Melissa Wellham still doesn’t sleep much, but now it’s because she’s always writing. You can follow her on twitter at @melissawellham.
I’m sitting in the GP’s office, and explaining to the doctor how I can’t sleep. I tell her that it’s affecting my work, affecting my friendships, affecting me.
I like her. She’s a she (obviously) and I’ve always been more comfortable with female doctors. She’s young and pretty, and that probably shouldn’t matter – but I’m sure it makes me like her more. She’s very calm and competent. She is exactly as calm and competent as I wish could be.
The doctor is compassionate and patient as she listens to me ramble on, nodding her head.
I think: she gets it. She can help.
“So, I was just wondering if there was something you could give me to help me sleep a bit better?”
And instead of giving me something to help me sleep a bit better, she explains exactly why she can’t do that. Doctors don’t like to prescribe sleeping pills when they can help it. People can become dependent on them.
But have I tried going to bed at the same time each night? Have I tried taking a herbal supplement? Have I tried having a glass of warm milk before bed?
The disappointment is like being suckerpunched.
As she’s talking I can feel my stomach twisting, my throat closing. I’m about to start crying. I want to get out of there as quickly as possible.
I nod along with her suggestions. Yes, I’ve tried that. But you know what, I’ll give it another go. Yes, maybe it will work if I just keep trying.
I stand up, pulling my backpack onto my shoulders. Yes, thanks. Yeah, that sounds good.
“Unless,” she says, stopping me suddenly. “Is there something else? Have you been under a lot of pressure recently?”
I’m not sure if she can see that I’m about to have a breakdown right there in her office; or if she’s asking, just in case. I’ve become pretty good at keeping it together.
I think: yes. Yes. Yes. Just tell her.
But instead I say: “Oh, no, you know, I’m always stressed, ha. Nothing more than usual.”
I leave the office. I can’t even say ‘thank you’ to the receptionist as I pay for the advice I’ve just received (glass of warm milk. Gee. Thanks), because I know that opening my mouth again will be my undoing. And as soon as I step into the elevator out of the office, and the doors slide shut, I burst into tears.
I wake up at 4.30am, and I want to cry. Again. As always.
I want to cry because I’ve only been asleep for three hours, and because a variation of this situation has been repeated on countless consecutive nights.
The time I finally fall asleep changes – I’m not even sure what time that is, most nights. The time I wake up changes – sometimes earlier, sometimes later. But the time in-between stays painfully small. Three hours. Two hours. One hour.
I want to cry because I am too exhausted to move, and the mere idea of dragging my body out of bed seems impossible. I want to cry because I know that getting my brain to switch off is just as unlikely.
I can’t move, but I’m so tired I can’t even open my eyes. Each of my limbs might as well be made of lead; but my internal organs run riot. My stomach churns, my heart thrums, my head races.
I want to cry, because when I wake up I feel physically sick. I am awake against my will, and knowing that I will have to face the day – interact with people, listen to what my boss says, walk from point A to point B – is nauseating. Those simple tasks feel Herculean.
I just want to sleep. So I lie in bed for another few hours, painfully awake, and miss my 9am lecture.
Probably the one after that, too.
I was never diagnosed as an insomniac – and wouldn’t know how to go about getting a doctor to declare me as such – so for the sake of this piece let’s just say I suffered from ‘sleeplessness’.
Insomnia is an illness, and for those who actually have acute or chronic insomnia, I imagine it’s incredibly frustrating when others stay up watching House of Cards until 2am and then complain about their ‘insomnia’ the next day.
That’s something I would certainly have been guilty of in the past. It’s something I’m probably guilty of still.
My ‘sleeplessness’ was a sliding scale. I was always someone who stayed up late, and slept in. During times of stress – peak assessment periods at university, after breaking up with boyfriends, during fights with friends – I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, and would sleep in the next morning.
I would be kept up by own whirring, over-analysing, extremely infuriating brain – but I was still sleeping, often through things I was supposed to be doing the next morning.
And then, my sliding scale of sleeplessness slid dramatically, and threw my whole life out of balance.
Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep at night – but I also couldn’t sleep in. I would wake up in the (early hours of) the morning, without an alarm. Even when I did sleep it was restless and disturbed.
Three hours. Two hours. One hour.
Days of being unable to sleep turned into weeks, which turned into months. I went from being anxious and irritable, to feeling like I was on the verge of tears all the time.
What I find most bizarre is that, looking back at that time, my strongest memories – or rather, my strongest senses – are just of how hard everything was. Every day felt like moving through molasses, slow and painful. I was detached from situations even as I was in them, and people even as I was talking to them. I hated the effort it took to talk, to smile, to pay attention. To be pleasant.
I just wanted to sleep. I was starving for sleep.
At some point I managed to graduate from my undergraduate degree. I managed to get a full time job. Both of these occurrences seem like miracles, in retrospect. For six months, or longer – it was, as I said, a sliding scale – I lay awake at nights, and sleepwalked through my days.
Some of those days were better than others. Some weeks were better. But it also got progressively worse.
Some days I doze at my desk at work. I call in sick because I can’t keep it together. I start making myself actually sick.
I always thought ‘worried sick’ was a cop out, but I suddenly get it. I have bacterial infections I can’t beat, and I’m put on antibiotics for months on end.
It should be pretty obvious that when the doctor asked me, “Is there something else,” the answer was yes.
And I should have said yes.
I should also clarify that I understand, logically, why doctors can’t just go around handing out sleeping pill prescriptions. And it’s probably a good thing that she didn’t hand me one. But the bitterness I felt in that moment, still stings now.
I walked into the doctor’s room that day so certain that I was about to get a quick fix.
Instead I ended up crying in an elevator; which wasn’t all that unusual an occurrence by that point.
A few hours after that doctor’s visit I was complaining to a friend about the advice I had received (I know I’m belaboring the point now, but: a glass of warm milk? Was she fucking kidding?) and my friend told me, “You just need to work through whatever shit you’re going through.”
She was right, of course.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and I didn’t sleep well for the next few weeks. Or for the next few months.
But at some point I started sleeping more than three hours a night, on some nights. Then I started sleeping more than three hours a night, on all nights.
Three hours. Four hours. Five hours. The scale started sliding back in the right direction.
Now when I wake up at 4.30am, I can usually get back to sleep.
And I try not to use the word ‘insomnia’ when I’ve stayed up until 2am watching House of Cards.