A Year Without Dreams: My Experience with Insomnia
The first time I considered writing a blog about my experience with insomnia, the thought of it made me shudder. At the time, the topic was pretty raw for me. It still is, to be honest. After all, it’s only been about six weeks since I finally “shook” whatever it was that was keeping me from sleeping for almost a full year.
I feel a lot of shame around the topic. As a holistic nutritionist and self-proclaimed novice biohacker and all around pretty healthy person, I felt like I knew about and did everything exactly the way I should be and yet I just couldn’t sleep. It was a really frustrating (and often traumatic) time to say the least!
But I figured it was an important topic to write about exactly for that reason; a lot of people deal with insomnia and severe sleep issues and nobody should feel bad about themselves if they’re “doing everything right” and nothing is changing. I also don’t want people resigning to the belief that they “just aren’t good sleepers” or that their bodies “only need a few hours sleep” to function, because as hopeless as it may feel in the middle of yet another sleepless night, there are things you can do to get back on a regular sleep schedule.
Aside from nutrition and social connection, good quality sleep is arguably the most important pillar of human health.
Think about it, we are at our most vulnerable state when we’re asleep. If it weren’t so crucial for the healthy function of every body system, we would’ve started evolving out of needing (give or take) eight hours of sleep per night a long time ago.
So over the next few blog posts, I’m going to write about my experience with insomnia, the unlikely event that triggered it, everything I tried that worked (and didn’t work) to give me some relief, and how I finally (mostly) cured myself of insomnia. I’ll add in advice and tips on what to do throughout the series if you’re one of the unfortunate souls who is also dealing with insomnia.
This first post in the series is mostly anecdotal simply because sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not alone. Insomnia has got to be one of the loneliest feelings in the world – sitting up, awake but exhausted, when the rest of the world seems to sleep peacefully. So if you struggle with sleep deprivation and you feel like you’ve tried everything, this post is for you. I think one of the most challenging things about insomnia is how much of a mystery it is, and how much of a role your psyche plays in keeping you awake at night, no matter how badly you want or need to sleep.
I’ve learned so much over the past year about insomnia and what helps me when I can’t sleep and hopefully you’ll find some of this info useful as well!
the unlikely trigger
It’s eerie looking back at my journal from November 2018. I’ve been tracking my sleep, moods, feelings, and meals in a bullet journal pretty regularly since 2015. For the vast majority of that time, I wrote the same thing at the top of each day’s page, pretty much the first thing I’d document upon waking: “8 hrs sleep. Good quality.”
November 14 is different, though. “Terrible sleep – maybe 4 hrs?”, again on the 15, “Not the best sleep. Really hard time falling asleep ~5 hrs.” At the time, I really didn’t know what was going on, but the trend continued and worsened for months. I was so exhausted and perplexed. There was seemingly nothing that changed in my life to contribute to this new sleep pattern. My bedtime was the same, no new mattress, no new evening habits, I wasn’t even drinking caffeine at the time!!!
It wasn’t until much later, when I was searching through my journal for any signs of what could’ve brought the sleep problems on, that I realized what most likely triggered the insomnia and contrary to what I was expecting to find, it wasn’t a negative or traumatic event at all. In fact, it was totally the opposite.
The day before my first bad sleep, on November 13, I made a note in the evening about an awesome meeting I had with Toni. Plot twist: it was the first meeting we’d ever had discussing the possibility of starting Soulaia (before it even had a name!) I remember being SO excited that night at the prospect of starting a business and doing something I was truly passionate about.
I happened to be so excited, I barely slept. My brain was working overtime turning over ideas and dreams for what my life could look like if this business idea worked out.
It was like a switch flipped that night. Every night at bedtime, no matter how tired or cranky or drowsy I was that evening, when I turned my bedside lamp off and snuggled into bed, the flood lights in my brain turned on full brightness. My brain just wouldn’t shut off. With eyes closed, I felt I could see the dozens of thoughts whooshing past like a busy intersection in my mind.
The first few months were the worst – almost nothing gave me relief. I spent many nights just sitting up (sometimes crying) in my bed or in my living room, too tired to meditate or read, like I had been told to do in so many insomnia-related articles, podcasts, and books. The thoughts wouldn’t slow down until 3 or 4 in the morning, when I only had a few hours left to sleep until my alarm would go off.
Sometimes I would go for walks outside at 2:30 a.m. (some of which my amazingly supportive fiancé – now husband – accompanied me on) because I thought the cold, fresh air would calm my mind. I took ALL the supplements; natural sleep aids, magnesium, adaptogens, melatonin, you name it. I tried cannabis and CBD. I tried Ativan. All of which worked for one or maybe two nights, and then just stopped working as if I’d become immune.
I tried wearing blue-light blocking glasses, using acupressure mats and hand reflexology, I did yin yoga and yoga nidra, and took long Epsom salt baths. I had even established a rule in the house that after 8 p.m. we could only use candlelight. I was doing EVERYTHING I’d read that should work to give you the best sleep ever. It worked to an extent – it made me so tired and drowsy that I could barely keep my eyes open, but the thoughts would just never shut off. It was torture. I knew my sleep hygiene was optimized but it wasn’t about that, it had everything to do with my mental state and psyche. I believed I couldn’t sleep no matter what I did, so that became my reality.
My Insomnia Cure
If you’ve read this far, thanks for hearing me out, especially if you have sleep issues of your own. I want to remind you that this story has a happy ending and that these days, I’m sleeping like a baby most nights of the week. I’ve learned that you can do all the hacks and take all the supplements to have the best sleep, but if your attitude, perception, and relationship with sleep is bad, it’s not going to work out for you. Luckily, there is a way to help that.
Looking back on that fateful November, I realize that everything went south because of how much effort I put into getting a good night sleep. The body learns fast. I was so scared of not sleeping that it quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that if I had started staying up late and training my body again to feel tired, rather than trying to go to bed super early to “make up” for the lost sleep, and in turn getting stressed out when I couldn’t fall asleep at 8 p.m., my circadian rhythm would’ve returned to normal much faster.
Now I see my year without dreams as an incredible learning experience. I feel like I finally understand sleep and how much one’s relationship with and perception of sleep influences their sleep quality.
In the next post, I’ll get into much more detail about troubleshooting when it comes to insomnia. I’ll also talk about supplements and other sleep hygiene hacks that do actually work to give you a good night’s sleep, and why stress reduction techniques are a must if you’re dealing with sleep deprivation.
Until then, I want to know if you’ve ever experienced insomnia and whether you’ve found anything that has helped for you! Let me know in the comments below.