5 Humbling Lessons From My Lifelong Battle With Insomnia
It’s a harsh teacher.
Every few weeks, my bed becomes a place of dread and horror. I’ve struggled with insomnia ever since I was a child.
Sometimes, it’s just one night of bad sleep. Sometimes, it’s weeks. Once, I didn’t sleep at all for three days before I dragged myself to a psychiatric walk-in clinic.
Insomnia sucks. It’s a cruel and unpredictable villain and an expert at temporarily derailing your life.
Nevertheless, today I find it hard to imagine what my life would be like without it. Today, insomnia is something I can more or less control with medication and thanks to my flexible schedule as an entrepreneur. This wasn’t always the case. There was a time I found my insomnia-ridden life excruciatingly hard.
Looking back, it was the difficult times — the times I desperately binged doctors and sleeping pills; the time I lay on my bedroom carpet, crying and shaking out of desperation and sheer exhaustion; the time I was caught between a rock and a hard place — when I found tenderness and incredible life learnings thanks to insomnia.
These are the five most important things my lifelong battle with insomnia taught me:
Lesson #1: You’re Not In Control
As much as we’d like to think we can control our health, mental state, and, overall, our life, this is only true to a limited extent. Insomnia and (mental) illness, in general, are prime examples of this fact.
I followed every sleep hygiene recommendation, tried an arsenal of relaxation techniques and sleeping apps, and followed pretty much every sleep-inducing expert recommendation I found. Guess what? I still couldn’t sleep. Most people who have insomnia due to the very fear of not being able to sleep will tell you the same.
My sleepless nights have little to do with what I do during the day. I can be a model child of healthy habits and still turn into a sleep-deprived zombie come nighttime.
Our control over what calamities (health- or otherwise) strike us is profoundly limited.
As American-Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön put it in When Things Fall Apart,
“To think that we can finally get it together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile.”
While our natural reaction is to fight and escape negative feelings and situations, it helped me a lot to accept my condition and move on despite it.
This doesn’t mean I stopped to try to improve my situation. Rather, I stopped to think something’s fundamentally wrong with me and started to see insomnia and my resulting suffering as part of what it means to be human.
Lesson #2: Your Current Situation Isn’t Your Final Destination
When caught in the depths of insomnia it’s easy to feel like life won’t improve, ever. Sleeplessness completely clouded my judgment over life — a day after a night without sleep can seem incredibly hopeless.
Nevertheless, after a few cycles of sleeplessness, I learned no feeling is final and life goes on.
While earlier I felt like my life was slipping out of my hands I understood this is also life — and while the experience sucks, it puts way less negative weight onto how things will eventually turn out than I imagined in my darkest hours.
Sometimes, it was small, incremental changes towards betterment. Sometimes, insomnia disappeared from one night to the next. On other occasions, it got worse when I thought it couldn’t get worse and only got better slowly, afterward.
Nevertheless, my situation always changed — my current situation was never my final destination so far.
This doesn’t mean life always improves in the end — it doesn’t. However, it’s undeniably in a constant change of unpredictable flux.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.” — Pema Chödrön
When insomnia first got me really bad in my early 20s, one of my biggest fears was I wouldn’t ever be able to sleep again. Today I know this isn’t true — I might have an accumulation of shitty nights but they aren’t permanent. This awareness alone alleviates a whole lot of my anxieties.
Lesson #3: The Other Person Is Always Right
Nothing taught me empathy and kindness like insomnia did.
Before I suffered from this chronic mental disorder, I was a lot more insensitive to other people’s irrational fears. I thought of myself as a tough cookie and had trouble understanding how other people couldn’t get their emotional and mental sh*t together.
Not that I had it so much together, mind you. However, before insomnia put me through the blender I lacked the self-awareness to face my own mental and emotional difficulties.
The thing about insomnia is it has a momentum of its own — a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle of fear. Ultimately, what keeps me awake is the fear of not being able to sleep. The solution seems so simple: All I have to do is relax and stop being afraid. To not think of the pink elephant. Guess what — I can’t.
The thought What if I can’t sleep tonight? is an insidious seed anything can sow during the day. Once planted, it grows uncontrollably and results in nervous vigilance despite complete exhaustion.
If all this isn’t irrational, I don’t know what is. I’ve been called unreasonable and absurd several times, even by people close to me. Moreover, it was the complete lack of understanding by others with no troubles to sleep that left me to feel terribly alone at times.
Consequently, insomnia told me to never, ever trivialize other people’s so-called irrational fears and mental problems.
Fear of flying? Panic attacks? Depression? Social phobia? I can count myself lucky I’ve never experienced these and don’t know what they feel like. However, I understand it can be someone else’s worth nightmare and when they tell me so their experience is legit, valid, and true.
As Seth Godin put it,
“The other person is always right
Always right about feelings.
About the day he just experienced.
About the fears (appropriate and ill-founded) in his life.
About the narrative going on, unspoken, in his head.
About what he likes and what he dislikes.
You’ll need to travel to this place of ‘right’ before you have any chance at all of actual communication.”
Nothing drove this home like my own irrational fears. Therefore, when other people open up to me about their fears and mental health problems, all I can do is listen and validate their experience.
Lesson #4: Unsolicited Advice Is Toxic and Disrespectful
Insomnia taught me first-hand how unsolicited advice can be harmful. We people tend to think we’ve seen it all and know it all because we listened to a podcast about a topic or have a friend who went through the same stuff.
Take this from someone who received a lot of unsought sleeping advice: To have to listen to some advice you didn’t ask for from someone who never went through what you went through is annoying at best and can be upsetting and disquieting at worst.
If I got a dollar for every time, someone told me to read, try valerian, try lavender tea, relax, try this, or that meditation or progressive muscle relaxation I’d be rich and busy funding an ultra-natural, harmless, and highly powerful sleeping aid.
Rule of thumb: If someone struggles with something chronically, you can safely assume they tried everything in their power to improve their situation. Should there be something they left untried, it’s usually for a damn good reason.
I could give a sad speech about every available sleeping medication (herbal and chemical) out there.
When you tell me to read, relax, or try lavender tea because it worked for your cousin’s friend after I tell you I struggled with insomnia throughout my life, I have to assume you think I’m stupid and less than capable of a Google search.
Don’t get me wrong — I used to be someone who knew it all and loved to throw around with advice but insomnia taught me to stop. Unless someone specifically comes to me and asks for advice all I do is listen and validate.
Lesson #5: Psychotropic Drugs Can Be Good Friends
I come from a family in which mental illness isn’t a thing and if it is you‘re supposed to get over it by creating as little fuss as possible. It’s by no means something that justifies seeing doctors let alone swallow pills. Pull yourself together is the name of the game.
I was lucky to mentally get over much of the BS I learned from my family but I get if other people are wary or scared to become a pill-junkie for life.
Either way, it’s an understatement to say sleeping pills saved my life. To solve the previous cliffhanger, the aforementioned visit to the psychiatric walk-in ended with a doctor who seemed sleep-deprived himself thrusting 2x10mg of Ambien into my hand.
Since then, empirical evidence showed me (sleeping) pills are not the devil.
I know there are horror stories where people got addicted to Ambien for a lifetime but I’m convinced these are the exception rather than the rule. What’s 1,000 times worse than an occasional sleeping pill is sleep deprivation and the constant stress and anxiety that result from it.
Just the awareness I have the option to take a pill before things get out of hand gave me back so much power and helped me regain control. It’s been 3 years since my first sleeping pill and here I am, not addicted, not a zombie.
Similarly, my experience with them drove home the fact there’s absolutely no shame in getting help, be it therapy, psychotropic drugs, or a combination of both. Unless proven otherwise no one has the right to voice their opinions or concerns about how you decide to help yourself.
If I had the option, would I choose a life without insomnia? A few years ago my answer was a sobbing, helpless omg yes but today I don’t think so.
While I don’t want to romanticize mental illness in any way, personally insomnia became a “Cure the disease, kill the patient”-kind of thing for me.
I wouldn’t be the same person without my sleep disorder as it would fundamentally change my experiences, personality, and probably even the people I surround myself with.
Therefore, my answer is no. While I considered it my enemy, today I see insomnia as a good teacher that both toughened me and transformed my view in so many ways.
How could I wish such an experience away?