Why can’t you just let me sleep?

I sigh and look dejectedly at my bed, swallowing the trepidation that threatens to escape from its poorly built cage. Please, let tonight be a good night. I slip out of my clothes and put on my pyjama top, feeling the soft cotton caress my skin as it falls into place. I lift the corner of my blanket to reveal the welcoming mattress underneath and climb straight in, listening to the soft crinkling of millions of woven fibres as they envelop me in the safest of hugs. I wriggle my legs into a comfortable position under the covers, my heels scratching the sheets as they slide around aimlessly, searching for a comfortable position. My head sinks into the pillow, I close my eyes and I wait. And wait.

And wait.

But my eyes are awake despite being shut, and my mind begins to fret. I roll over to lie onto my left side, hoping a change of position might bring sweet relief. I am wrong. Because through my chest wall I can feel every beat of my nervous heart as it pounds against the bed. One. Two. Three. The breaks in between become shorter and shorter, and suddenly it feels like my lungs have fallen asleep without me. I exhale sharply so I can draw a deep breath in, hoping the fresh air can quell this sense of doom. One. Two. Three. I can hear it run, galloping away with my precious time of rest. I lift my head to look at the alarm clock. T-minus six hours the red letters say, laughing at me as my head groans back down, into that oval-shaped pit in the pillow that is becoming too warm. I roll over onto my right side to escape my racing heart, hugging my other pillow and hoping its firm embrace will soothe my jittery soul. I give it a tight squeeze between my arms and curled up legs and before letting go, feeling my muscles relax and lose their tension. And I wait.

And yet nothing happens. Heat begins to crawl up my neck and face as fear takes hold, what if I don’t sleep at all? It creeps all over my body and suddenly everything feels hot as if an over-fuelled furnace is desperately trying to burn its way out. I am forced to rip open the cocoon of covers I have created, the cold winter air lapping up the sweat that has started to build. Before I start shivering I wrap myself up once more, and then continue to wait.

***

I never had any issues with sleep as a child, put me in a dark, quiet room and you wouldn’t hear from me until morning. I apparently slept so well as an infant my parents thought I was a miracle from above. Sure, I’ve never been the type of person to be able to fall asleep anywhere, but I didn’t know what it felt like to be stressed about sleep until two years ago. It was the first clinical year of my medical degree, where we shrugged off the musty scent of lecture halls and were released into hospitals to complete the rest of our education. Everything was new, and suddenly there were assessments to be done in front of doctors and too many good impressions to be made. But I believed I was doing well. I mean, new experiences are always a little daunting but I was getting good feedback so I thought everything was just peachy. I guess my subconscious disagreed.

The strange thing is, I never felt anxious during the day. Yeah, I’d be extremely nervous before assessments and it’s never not awkward being the intrusive medical student inserting themselves everywhere, but I’ve been an anxious perfectionist my entire life and it had never previously caused any troubles. So it was concerning and unexpected when the sleepless nights started. Initially, it would be just a single night, followed by a replenishing, uninterrupted sleep the day after that would pacify my fears of a new insomnia diagnosis. But then it was two nights in a row, and I think at its peak I’d lie awake for three or four nights pleading for unconsciousness to take hold. It would eventually grant me my wish after several hours of internal screaming, releasing me from the blinding sense of sheer panic at how little time I had left. I tried meditation, getting up for a walk, going to the toilet, but nothing seemed to help so I resigned myself to this treacherous cycle of sleep deprivation and catch-up naps.

However, despite the fact I was falling asleep at one or two in the morning and having to get up less than five hours later, it was never severe or occurred frequently enough to affect me significantly. I might walk into the hospital the next day with some bloodshot eyes and an excuse to whinge for attention, but I kept up with all of my commitments and never felt as if it was taking a toll on my mind and body. In fact, the first day after a bad sleep I’d be energetic and alert, the effects of adrenaline giving me a high that would carry me through. I’d even think, maybe this could be a good thing because let’s be honest sleep deprivation is an inevitability of the medical profession and we might as well just get used it. I was wary of the crash that threatened this sense of invincibility, but it didn’t always happen and I persevered through several months of occasional insomnia. It didn’t take long to realise the worst part of not sleeping is not the effects of being tired the day after, but the gut-wrenchingly irrational anxiety and fear you have lying in the dark worrying you might never sleep again. That it might be the last time for a long time you would dream. And the harder you try to will yourself asleep, the harder it becomes to do so. It was a difficult few months.

I kept reminding myself there was nothing to be anxious about and for the most part I understood that, but sometimes the minority can just have a much louder voice, you know? And for me that 10% of doubt only seemed to speak up at night. The dark seemed to encourage my suppressed fears to manifest themselves, whispering to my subconscious and luring them out. Sometimes when I woke up in the morning I’d feel short of breath, as if sleep had carried away my will to breathe in the middle of the night and I had just broken through the surface of deep waters. I’d need to take deep breaths during breakfast, my lips tingling from hyperventilating (a sign of anxiety) and my brain frantically trying to calm itself. But it’d completely disappear by the time I arrived at the hospital, as if my anxiety knew it would be a hindrance to more important business and would considerately go home to wait for me in my bed.

So how did I overcome it? I don’t think I did, because it continues to happen to me occasionally the night before big exams or assessments. But towards the end of that year it subsided, mainly because I started to give less of a f*** about the little things I used to be pedantically worried about. I remember an intern telling me he was so stressed about everything during his degree it eventually became too much and he stopped caring. And it was the best thing that happened to him. I think I may have gone through the same process without even knowing it. That’s not to say I no longer care about anything and have become an emotionless robot, but I realised certain things were unimportant in the long scheme of things. Small tests that were worth 1% no longer mattered much, and whilst I continued to put (perhaps a little too much) effort into them it didn’t bother me greatly if I did mediocrely. So yeah, I guess it’s been a while since the ugly monster has reared its head and quite frankly I’m thankful. I no longer look at my bed with fear and instead climb in happily without a care in the world. The only times I’ve had trouble sleeping in the past year have been around the time of exams, or if I’m sleeping in an unfamiliar environment and there are loud noises (cough cough Mr. Snores-a-lot). I do wonder whether it’ll come back in the future when I have other responsibilities, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, sweet dreams everyone.


33 thoughts on “Why can’t you just let me sleep?

  1. That was a beautifully descriptive piece Dr. Helen. I have never heard insomnia explained in such an incredibly creative fashion. Really nice piece. I am grateful that you have found a balance that is allowing you to sleep more peacefully. You describe that feeling of watching the clock and fearing you will get no sleep so well. I don’t know how Doctors ever find a balance but so happy you have. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words with us. Also you have been kind to respond to my comments in the past but please don’t feel like it is necessary. You are good enough to share your thoughts which I am guessing helps so many other people in professions like yours with such incredible stress. I don’t want to add to your stress. Just know your appreciated and your humanity is a blessing. Love and happy dream wishes coming your way. Love 💕 Joni

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Joni, I always look forward to and appreciate your words. Thank you so much for being so supportive and it is always a joy to find your words of wisdom. You do just as much, if not more than doctors, in terms of helping others and there are so many professions that have a huge impact on people’s lives ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, sweet dreams.

    Ever since I contracted heart disease (or however one takes on heart disease), my sleep patterns have no pattern. Which is ironic since everyone advises good sleep for feeling better. Compounded with something formal to wake up to and the night becomes long and sleepless. Ready to sleep only moments before I’m supposed to rise.

    You have exigent reasons, of course. Letting go the smaller things is good advice, thanks. And maybe sometimes we’re simply not going to sleep. Sigh.

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    1. I am sorry you have trouble sleeping, I hope you find something to help you achieve more restful sleep. And I agree, sometimes we just have to resign ourselves to not sleeping, and hope the next day will be better.

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  3. I can relate to your post very well. Istarted having insomnia after my child was born, I think the anxiety of worry about them kept me on alert at night. Now I take a long time falling asleep, sometimes I feel like I’ve just been thinking all night with my eyes closed. I used to sleep long hrs, 10 hrs! when I was in my twenties, I was like a kid sleep wise and I had very lucid dreams that were beautiful. Now I can hardly remember any dreams. Anxiety is awful for sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As senior citizens, my husband and I take steps to ward off insomnia (such as no electronics after a certain hour). But yours came from a different source. I’ll have to try the not giving a sh** tactic if/when insomnia hits again!

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  5. “The dark seemed to encourage my suppressed fears to manifest themselves, whispering to my subconscious and luring them out.”

    Beautifully written. I’ve experienced less severe versions of what you’ve described and I can only imagine the difficulty. Happy to hear you’ve found your way through it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful writing.
    I found you from another blog, as often happens, a Like.
    You write in such detail. Those pj tops. What happened to your bottoms. The sensuous sheets. The pillow hugged by your thighs…
    I hate going to bed. I hate to sleep. My body demands it. Yet there is sex to help.
    And Doxepin 10mg…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I, too, can relate. Exam stress in law school meant many all-nighters and lack of sleep in general.
    After graduation, most of the insomnia went away, but was replaced by frequent dreams (nightmares?) of showing up too late to an important exam, or forgetting a crucial text for an open-book exam, etc. Took about a decade for those dreams to finally release their grip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh man dreams like would be stressful! I thankfully have not had many like yours, my dreams and nightmares tend to be bizzare and beyond the realms of reality. I’m glad they’re not annoying you anymore!

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  8. I get this. A newly qualified nurse whose anxiety and stresses about the job combined with a zillion other things (functional alcoholism) led to a suicide attempt. In treatment and I just can’t sleep either.. washing machine head!

    A beautifully written piece.. good luck with your future x

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to create a really good article… but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

    Liked by 1 person

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