Losing Sleep

The past few weeks, my insomnia has once again been rearing its ugly head. Not that it ever goes away, but sometimes it's fairly tolerable - one or two bad nights a week. (When I say "bad nights," I mean those nights where it takes me over an hour, and often several attempts, to go to sleep.) Recently, though, it's been almost every night.

I had this once before; back when I was in Albuquerque, when I was miserable overall and also insanely nervous about taking the GRE. The problem then wasn't so much that I couldn't fall asleep, but that I couldn't for the life of me stay asleep. I would go to sleep at midnight, only to be wide awake at 4 am. Three or four weeks of that, and I was about ready to go insane. But at least I was being productive. I'd wake up at 4 am and, unable to go back to sleep, would read assignments for class, or grade student papers, or something. It wasn't a good situation by any means, but at least I was keeping up with my work load.

Not so this time around. This time, I don't wake up early. I sleep as late as I can, but I cannot for the life of me get to sleep in the evenings. Even when I'm exhausted - two or three days of four-hour nights - I'll lie there and stare at the ceiling.

And think.

I figure if I could get my brain to turn off, I would be sound asleep already. But instead, there I am, not sleeping, and meanwhile, I'm remembering that in certain cases, insomnia can be fatal. There's a condition that actually causes you to stop being able to sleep, and after three or four months of this, you begin to go insane, and you gradually mentally and physically deteriorate until you die. It sounds slow, and painful, and scary... and I remind myself that actually, it's called fatal familial insomnia, yes, familial, meaning it's genetic, and that there are only a few families in the world who're recorded as having it, and both these families are medical curiosities, one being an old noble family in Italy whose members keep getting fatal familial insomnia at around age 60. No one in my family had fatal insomnia, and so the chances of my having it are basically nil.

So... what if I have lost the ability to sleep?

Before you laugh, let me tell you, at 3 am, awake for the third or fourth consecutive night, knowing that previous nights of good sleep have been largely due to the power of Ambien, that thought moves from ridiculous to frighteningly possible.

If you've never had insomnia, be grateful. If you have, imagine having it night after night, wondering if maybe, just maybe, your body has forgotten how to go to sleep. Sure, sleep probably is like riding a bicycle - once you've learned it, you don't forget. But if that's the case, why is that I can't seem to do it anymore? Maybe there's s some kind of mystic creature that brings sleep, maybe the Sandman does exist, and he's abandoned me entirely? Nothing seems ridiculous and everything seems possible when you've only gotten 12 hours of sleep in the last three or four days.

None of that, of course, helps me get to sleep.

I try to lie there and meditate, but it's hard. The One And Only snores, which makes it harder. And my mind drifts off, and remembers the things I was supposed to do today and didn't. Lately, it seems there's a lot of those things; possibly because I have a lot of things to do each day and so some naturally are left undone, and possibly because with this round of insomnia, there's no accompanying bout of productivity like there was in Albuquerque, unhealthy though it might have been. I have four different paid jobs and a couple unpaid commitments, and I feel like I'm not doing any one of them justice. My dissertation is languishing. I feel two steps behind in the classroom when I teach. I'm constantly playing catch-up with dozens of applications. Far too many books in the house are unread, and there's too many friends I haven't spoken to in weeks.

Maybe it's that I've gotten older, and the effects of insomnia are worse now. Maybe it's partly because I now have a fun bit of fibromyalgia to go along with the insomnia, which means distracting joint pain when I don't get enough sleep, which in turn makes sleeping more difficult. I don't know.

So I'm tempted to take some kind of sleep aid, Ambien or Sominex or whatnot. But see, then I also remember that recent studies have shown that people who take sleeping pills tend to die younger. All the studies showed was a statistical linkage; there's not necessarily a causal connection. (That is, it might be coincidence, or linked to something else entirely; there's nothing that shows that taking sleeping pills actually makes you die younger.) Still, it's enough to give you pause; who wants to die earlier than you have to? Plus, of course, you can't take sleep aids too often, or your body will get used to them and make the problem even worse, so there's a certain amount of suck-it-up-and-deal that's involved regardless.

I get up. I wander around. I clean, because they say that you shouldn't do anything that's fun, nor should you do something you really need to do, because either of those options would essentially be rewarding yourself for staying up, and you don't want to get into that habit. Sometimes I do things I need to do anyway, though, because I can't justify spending three hours cleaning the house while there's papers I need to grade. Or I'll write, like I'm doing right now.

No doubt the academic schedule hurts as much as it helps. I can sleep late some days, have to be up early on others, and there's little regularity in it if I don't impose it myself. And when I've only managed to get to sleep at 6 am, it's powerful hard to get myself out of bed by 10 just because I know a regular wake-up time would be good. Particularly since the fibromyalgia got tossed in the mix, it's hard to make myself go through a day of pain on the off chance I'll be able to get to sleep better that night. (And as the joint pain can make the sleeping more difficult, it's often a toss-up as far as effect.)

So, really, I don't know. I'm hoping it will magically change soon; maybe when I finish my chapter, my sleep will come back? In the interim, though, I'm going to keep reminding myself that fatal insomnia is genetic... whoops. Upon googling "fatal familial insomnia" to find a good page to link to, I discovered this: "Fatal familial insomnia is a genetic disease, due to a specific mutation in the PrPc gene. However, the disease can occur spontaneously, without a mutation. This form is called sporadic fatal insomnia." I certainly could have done without that particular bit of information.

I know, I know. I don't have fatal insomnia, sporadic or otherwise. I will eventually be able to get to sleep fairly normally. But it's one thing to know that rationally, and still another to face down the 3 am fear that somewhere, my body has lost the ability to sleep.


18. March 2004


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