How I overcame insomnia

GarfieldI used to love to sleep.

Way back in time, when I was living in the U.S., I remember as a late teenager, turning the ceiling fan on full blast, plus some form of air conditioning. Curling up in a fetal position, shivering, was my favorite sleep inducer. No better sleep!

When I started working as cabin crew for Continental Airlines in early 2005, that all changed. I was hired to speak French on medium haul flights. But, because of the bidding and open-access system the company offered, I often grabbed long haul flights to wherever. Jet lag galore. In addition, I was a bit of a workaholic or, shall I say, flyaholic. I worked my trips back-to-back, so that I could have more days off in a row. But, when I was off, I would catch up on sleep the first two days, then would be awake for days as I had no regular commitments during the day or at night. Insomnia.

I came to England in Spring 2011 to undertake doctoral studies. I had the bright idea to follow my cabin crew colleagues’ lead. Here in England (probably the case for much of Europe), doctoral courses have no course load; it’s basically an independent study curriculum. Because I had free time, especially on weekends, I decided that, like many of my colleagues, I would keep the cabin crew job for a while longer, and just commute from Brighton to New York City, where I was based with Continental. So, I conducted research for my dissertation (it’s called a ‘thesis’ outside of the U.S. Yes, confusing, I know.) during the week. Every Friday morning at 5am, I took a two hour bus ride up to London Heathrow Airport, to catch a flight on standby on Continental to fly to New York City, arriving there at noon, local time. Then, between 5 and 8pm, I flew as a working crew member back to Europe. No; Continental did not have a Europe base, which would have been ideal. I did this every week for almost a year. And it killed me. All sorts of health issues ensued. But the one most pertinent to this discussion, was chronic insomnia.

No need to continue torturing myself, I figured. So, I resigned from the company (they were also harassing me about my health!). But because our program has no course work, and that first year, I had no other regular commitments during the day, the insomnia lingered. Tylenol PM and Nyquil were my best friends. My right-hand men. Except that once I stopped flying, I had to figure out British healthcare. One day, I went to my general practitioner (through whom everything is done, medically, in the U.K.) at the NHS clinic on Queen’s Road in Brighton, and he told me matter-of-factly: “I am not giving you sleep tablets.” Impossible to get help for insomnia in this country! Yoga? Tried that. Counting train cars with my eyes closed? Tried that. Eating cherries throughout the day? Tried that, too. Boiling a banana in water or drinking chamomile? Un, huhn. My insomnia had crossed the threshold of repairability.  This summer, it was particularly acute. Only pharmacy sleep aids offered relief. I was not addicted to the pill-popping. But I was addicted to feeling human again, after a good night’s sleep.

September rolled around and instead of teaching this year, I ended up offering support work to seven or eight students. That meant that Monday through Friday, everyday, from 8am to 5pm, I had to be on campus offering services for that honorable cause. The first week of school was … rough, to put it lightly. The week before, and leading into that week, I had been awake for days and days. I had thesis deadlines, a dictionary deadline, all kinds of commitments. And I was going broke buying sleep aids. By week two, I no longer needed the sleep aids. As I worked during the day, everyday, I naturally fell asleep at night. My mind still was waiting for a chemical change inducing the sleep, so I sometimes was unaware of when my body/mind wanted to sleep, or could sleep. But overall, my insomnia nightmares were on the wane.

And that was it! In my case, I experience insomnia when I sleep during the day and am awake at night, or have no commitments during the day. Working everyday during the day did the trick. And doing some work during the day, waking up early in the morning, no matter what, has been a complete lifesaver, for me.

According to one website, more than 30% of US residents suffer from insomnia, and approximately 10 million US residents use prescription sleep aids. Some 40-60% of retirees are particularly vulnerable. And in that, I can clearly see why.

Key: stay busy during the day. Volunteer, get a part-time job. Do gardening, sports, or some other hobby. But do that during the day everyday. And you will, very likely sleep at night.

One thought on “How I overcame insomnia

  1. This is excellent, have had friends who had this problem, but it was solved by not sleeping during the day. Even at my age, the majority of my friends say they take naps, **because they do not sleep well at night. I never take naps and sleep very well, wake early (abt 5:30am), rested and ready for the day. I don’t need a nap. Glad you solved your problems. Set sleep patterns are best for your body, especially as you age.

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