Insomnia is a word that gets batted around casually, but real insomnia is nothing short of a paralyzing disease. With real insomnia, we’re not talking about a night of crap sleep that you can make up for in a night or two. We’re not even talking about a few nights of crap sleep. We’re talking years and years of no-sleep nights added up together, when even the minimal sleep you do get is worse than unrestorative. It’s day after day of your body trying to pull energy from somewhere, anywhere, just to continue with basic functions like breathing or listening or moving your limbs. It isn’t a question of willpower – when you suffer chronic insomnia, your body takes over. You no longer have any choices. Want to exercise? Nope, sorry. That energy is needed to digest food. Want to eat moderately? Too bad! The body needs massive amounts of food to get the minimum energy it requires in a day, storing the rest away for later because it’s terrified that these no-sleep nights will just continue and continue and continue. Which they will.
Years ago, I had a “friend” who tried to tell me that I didn’t suffer from insomnia because I didn’t have an official diagnosis. This was one of those “friends” who was always trying to one-up everyone. Oh, you have a twin? So do I, only we’re identical, and we had a psychic bond when we were little, only it broke when she ran away and I haven’t seen her in years and I have no photos of her because I destroyed them all as they were too painful. Oh, your husband is looking for a job and you might move out of state? Well, my husband was already looking for a job and already found one so we’ll be moving out of state before you have a chance. You’ve all met that person, right? Anyway, setting this girl’s toxic a$$ aside (like I did not long after meeting her), one of the things I remember most was the lecture she gave to me about insomnia and how my condition wasn’t “real.” She told me that I was making it up and complaining just to get attention, wanting to have an affliction, minimizing the real struggles of everyone else (like her). And all I could think (besides that it was time to dump her) was why the hell would I want an affliction like this one?
Real insomnia is a nightmare. You go through day after day with your thoughts watery and vague, because your brain is literally trying to get in some low-grade REM sleep in order to repair itself. You eat twice as much as you’d normally need, often made up of crap carbs, because your body can’t function properly without ready food energy. You can’t drive or exercise or hold onto full conversations. You think back on the worst days and can’t remember what parts of them were real and which parts were actually dreams. You resort to complex self-medicating habits in order to get even the tiniest bit of sleep, combinations you should never, ever mix (like Ambien, benedryl, and wine), because the doctors look at your condition, can’t find anything wrong with you, and simply shrug you off and push you out the door.
Before September 2011, my insomnia was inconsistent, a handful of weeks on end several times a year. It began my first year in college, and kept to that pattern for 14 years. In Sept 2011, something changed in my body, and the handful of weeks grew into a constant. In the seven years since, there have been so few times without constant insomnia that they stand out like beacons. A week in spring 2012 while I ate nothing but unprocessed foods, not even foods like canned tomatoes or beans. Two months in the summer of 2014 when I actually slept just by taking magnesium citrate supplements daily. Last month, when for most of July, I didn’t need more than just melatonin to sleep through the night. Aaaaand that’s it. Just over three months of real sleep in the last seven years.
Right from the beginning of August, like clockwork, the insomnia reared back up again. Whatever good things in July that had been happening in my body disappeared. You know that metaphor about certain diseases and having a limited number of spoons to use each day? With severe insomnia, on the worst days, you wake up with zero spoons. You have literally nothing to work with. And knowing that this is forever, and nobody knows why, and there’s nothing anyone can do to help or fix the situation, is the very definition of hell.