It usually happens slowly. Like the corner of a shade being lifted in a blackened room, letting in a sliver of light, thoughts about what I need to get done and my children away at college creep into the edge of my sleeping brain. I can feel them as little shards of light poking at me to wake up. I try to ignore them, so I can be left asleep in the darkness. But I inevitably lose the battle and open my eyes. Insomnia has struck again.
I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night. I have a vague memory of it happening a few months ago, but that might be a daydream or wishful thinking. The sad truth is that I haven’t consistently slept for more than a few hours at a time for more than a decade.
When I was younger, I was a good sleeper. I could easily sleep nine hours at a stretch, and I have memories (before I had children, of course) of sleeping in on weekends until 9 or even 10 a.m. But ever since I entered my 40s, a good night’s sleep has become more difficult. Ironically, that was about the same time my son reached the age where he regularly slept through the night.
Falling asleep is never the problem. Before my son went away to college last fall, we had a nightly ritual of watching a movie together. If we started too late — and by late, I mean 7 p.m. — I’d always fall asleep before the end and wake up to my son saying, “Mom, are you asleep?” I’d rouse myself long enough to say, “No, I’m awake, I was just resting my eyes,” before I’d once again hear my exasperated son asking me if I was asleep.
Eventually, I’d give up and stumble upstairs to bed. But by the time I brushed my teeth and changed into my nightgown, I was wide awake again. So I’d read or watch TV in bed, waiting for my eyes to droop.
And then the cycle would repeat itself. I’d fall asleep, only to be awoken somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m.
For years, my routine was to go to sleep around 10 or 11, wake up around 2 in the morning and watch “Law & Order” until I fell asleep again around 4. Then I got up at 6:30 (or even earlier) to start the day. I’m a morning person by nature, so I was usually fine until after noon, when I would start to drag. I used to have a big cup of coffee and give in to sweet cravings (which are common for insomniacs) around 4 p.m., but that would just make my blood sugar spike and then fall, at which point, I’d need a nap. I used to tell my teenage children to wake me up after 20 minutes because I knew that sleeping for longer than that would just make my insomnia worse, but they usually had to come back numerous times before I’d finally wake up. I often slept for an hour or more and woke up in time to start cooking dinner.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I’d curl up with a book on the sofa under our picture window, knowing I’d fall asleep after only a few pages. Those naps were so delicious and so desperately needed, I never set an alarm or asked to be woken up, and sometimes I’d sleep for hours.
About 10 years ago, I found out that I have sleep apnea, which means I stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night. At the time I was diagnosed, my doctor told me it was a mild case and I didn’t need treatment. I wish I’d known at the time that sleep apnea can get worse after menopause and can lead to all sorts of health risks, like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
When I became an empty-nester this past fall, I decided to focus on my health. As the editor of HealthyWomen, I’ve learned a lot about the dangers of both sleep apnea and insomnia, and I was determined to get them under control. I stopped drinking caffeine after 12 noon and switched from sugary afternoon treats to high-protein snacks, such as peanuts. I also stopped taking naps, even on the weekends, and I’m actively working with my HCP to manage my insomnia.
In the meantime, I’m also trying to break my habit of immediately turning on the television when I wake in the middle of the night. I’ve learned that I may have contributed to my insomnia by training my brain to wake up every night to watch TV, and now I need to untrain it. When anxious thoughts wake me, I now put my hand on my dog and try to push the negative thoughts out of my mind, focusing on something positive. I’m successful at falling back to sleep about 50% of the time. But even when I’m not immediately successful, I try to wait at least half an hour before giving in and watching TV. I know I shouldn't watch at all, but sometimes the only way I can turn off my thoughts is to watch an episode of an old nostalgic television show.
Like anything else in life, I understand that getting a handle on my insomnia is a process that will take time. And though I get frustrated, I’m confident that, with help from my HCP, I’ll find ways to improve my insomnia and wake up to raise my shade fully and greet the day.
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