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What Living With Insomnia Is Really Like

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For six months of the last year, I was caught in the grips of hideously life-altering insomnia. It was incredibly difficult to explain to those around me exactly how debilitating it was. I could do a pretty good job of describing the symptoms of depression, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and suicidal urges, and found I got the support and sympathy I needed. Things were a little different when it came to discussing my problems with sleep though. “Everyone is tired,” right? Even when it’s going well, life can be exhausting and given my life really wasn’t going well at the time, it was just a given that I was tired.

Insomnia is so much more than “tiredness” though. In fact, before I finally started to find a way to begin to sleep normally again, it became the most distressing part of my mental illness. I was still severely depressed, experiencing symptoms like flashbacks and panic attacks, thoughts of suicide and self-harm were never far from my thoughts, yet after six months of insomnia, the sheer exhaustion had earned the unhappy title of “literally the worst thing in my life right now.” And that was saying something.

Insomnia is defined as persistent problems falling or staying asleep, being unable to sleep even though you feel tired and not feeling refreshed when you wake up in the morning. That definition doesn’t even scratch the surface of what living with insomnia is like. Complex PTSD induced nightmares were a big part of what started my sleep problems. These night terrors were so horrific that I would deliberately put off going to sleep because of the fear of what would happen when I closed my eyes. This then became a vicious cycle — lack of sleep worsened my symptoms in general (including the nightmares), but when the nightmares got worse, I found that I was getting too scared to sleep even when I tried.

This then progressed to lying awake in bed for hours and hours. I tried everything I could think of — I scoured the internet and begged my friends, family and health professionals for any tips that could help me sleep. I stopped using gadgets before bed. I used earplugs and an eye mask. I didn’t eat late in the evening, and I made sure I got exercise every day. Even though it felt like wading through a sea of treacle to drag myself out of bed in the morning following only one or two hours of broken sleep, I did it anyway because I knew sleeping in the day is bad for sleep hygiene.

None of this worked, and the problem only escalated. At its worst, I averaged between 30 minutes and 2 hours of sleep per night. I would be woken by nightmares six or seven times a night. I’d wake up in the morning and cry my eyes out because I would feel even more tired than when I went to bed, and I just couldn’t see how I could face the day feeling like I did. I no longer felt safe to drive most of the time. I was much more clumsy than usual, and I struggled to concentrate on nearly everything. Sometimes I’d be part of a conversation and find that I didn’t really understand what was going on; I was too tired to properly take in what was being said. Exhaustion made me frustrated and tearful and hopeless. It’s that constant, prickly, unpleasant feeling you get when you’re jet-lagged, except I had to deal with it every single hour, of every single day. There wasn’t a single day of respite where I had a random night of good sleep to re-charge my batteries a little. It was relentless and repeatedly drove a bulldozer through the life I was trying to re-build.

Everything else started to pale in significance. I remember going into an appointment with my psychiatrist and just sobbing for 60 minutes straight, begging her again and again to do something — anything to just make me sleep. All my other symptoms and problems went out of the window; in that moment I honestly would have agreed to have all of those symptoms for the rest of my life in return for a good night’s sleep.

Permanent exhaustion makes trying to recover from a serious mental illness impossibly hard. All the things you need to do to start on the recovery journey take energy that you simply don’t have with severe and chronic insomnia. Even just the basics, like eating a good diet, taking regular exercise, going to appointments with the professionals there to support you — it’s all just too much when you’re that exhausted. To start to get better, you need to really be able to engage with the process: recovery takes hard work. Yet, when you literally cannot keep your eyes open or string a coherent sentence together, recovery seem like an insurmountable and futile task.

I was lucky enough to find a fantastic therapist who recognized we needed to tackle the insomnia before we could tackle anything else. Together, over the course of about two months, we worked hard on the hopelessly complex task of getting me to sleep. I’ll never forget waking up the morning after my first decent night’s sleep in six months. I’d slept for about five hours and had only woken up twice. I felt absolutely amazing. For the first time in so long, I actually didn’t feel tired. I’d gotten enough sleep to let me feel rested when I woke. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s been life-changing in terms of my recovery.

Since then, I’ve really been able to start to tackle my problems head-on. Pretty much every part of my mental illnesses are made worse by lack of sleep, so a reduction in severity of symptoms happened almost immediately. I was also in a much better place to work on learning healthy and positive coping mechanisms now that my mind was rested enough to take them on board.

I’m hoping that anyone reading this who hasn’t experienced true insomnia can maybe get a little insight into what it’s really like. We’ve all been tired; in fact, most of us are probably regularly tired. But insomnia is worlds away from tiredness. It’s an all-consuming and debilitating chaos that makes getting through another day seem unimaginable.

Getty image via KatarzynaBialasiewicz.

Originally published: December 4, 2019
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