I am one of the roughly 70 million North Americans who suffer from insomnia. Not bad sleeps or broken sleeps or light sleeps – insomnia. There is no grey area with this condition, and let me tell you something: It sucks big rhino horn.
Recently, I overcame my latest bout of what the dictionary defines as “habitual sleeplessness; inability to sleep.” In truth, it is so much more – and worse than that.
Per an NPR article:
Scientists know relatively little about how chronic sleeplessness works or why it disproportionately affects women and people over the age of 65. Roughly 60 million Americans are affected by the sleep disorder each year, and scientists disagree on the best ways to treat it.
In Stephen King’s novel Insomnia, he has one of his characters experience insomnia, and per a Wiki summary, this is part of what it had to say:
As his insomnia develops, Ralph begins to see things that are invisible and intangible to others: colorful manifestations of life-force surrounding people (auras), and diminutive white-coated beings he calls “little bald doctors”, based on their appearance, and gradually comes to believe these are genuinely present on a different level of reality
Good for Mr. King on getting this right. Not sure if he suffers from insomnia (wouldn’t surprise me…how else do you write 20 books a year?), but he’s captured one important element which I’ll return to shortly.
For those lucky enough not to suffer from insomnia, I have gone through it so many times that I can pretty much give you a day-by-day breakdown should you ever fall prey to its viciousness.
After one night of sleeplessness (24 hrs.), you may feel groggy or even energized. Weird how that works.
After a second night (48 hrs.), you can most certainly function at a relatively high level, especially with lots of coffee.
After the third night (72 hrs.), this is where things start to get dicey. My advice is if you reach the 72-hour mark, see your GP at once and talk about proper sleep aids. In my experience, every OTC sleep aid is a piece of crap. This is where you ask your doctor for zopiclone, a non-benzo sleep aid that works magic. (From what I’ve been told, zopiclone is safe to use without fear of addiction for up to 20 days, but my GP never gives me more than a week’s worth.)
By that 72-hour mark, you might begin to hear voices and sounds and music playing randomly in your head at all times of day and night, especially when you try to sleep.
If you reach the fourth night without sleep (96 hrs.) this is where things begin to get dangerous. Like Stephen King’s character above, you will likely see auras, apparitions and perhaps even ghosts. You will startle easily; loud, sudden noises will send a jolt of electricity through you. Your eyes may start swelling and you’ll have trouble focusing.
The U.S. Army defines 96 hours as the breaking point for sleep deprivation torture (coupled with loud music and flood lights of course), but even without the lights and music it’s torture. The first time I hit the 96-hour mark I found myself talking out loud a lot, both in public and when I was by myself. If it sounds frightening that’s because it is.
Now, up until this last bout, I’d only reached 96 hours, but last week I hit 125 hours and discovered something I’d never experienced: my body actually began to fall apart by that fifth night. My sense of balance was screwed up, I lost the ability to walk more than a few feet, and my whole upper body felt like it was shutting down.
That’s when I went straight to my GP without passing Go, got some zopiclone, and started sleeping that same night. Like I said, if you hit the 48-hour mark, be safe and proactive and get in to see your family doctor ASAP. I was an idiot this last time around and paid the price; even with the zopiclone, it took me three days of sleep to begin readjusting once again. Never again, says I.
During my first rodeo with insomnia, I got scared because I knew nothing about the condition and so headed straight to a hospital ER. Bad idea. You’ll have a psych team evaluate you for hours as they try and decide whether you have mental health problems or are simply suffering from insomnia.
To repeat, see your family doctor ASAP, before you hit the 72-hour mark, and let them guide you through this scary process in a safe, practical way.
On that note, happy sleeping!