Ruminations of an Insomniac
I am an insomniac, through and through. This essay is an analysis of its effects on my life for better and worse, my theories on its causes in my case, and experiences battling and/or embracing it.
I used to refer to myself as a nocturnal morning person for the reason that I could often stay up late at night without tiring, and then rise early the following morning, vibrant for the next day. The explanation for this incredible feat is that I seem to require much less sleep than other people. This has remained true throughout my life. However, I have revised this labeling now. Whereas I am sometimes a nocturnal morning person, I am also, quite frequently, an insomniac, the primary distinction being that insomnia is undesirable in that it adversely affects me. The main negative effect is that I am often tired throughout the day. What causes it? What effect does it have on me? What have I done about it? This essay explores those questions.
This essay is different from the rest of my Mind Ramblings, in that is does not comprise a soapbox rant on some issue in an attempt to persuade others to agree with me, but rather serves as an interesting reflection into the truly peculiar neuronal complex system that is often known as "Keith" ... as if anyone should care. I, Keith Wiley, am an insomniac. Notice that I do not refer to myself as a "sufferer" of insomnia. I have yet to decide fully whether I consider it to be my greatest drawback or my greatest asset. No doubt, it impedes my productiveness in that I am always tired. On the other hand, it affords me great swathes of time with which to work on various projects while the rest of the world is aimlessly delta-waving away. I have been an insomniac for as long as I can remember. I clearly remember it in high school (that would be eleven to thirteen years ago, give or take), but I think it extends back much further than that.
My insomnia patterns
To start I should quickly mention how incredibly lucky I am. Despite being a long time insomniac, I appear to be able to function reaonsably well in our sophisticated society, with all its complex rules of social behavior and what not; this despite the fact that I average six to seven hours of sleep, and that is broken, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-several-times sleep, which I'm quite sure qualifies as less beneficial than straight-through-the-night sleep. My friends have often been astounded at this accomplishment: Keith the Houdini of unconsciousness, no state of hibernation can hold him in irons. More than one person in my life has looked at me utterly dumbfounded at the statement of my required sleep, readily responding that they are entirely nonfunctional on any timeperiod short of eight or even nine hours of sleep. I would call my threshold six hours. I am often forced to make do with five hours (or less), but I feel the effects of such a timeperiod. At six hours -- broken up throughout the night mind you -- I can run a standard day without nodding off part way through. By comparison, my girlfriend -- who I have no desire to demean here but who I use for comparitive purposes -- usually goes to bed between 10:00 and 10:30 and usually wakes up around 7:00 to 7:30 (with an alarm mind you, she would sleep longer if she were allowed). I can personally vouch that she is not awake very much during the night since I am awake most of that time and would therefore know about it if it occurred. By the math, I reckon she gets between eight and nine hours a night. Wow! That I could experience that degree of quiescence just once in my life. I am envious of her, yet at the same time proud of my super-human ability to make do with a fraction as much sleep.
I will discuss the implications and ramifications more, but first I will analyze my insomnia in intolerable detail. To start, a basic description of my typical night will set the scene. No, I will start at a higher level of abstraction than that. On the scale of months I would say that my insomnia cycles, or at least exhibits periods if not cycles. I go through periods where I sleep fairly well, for me that is. My insomnia, although ever present, takes a backseat to my life's list of troubles, and leaves me be that I may live my life in relative restfulness. Then there are the other periods. Woe is me! For weeks I can spend not a single night in solitude, undefiled by my sleepless mind's twisted nocturnal contrivances. It is strange that it cycles like this, because I don't attribute it to common annual stressers, such as exam time or anything like that (actually, I've been off exams for a long time now, having completed that portion of my education). It just comes and goes, simple as that, no pattern that I can discern as yet.
A typical night, during the bad periods, consists of the following. Due to my being in a bad insomniatic period in the first place (see how it feeds back on itself, thereby compounding its effects) I find myself totally exhausted at 10:00 or 10:30. I might go to bed at such an ungodly early hour, the result of which is always catastrophic, as described later in this essay. Regardless, of the time I go to bed, I will twiddle my thumbs -- only partly metaphorical -- until sometime after 12:30. I know this to be true because I have, on countless occasions, seen the clock well past this bold hour. As often as not, I can make the additional claim to a spotting of 1:00 ticking by slowly. Sometime around then I will actually fall asleep. Invariably, I will wake up sometime between 2:00 and 3:00. I know this to be true because the glowing red 2 is burned in my mind after having witnessed it on an uncountable number of nights in my life. The 3 feels pretty familiar too frankly. At this point, my nightly routine diverges into one of two possible paths (you will see from this essay that I often classify things in binary divisions). One possibility -- the more merciful of the two -- is that I fall asleep within an hour, sometime around 3:30, and then wake up again around 5:00. I will then lie awake until 6:00, fall asleep for one, perhaps two more hours, and finally get up at 7:00 or 8:00 without an alarm, for a grand total of five to six hours. Alternatively, following the 2:30ish waking, I occasionally do not fall back asleep ... at ... all ... until the truly unfathomable hour of 5:30 or 6:00, just as it is getting light, at which point I will crash until 8:00 or 9:00, and then invariably awake, alarm or no, finalizing at around four hours, a feeble sum which even I cannot handle and which leaves me useless for one full waking day, resulting in much napping and little accomplishment. To the doctors who say don't nap, I respond, try it on four hours of sleep buster.
While the above descriptions suggest that I wake up only once or twice during the night, this is not accurate. The patterns described above reflect the larger structure of my nightly routine. At a finer grain of detail, the truth is that I can clearly recollect waking at a variety of times during a single night, often designated as individual episodes in my memory by the clear delineation offered by the glowing red numbers of a nearby digital clock.
Mind you that this is not my daily routine at all times. This is a fair description of my worse periods. During my better periods, I still wake during the night, but I believe I get a solid six, even seven hours in. These are glorious times for me and I find that food tastes sweeter, birds seem to be singing directly to me, and the sky is a more vivid shade of blue. All is good in the world during these periods of rest and relaxation.
Classifications and effects
I classify insomnia into two very different forms. Of course it is possible there are many forms of insomnia, but my classification is limited to my personal experience. In other words, I bifurcate insomnia along the boundaries of my own sleep patterns, with little to no attention to any other slob's sleepy failings. There are two forms of insomnia in my world. First, there is that sleep loss resulting from an inability to fall asleep in the first place and second, there is the additional curse of waking up at various times throughout the night. Of course, these two forms are linked, for once I have awoken at some god-offensive hour, I then face the immediate prospect of the first form again, in that I often do not fall right back asleep again.
I classify them differently because they feel different, and more to the point, I seem to be able to control -- to whatever degree I have ever been successul -- each form somewhat independent of the other. So what are we really talking here? I mean, what really qualifies as insomnia, as opposed to a reasonable requisite timeperiod for falling asleep when one hits the hay? In my own experience, I never, ever, under any circumstances, fall asleep in less than thirty minutes. That's the best I can hope under ideal circumstances. At the far end, I can go to bed and simply never fall asleep. Two, three, even four o'clock rolls by, as my sheep-count approaches the two-to-the-thirty-second limit available on modern computers. But these are the extremes, thirty minutes and never. I would say that on average, I take about an hour to fall asleep. While an hour may not sound too bad, it is almost as likely that the correct figure will be closer to ninety minutes on any given night.
The other form of insomnia makes the first form seem timid by comparison. If you think lying in bed for one or two hours waiting to fall asleep sounds aggrivating, try to imagine the dismal experience of waking up numerous times throughout the night. It is excrutiating, nothing but darknesses and silence for company (my girlfriend is a very quiet sleeper, thank Buddha), and nothing but the torments of my inner mind to help me relax back into a state of dormancy.
I used to consider my insomnia to be a great strength. This refers to a combination of the first form, where I cannot originally fall asleep when I go to bed, and my incredibly limited need for total sleep in the first place. The advantage is that I can simply adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, stay up, and get lots of stuff done while everyone else in the world is positively wasting time by being asleep. The low total requirement for sleep contributes in that I can often wake up early in the morning with the rest of civilization despite having been up working for much of the night. When I pull this off in concert, both staying up and waking early, I get an exhilerated feeling like I have just pulled off some marvelous heist, as if I have successfully squeezed more productivity into the previous twenty-four hours than was supposed to be allowed by nature.
The truth is, I have a number of nocturnal hobbies that I actually enjoy working on at night. The far away winner in this contest for my attention is computer programming, which I can do just as easily at night as I can during the day. One might argue that it is better to work during they day, when you are awake and not tired, as opposed to the midsts of an insomnia bender, but such claims are only made by people who have never experienced it. The truth is, my insomnia can leave my brain on high alert at the wildest hours of the night, fully capable of working and thinking, while on the flipside, it often leaves me ravished during the day, lacking the basic capability to stay fully awake, much less to work solidly on whatever challenge I may be faced with at a given moment. Frankly, I work just as well at night (when I am not tired, which is often the case) as I do in the day (when I am tired, which is just as often the case).
As the second form of insomnia has become increasingly prevelant in my life, I am reevaluating my stance that insomnia is simply some great gift, for it is the second form which leaves me utterly debilitated the following day, thereby canceling any increase in productivity that might be gained during the night. It is a confounding conundrum to say the least.
While on this topic, I will raise one further possible rationalization. I can get an amazing amount of work done in my head, lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. Obviously, this kind of "work" does not consist of any sort of forward-progress in the material atoms-n-matter sense of the word, as I am not actually doing anything. No computer code gets written as a result of my solving a problem in my head, no music gets written, no reading is accomplished, no art is produced. Yet, at the same time, the synapses of my brain are of course physically rearranging themselves as I solve a problem in bed, and as such, I suppose this would count as physical work being done, in terms of pure joules of heat energy, whereas counting sheep clearly represents very little total accomplishment, something on par with Brownian motion I suspect. Furthermore if solving a problem leaves me ready to lick off a fast implementation of the solution the next day, then that is simple time-shifting of the work that has been ultimately accomplished, yes? I have had this wonderful experience on countless occasions.
The question then arises, why am I an insomniac? While I could chalk it up to "my doctor says such and such about my cross-wired brain", and something almost certainly related to "phases", "brain waves", and "nightly cycles", I have, in my own analysis, come up with a number of explanations, paltry in their scientific jargon, yet strong in ther likelihood. Of course, some scientific explanation must underly my theories, if only I could tease them out. In the spirit of binary classifications, I divide my insomniatic excuses into two primary categories (and binarily into subgroups of two further down the classification tree as well). The first major division is those of the body and those of the mind.
I have physical bodily experiences which prevent good sleep. Before going into detail, I must immediately make another division-two divarication. Of the body, I experience two entirely distinct forms of sleepless causalities, itching and muscle ache. The first is simpler to explain so I will quickly discuss and dispense with it.
Blame it on my partially Irish pale-complexion skin, or blame it on a lack of moisturizing elements in my personal environment, but my epidermis is hyperactive and that is just all there is to it. As I lie in bed, I will develop, for no reason and without any provocation, some random itch somewhere on my body. Now, mind you, this is not the most horrendous itch in the world, it has no comparison to a "real" itch, such a bugbite, it's just some nerve-ending somewhere that has flipped a bit and gone totally haywire on me, sending a constant stream of itch impulses northward to my brain. All it takes from me is the slightest, most inconsequential scratch, just a mere nod of acknowledgement to the offending nerve, and it will happily shut itself off and leave me alone for the rest of the night ... but the human body is covered in billions of these things. In my experience I cannot lie still for more than thirty seconds without the development of a new itch. The scratch required is so minimal that it hardly deserves commentary, except that this means I am in a constant state of motion while at the same time trying to fall asleep. Clearly, the two cannot coincide.
Muscle ache is a much more serious problem. I cannot lie in one position for a long period of time. It is simply impossible for me to do so. In true Platonic form, I have four sides, and I therefore have four options for sides on which to lie when I attempt to get comfortable and sleep. I have discovered that this results in a clearly patterned cycle of rolling as I attempt to fall asleep, much like a crocodile slowly drowning its prey. I generally enter bed lying on my side as I find this to be the most desirable position to start. I will then roll to my back, to the other side, to my front (which I generally find the most uncomfortable), and to the original side, over and over again, at intervals of about five to ten minutes, simply because that is the interval at which my muscles start to ache unbearably. Note that I'm not talking about painful arthritic bodily torture here. I am young and spry, good in health and heart, strong in bone, pure in posture, and should not be compared to the muscle-pain sufferers of advancing age. To put it bluntly, I just get really uncomfortable if I lie in one position for very long. That's all there is to it. I don't know why, somebody else figure it out for me and let me know, please.
There are two interesting things to note here. The first is that I almost always roll the same direction, back, left side, front, right side, and rarely the opposite direction, although this may be attributed to the side of the bed I sleep on as it introduces an inherant asymmetry in my relation to the bed. I do not recall if this pattern has been reversed during those periods when I am on the other side of a bed. The second interesting thing is that if I actually do fall asleep on my back I almost invariably wake up from a nightware as a result. Whenver I wake up from a nightmare it is virtually a mathematical guarantee that I will find myself lying on my back. It is one of the strangest things in my life as I have never found anyone else who has any common experience in this regard.
How does my mind contribute to my owlesque inclinations? Simply put, I can't seem to turn the damn thing off for two minutes. I am not claiming to be some kind of Einstein who spends twenty-five hours a day deriving brilliant insights into the nature of the universe. More often than not, I am day-dreaming, lost in some fantasy of my own maniacal derivation (ironic since it shouldn't be any more trouble to night-dream instead by my reckoning). Don't miscontrue my use of the word "fantasy". It is not to be taken as some admission of sexual lunacy -- a whole topic in an of itself -- but more as an expression of my mind's insistence on inventing fictional scenarios, placing me in them, and cackling with delight as I wander nomadically from scene to scene weaving a story with no well-defined structure, at the end of which I am left with a narrative whose point utterly escapes me. I have discovered, through observation of the clock, that I can weave such a yarn for upwards of thirty minutes. The worst part is that I never realize I'm doing it at the time. It is hypnotic in a sense, and as such, I am simply along for the ride, helpless to pull myself out, until I eventually tire of the scenario, the boredom of which seems to permit me sufficient lucidity to consciouslly grasp control and purposefully halt any further exploration of the daydream. In truth, what I am describing is in fact a night-dream if you think about it, a fantastical fictional account in which you have little to no control over when it ends. The strange thing is that I am not actually asleep, or perhaps I am partially asleep, but not very asleep, and when I "grasp control" as I call it, that shakes me back to alertness again, ruining any hope of falling asleep. Whatever the explanation, whatever the interpretation, the result is undeniable. When one's mind never rests, one's self never rests.
I have taken a number of measures to attempt to counteract my insomnia. Most are partially successful, none have solved the problem. I will first rattle off all the advice that doctors always give, which is utterly useless to me because I am already following it! Namely, I don't watch very much TV in bed, and I never watch TV "as I'm falling asleep". Additionally, I don't eat big meals late at night and I don't drink caffeine (how stupid do doctors think people are, to even suggest laying off the 11:00 caffeine binges). Further, I have decent curtains (although I wish they were even darker). Doctors often say you shouldn't nap since this will leave you more tired at night so as to more easily fall asleep. While I do nap a little bit, I don't nap a lot. I often go a week without taking a nap. Lastly, a big one amongst doctors, I do a fairly good job of going to bed at the same time every night. That pretty much tops off the list of medical professionals' advice on the subject. I guess noninsomniacs, be they doctors or not, just don't get it, and think a trite list of sleeping habits is all it will take to solve the problem, or more offensively, they assume that I must be violating these basic tenets of rational behavior to be insomniatic in the first place.
I have discovered that I can greatly impede the first form of insomnia -- where I cannot originally fall asleep -- by not going to bed too early. In my case, it is a bad idea to go to bed any earlier that twelve o'clock, as I will most likely not fall asleep before then anyway, no matter what I do. Going to bed earlier doesn't seem to "pull back" the time at which I eventually fall asleep (as one would hope), but rather merely extends the waiting period until I fall asleep. To put it differently, it is as if a decision as been made in advance that I will fall asleep at 1:00, no matter what, and going to bed earlier just means I have to wait longer for that magic hour to roll around. Going to bed later is hard to do though. Despite my inability to fall asleep I am often completely exhausted by ten o'clock, in the physical sense. In fact, I am often mentally exhausted as well in that I cannot focus on doing work, computer programming for example. This is not always the case. I have fantastic bouts of nocturnalism and I revel in them when they occur, accomplishing great feats of computerized or artistic progress, but truth be told, most of the time I'm just tired.
A commonly touted solution to the second form of insomnia -- where I wake up in the middle of the night and deconstruct the myriad paint-glob patterns that decorate our ceiling -- is to get up and go do something until I become tired again. I have read this in many places. It has backfired every time I have tried it. If I get up and go do something, whether it is computer programming, or websurfing, or reading, or writing, or any of my numerous personal distractions, I invariably become more and more awake. After about an hour of such ridiculous behavior I usually give up and go back to bed, more wired than ever.
I have made one medical attempt to deal with my insomnia. Family, friends, and medical practitioners alike have all suggested that I try Melatonin. The theory is sound, Melatonin is a relatively well understood neurological substance, at least as it pertains to human sleep patterns. I have a bottle of 3mg tablets which I have experimented with on a number of occasions. The effects have been relatively stable, in that I can quantify, more or less, what Melatonin does to me. First the good part. In truth, when I take Melatonin, I generally feel more refreshed the next morning as I wake up. As stated above, I tend to wake up earlier than normal sleepers regardless of Melatonin, and I am often a fast riser, becoming alert pretty quickly. I attribute this to my obviously shallow sleep patterns. Nevertheless, Melatonin only magnifies the sensation of waking up refreshed and buzzing, as it were. It is kind of like a delayed caffeine hit in that regard actually.
What specifically does Melatonin do to me which would affect such an effect? I can tell quite directly that I believe it has a positive effect on the second form of my insomnia. I believe I wake up fewer times during the night, and if I do wake up, I believe I don't fully wake up and I manage to fall back asleep more quickly. However, I can state with just as much assuredness that it has almost no measurable impact on the first form of my insomnia whatsoever. With Melatonin, it can still take me two solid hours to fall asleep, and this includes my other trick of going to bed fairly late.
Is Melatonin a complete boon? Nope. If it was I'd be taking it every night. Instead, I rarely see the point. I find the effects to be very subtle. While it is nice to feel good in the morning, I am generally at the same level of fatigue and/or alertness after a few hours, regardless of Melatonin. The refreshing effects of Melatonin only impact on that period of the day which is the least productive anyway, that first hour, give or take, after I wake up. By nine in the morning I am pretty much in the same state of mind either way.
Where does this all leave me? Honestly, my insomnia doesn't bother me too much. It bothers my girlfriend a lot more actually, since my rolling and "tossing and turning" keeps her up, and what's worse, she really needs her eight hours of medically prescribed sleep or she's just a total wreck the next day. I feel terrible for her and make considerable efforts not to disturb her by coming to bed as late as possible and by trying not to move too much (which is excrutiating in the face of the physical discomfort I experience constantly). I love her, she's worth it.
My primary concern with respect to my insomnia is not that it may be effecting my daily productivity (for I am quite productive actually), but that there might be long term detrimental costs. I am something of a futurist, wide-eyed at the prospects of the wacky cool future I think the twenty-first century is going to deliver us into, and I am appalled at the prospect that my insomnia might be costing me an earlier-than-necessary death. Given the option of dying at two available future dates, I would always opt or the latter date, thank you very much. This is my single greatest concern actually, that I am seriously harming myself by getting such dreadful sleep.
... which only suggests that I should maximize my productivity now while I've got the chance.
I would really like to hear what people think of this. If you prefer private feedback, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, the following form and comment section is available.