Suffering from insomnia is no joke. It’s soul destroying and exhausting and makes the sufferer feel like the walking dead.
I should know, I’ve suffered with it for years.
Fortunately for me it is intermittent – I can go months without a sleepless night and then suddenly Bham – it hits me like a lightning bolt.
These episodes can last up to two weeks. Some nights I might get one or two hours of broken sleep, and others I won’t even close my eyes.
I live near an old church which chimes on the hour every hour, and on those nights I can literally count the hours down until I can get up and get on with my day.
So what do you think of when you hear the word ‘insomnia’?
I would hazard a guess that most people’s thought would be that it is the inability to go to sleep.
In part that is true, of course. But insomnia is so much more than that; insomnia is also falling asleep but waking up often, waking too early, or waking and being unable to go back to sleep.
And its effects are far reaching.
According to the Mayo Clinic, complications of insomnia can include:
- Lower performance, both at school and at work.
- Overweight or obesity
- Increased risk of long term serious health complications, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Substance abuse
I would add to that list that quality of home life can be severely affected. I know myself that when I am going through a bout of insomnia, I am short tempered with my family, I rely on ready meals as I am too listless to cook, and even the simplest of tasks seems too taxing, so things like general housework get forgotten. All of these then have a knock-on effect – family fall-outs create an atmosphere, eating processed foods makes me feel sluggish, and as the housework piles up I start to feel anxious, as if it is all getting on top of me.
As you can see, insomnia is more than ‘just’ not sleeping.
So, how can you help a person who is suffering with insomnia?
Firstly, if you live with an insomniac, it is important that you show that you understand how debilitating it can be.
Don’t dismiss it out of hand – this will only make the sufferer feel worse. While there is not much you can do to make sleep come easily, there is a lot you can do to help that person feel a little less alone and a lot less like they are going crazy.
Go through the motions with them
Of course, I am not suggesting that you try and stay awake to keep them company – the only thing worse than having one sleep deprived person in the family is having two!.
Instead, help them to establish a healthy sleeping routine. A familiar phrase to most of us to whom sleep doesn’t come naturally is ‘sleep hygiene’, which has nothing to do with cleanliness, by the way.
- Keeping the bedroom for sleep only
- Taking exercise in the morning or early afternoon
- Eating earlier in the evening
- No caffeine in the evening
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
- No alcohol at night
- Having fresh air in the bedroom
- Block out light coming in
To someone who has no trouble sleeping, this may seem like a big drag, but insomnia can be socially isolating so having someone who understands and is willing to do what it takes with you can be a great help and takes away the feeling that you’re the only person in the world who can’t sleep.
Small things like not making tea or coffee at night – opt instead for a milky drink. And not indulging in a glass of wine or two after dinner is a big help too.
If you’re the cook in the family, try having dinner ready earlier.
Don’t stay up late – try going to bed at the same time as the sufferer, and don’t lie in in the morning.
In short, try and encourage the sleep hygiene rules by doing them yourself.
Be optimistic for them
In the throes of sleeplessness it is easy to believe that it will be like that forever. Remind them that it will pass – and that many people suffer the same thing and come out the other side.
Be the voice of reason
It takes a saint to be level headed and nice when you haven’t slept for what seems like forever, and as hard as it is, it will help them enormously if you can be patient and calm.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should bear the brunt of anyone’s bad behaviour, but when your loved one is being short tempered and argumentative, try and take a step back and don’t rise to it. Instead, tell them that you know they’re tired, and that you will make allowances for that, but that you don’t deserve to be their verbal punch bag. Be rational, and if it looks like the argument is going to continue, tell them you’ll continue the conversation when they have calmed down, and walk away. Engaging in a row will just add fuel to the fire.
Throw money at the problem
Not literally, obviously, but sometimes sleeplessness can be combatted by something as simple as a new mattress. Nothing can interfere with sleep as much as being uncomfortable in bed, and if your mattress has seen better days invest in a new one. It will benefit both of you.
That got your attention, didn’t it?
But of course I don’t mean that literally, at least not in divorce terms.
What I mean is, sometimes, it might help the situation to sleep in separate beds, at least for a while. If your partner suggests this, don’t feel hurt or rejected – even suggest it yourself.
When someone has gone days without sleep, it is the only thing on their mind, and they will do literally anything to claw back some shut-eye. It could be that they want to suggest it to you, but are afraid that you will take it the wrong way, and if that’s the case you suggesting it will go a long way to them feeling that you understand. And of course it will benefit both of you.
I have spent many sleepless nights lying still for fear of waking my sleeping partner, when all I wanted to do was try other sleeping positions to see if anything would help.
So, what shouldn’t I do?
Insomniacs are likely to have tried everything already, especially if the problem is chronic.
Here are a few things not to say:
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” If they knew the answer to this they would have fixed it.
“Have you tried sleeping pills/lavender/counting sheep?” Believe me, when you can’t sleep you have already tried them all, and then some.
“Just stop thinking when you go to bed” Honestly? Have YOU ever tried not thinking?
“Well (insert anything here) always works for me.” It doesn’t work for them, trust me, they’ve tried.
“You’ve got to try and sleep.” This will likely earn you, at the very least, ‘the look’, and probably a tirade of expletives born out of frustration. They’ve tried, they really have.
While there is nothing you can do to take away the sleep deprivation, you can make an enormous difference to the way an insomniac feels about themselves, about life, and about the world in general. It goes way beyond tiredness – it’s an all-consuming condition that affects every part of a sufferer’s life.
Sleep is as vital to humans as food and water, and going without comes at a high price. But with time, and understanding, and most importantly empathy, you can make the life of a sleep deprived loved one that bit more bearable.