My Insomnia Means I’m Afraid To Go To Bed

Insomnia isn’t just about ‘feeling tired’. It chips away at everything: your ability to be present, your concentration, even your enjoyment of time with the people you love, writes Celia Jones
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When sleeplessness first struck at 15, I put it down to two teenage staples: my diet of Pro Plus and excessive Tesco own-brand Red Bull, and staying up late on MSN (group name: ‘lates mates’). We wore our eye bags like badges of honour to school each day.

My diet has since changed for the better and MSN has long since disappeared but my ability to sleep has never improved. No matter what I try, insomnia has now loomed over half my life. I’m 28 now and, frankly, I’m tired of it.

During bad patches – which strike indiscriminately, regardless of how I’m feeling or what’s going on in my life – I’m afraid to go to bed, because I know what awaits: muffled sobs into my pillow, heart palpitations, and, if I close my eyes, a kaleidoscope of catastrophes that almost certainly won’t happen the next day. These nighttime anxieties start with the semi-rational fear I’ll sleep through my commute and wake up at the end of the Thameslink in Luton but quickly veer into the absurd and morbid, spurred on by the never-ending stream of scientific discoveries linking lack of sleep with health concerns. It’s hard to think clearly at 4am.

“I’ve found the key to surviving work without rest is telling myself I’ve done it before and lived to tell the tale. Also, a lot of coffee.”

Misery loves company but insomnia tends to make its sufferers feel isolated. It affects up to one in three people in the UK, and yet when I’m unable to sleep it’s easy to feel like I’m the only person unable to perform this basic human function. This isn’t helped by my boyfriend’s amazing ability to drift off in seconds. Lying next to him while he dozes makes me feel both helpless and useless. I often turn to a book (good), or my phone (bad, very bad), but I’ve got the whole array of night owl merch: teas, medication, meditation apps, even a metronomic sleep lamp that projects calming blue light. Using a combination of the above, I (eventually) either nod off or track the movement of time until the new day.

Regardless of how little I’ve slept and how dreadful I feel, I pride myself in always turning up to work – I try to not allow insomnia to define my day. During particularly intense spells, it fundamentally affects my ability to do or enjoy anything, in or out of the office. I’m fortunate to have an employer that encourages conversations around mental health and allows me to speak about how I’m feeling – and lets me leave on time to try my latest sleep-inducing endeavour (recently: Tibetan singing bowls placed on my back, or long runs until I feel exhausted). I’ve found the key to surviving work without rest is telling myself I’ve done it before and lived to tell the tale. Also, a lot of coffee.

ITV news anchor Tom Bradby has been open about his terrible battle with insomnia, where he felt like a “zombie” and had to take five months off work. He recently called for the government and NHS to provide treatment for insomnia and other mental health conditions with the same “seriousness” as cancer. He’s absolutely right in that tiredness really does test the elastic limits of your sanity (see: me taking pictures of the back of my head when I was convinced my scalp was slithering off after an ill-timed 3am sleeping pill.)

Tom’s honesty about his insomnia crisis shows how the condition isn’t just about ‘feeling tired’. Insomnia chips away at everything: your ability to be fully present, your concentration, your enjoyment of relationships and time with the people you love. You feel like you are no longer truly yourself, and most frustratingly, there’s the gnawing sense that everything is as simple (if only) as a good night’s sleep.

Bradby’s sudden onset sounds far more traumatic than my sleep problems, which have been with me for 14 years – and have even been known to disappear for glorious extended periods. In these months, I feel so much better in myself, like the lights are fully switched on and I’m less numb to the world – and I feel guilty for ever complaining. But then, just when I start to rest on my well-rested laurels, it returns. The first few nights of a new bout feel especially upsetting as I can remember exactly what I’m missing. Hello darkness, my old friend.

“Insomnia aside, I know I’m fortunate with my health, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that.”

However, I must say there’s a small handful of surprising positives I’ve found from my condition. I’m able to tear through books because I have so many more hours in a day. My ability to (just about passably) function on no sleep is, apparently, excellent training should I ever have children. I’m also a great person to get a reaction out of if you ever want someone to join you in rage, tears, or even just mildly hysterical laughter – I once wept at the gesture of an elderly man pulling out a chair for his dining partner at a restaurant.

Insomnia aside, I know I’m fortunate with my health, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. My mum is recovering from ovarian cancer, which puts my sleep gripes into vital perspective. I’m continuing to plough through new treatments, including gong baths, CBD oil, and intense non-fiction, and one day, I hope one of the so-called cures, or pills, or thought patterns will help me sleep well. Until then, I’ll try anything.

Celia Jones is a writer and PR manager. Follow her on Twitter at @celia_e_jones

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