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.

One hour.

One hour.

One hour.


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.

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One Comment

  • Elise commented on June 30, 2014 Reply

    Hi Melissa, I had nearly exactly the same experience with insomnia a couple of years ago (in the final year of my undergraduate degree). Seeing a psychologist really helped – I had a few free sessions with the uni counsellor and she taught me how to think through my anxiety. My worry was fuelling my insomnia, which then made me worry more because I wasn’t sleeping!

    It wasn’t a quick fix but eventually my sleeping pattern improved and my anxiety lessened! I still have the occasional bad night, particularly during periods of stress, but I’m generally getting 6-8 hours of sleep per night instead of 3-4 like I was for a few months. Hope you’re doing better 🙂

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