underweight and lacking nutrients and I was under a lot of pressure. I didn’t eat enough before bed so when I finally fell asleep I would wake an hour later with anxiety, faint feeling and panic. My father let me take a benzodiazepine before bed for a few months. I also went for B12 vaccines and slowly started eating more. A great ordeal awaited me the following year and this ordeal brewed in the back of my head. I did start to feel better and started sleeping more with time. Fast forward to the next year ( my dad weaned me off the benzo) my body was at a healthier weight and things started to truly get better the following year (the ordeal was over).

    Last year however, I started studying design, where I slept very little due to deadlines and project after project. I started developing panic disorder (having had panic attacks ER style before) and things went downhill with depression (only situational), anxiety and panic, weight dropping and finally a horrible fear of developing psychosis. I left university in October to get better. I first went to my GP who prescribed Lexamil (antidepressant). Then a psychiatrist who switched me to sertraline and gave a different diagnosis. Obsessive compulsive traits. And FINALLY things started making sense.

    Soon after I started seeing a clinical psychologist (specializing in anxiety disorders). His diagnosis was Pure-O (OCD). This CHANGED everything. He started working with me and I could finally understand what was going on and why I did certain things in the past. A new psychiatrist has me on Serdep and Urbanol. (I’m sure you have felt and read about antidepressants and the hell that is the beginning until you find the correct meds and dosage 🙁 ). We tried different things but finally I am much better (except for sleeping too much :/, which is definitely not nearly as bad as insomnia at all).

    And to conclude: as most people say, (eye roll) ‘everything happens for a reason’, I finally see the bigger picture. Although if someone told me to look at ‘the bigger picture’ back then I would have punched them for sure.

    So this is my story, I wish I could add more detail!

    But I hope everything does get better for you and that you will find strength during this tough time! In my process my mom shines as my hero, my relationship with my dad got better and so much more.

    I am a Christian and the hard times felt like my God had left me, but He didn’t, otherwise I would not be here today. Although excruciating at the time, it all does come together in the end.

    I still have Kilimanjaro ups and downs, but now I know how to climb and have better equipment, :).

    [ I don’t want to name drop medicine as it is dangerous and unethical and I have no right or knowledge, but my psychiatrist did prescribe Trazodone for insomnia for me ( I only took it for a week and had very unpleasant side effects) however, my psychiatrist uses Trazodone as a sleeping aid and it works incredibly well for him. ]

    I know you can do this and I hope things will start to get better!!
    Much love

    I’ve been following your blog for a long time and always enjoy your humor and positivity

    December 9, 2016 at 21:26 Reply
  • Zakiyah

    Love how raw this post is, Anja. I wish you everything of the best, and will keep you in my prayers. Thanks for sharing your story.

    December 9, 2016 at 21:38 Reply
  • Maria

    You need to talk to a good Sleep specialist. I also had insomnia when menopause hit me, insomnia is one of the symptoms for menopause. A GOOD sleep specialist can help you conquer insomnia and there are many NATURAL ways to do it. I did it, I sleep 7 hours straight. Please talk to a sleep specialist. Find a doctor who has good training on sleep/insomnia problems

    December 10, 2016 at 12:47 Reply
  • Sam

    Shame hun this is dreadful. It also brings back memories of my initial stages of this terrible condition that I’ve suffered from for 5 years. Is actually an affliction because from all my research there is no medical clear cut reason for it to happen and there is no clear cut cure. All I can say is that I have managed over the years to deal with it and the less I stressed out about it the slightly better it was. This is obviously very hard. I also experienced a blissful 8 months last year where after a very serious bout of illness and exhaustion, my body was jolted from it. I couldn’t believe how incredible the quality of life was with proper unmedicated sleep. Sadly I’m back to requiring medication every day but I discovered an over the counter sleeping tab from the USA that does the trick. I feel very few side affects.

    I bought a book on the topic which unpacks it if you would like to borrow?. I found it interesting and felt less alone with it. It also talks about an extreme possible cure (kind of last resort) that involves extreme sleep deprivation to try get your body out of it. I have never had the courage to try this.

    After consulting with doctors I have had no answers. There simply aren’t any. It’s still a big medical mystery that is confusing as to whether is physical or psychologically connected.

    There is a breathing exercise called 4, 7, 8 which was remarkable for me. Give it a google. It physically slows your heart rate down which can help to put yourself back to sleep. Especially around the 3am vibes. This works about 85% of the time.

    All I do know on my journey is that the less I get anxious about it and just started accepting that this was the way that it was the better it was to manage. I also wanted to fight it hard for the first 2 years.

    I know this is not great news, but know you are not alone and if you ever want to talk to me about it I’m right here.

    Sam x

    December 10, 2016 at 13:41 Reply
  • Gaelyn Cokayne

    I hear you completely on this! I have suffered from insomnia most of my life and it’s indescribable really. Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t understand it. I’ve reached a point this year that I never thought I would reach. I’ve gone down to the lowest possible dose of anti depressants (and from next week will be off them completely) and have been off prescription sleeping tablets for 3 months now! I saw an amazing psychologist earlier this year who helped me immeasurably. Thanks to her and our sessions, and careful control of my diet and lifestyle, I am doing so much better. Realistically, I’ll never be a solid sleeper. I’ve accepted that. But now, on a good night I’ll wake up once or twice and fall asleep within 30 mins. On a bad night, I may only get 5 hours sleep. Which is a huge improvement from 2-3 hours on a good night in the past! I wish you all the best, have faith that their is a solution for you, and that you will feel improvements!

    (Also, don’t be scared to try different sleeping tablets, until you find one that works. They all work slightly differently and will affect you differently.)

    December 12, 2016 at 09:06 Reply
  • Melinda

    Thanks for your honesty in writing this. I’ve been battling with insomnia for years, resulting in crippling anxiety. My days were mostly exhausting – can’t think straight, feeling fatigued and irritable. Sleeping tablets does not help me at all and neither does exercise. It came to a point where I could no longer function properly in a social and work environment. I took anxiety meds, but they were just temporary, as herbal and natural remedies just doesn’t help. Finally I decided to seek help and am now taking antidepressants, which helps a bit, but not really all that much. I think your plan on going to see a psychologist might be a good idea!

    December 12, 2016 at 10:06 Reply
  • Jen Strydom

    Dear Anja,

    I sincerely wish you all the best with this.
    So awesome that you have taken the step to write about it. It is very brave.

    Just know – it will eventually come right when you figure out the cause.
    For each suffer it is different and the answers will present themselves differently too.
    It is painful and lonely to experience to be an insomniac. Other people seem not to understand or tend to brush it off as a poor night’s sleep, which is lame and demotivating.
    Don’t let this get to you if you can.
    Be kind to yourself too where you can, it is not your fault. It is not your body’s fault either.

    On a personal note, after years of struggling with insomnia, I found out (rather by accident) that I have Lupus, one of the side-effects of which is insomnia and extreme fatigue, as well as anxiety. I had always thought my severe anxiety was what caused it. Turns out I was looking in all the wrong places for answers. It also turns out all of my other health problems were related to this, no medical professional was ever able to connect the dots. I now have a wonderful Chinese doctor who sorts me out, not just the insomnia, but for everything it relates to as well. It’s been a game-changer. Please give me a shout if you want his details. (or if there is any other way I can assist).

    You have a solid plan to find our the cause – and you are committed to finding your way.
    This means you are halfway there.

    Hope you manage to get some rest over the holiday.
    All the best to you xxx

    December 12, 2016 at 13:04 Reply
  • Rene

    Unfortunately I don’t have any useful advice for you. I did go through a stage in my 20s with insomnia, but can’t even remember how I fixed it (was in the same time that I went on anti-depressants, so that might’ve worked). Only reason for replying is to second that having a baby in the house and having insomnia is very very different. My husband suffers from insomnia, and even though he was often awake when the baby cried he still could not help out. It would just make it worse because then he was thinking his chances of getting sleep is even less. He would lie in bed getting anxiety about it. As a non-insomniac I would get up and hold the baby, swinging him to sleep while fast asleep myself. I would also feed the baby on the couch while sleeping or get into the cot and sleep, not comfortable but still sleeping.

    On the husbands insomnia. He’s had it on and off for 20 years. He can usually fall asleep, but wakes soon after and can’t go back to sleep. But he is also doing everything that is wrong to get a good nights sleep. Drinks so that he falls asleep easier, but that causes the waking later and not being able to go to sleep, and playing on his phone before sleeping. He was on Zolpidem for 2 years, where he thought he was getting better sleep, but he was hallucinating and sleep walking while on it. And he ended up in hospital when he stopped it.

    December 12, 2016 at 13:44 Reply
  • Candice

    Hi Anja,

    Thanks so much for writing this post, I’m sure your openness is truly appreciated by so many of your readers and this post is so incredibly relatable.

    I sent you an email to ask if you wouldn’t mind sending me the name of the doctor you are going to see who is an expert on hormones – I also believe the pill is related and am determined to get to the bottom of it. Have done some internet research on CT specialists but would rather go with a referral as have had some shockers previously.


    December 12, 2016 at 14:30 Reply
  • Alexander Jacques Sabucido

    Having insomnia isn’t easy to deal with.

    May 3, 2019 at 00:31 Reply
  • Leigh Preston

    Hi Anna. Thanks for this! Did you finally figure out a solution to the insomnia? I’m battling and would love to know if you managed to figure it all out. I hope so!

    March 10, 2020 at 10:15 Reply

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