The Sleepless Cycle of Depression

Beautiful girl sitting pensively holding her legs in bedroom.
Beautiful girl sitting pensively holding her legs in bedroom.

I woke up in the middle of the night and jolted up in bed, my eyes wide with fear, my heart pounding. I opened my mouth to scream but could not. There was something on the wall, something dark, something insidious, something that was moving. It was coming for me. I was shaking. Still I could not move, could not even breathe.

Six months earlier, I'd been diagnosed with my second episode of Major Depressive Disorder, comorbid anxiety. Before this episode, sleep had been sort of a safe haven for me. I had weird dreams, funny dreams - dreams about good-looking basketball players, dreams about amusement parks, dreams about becoming something big. My dreams were never a torment. I was never scared to go to sleep.

After the episode started, though, my dreams started to haunt me. Perhaps these dreams were a reflection of the chaotic state of my mind. In the depths of night, I'd envision my friends leaving me, my teeth falling out, and my family rejecting me. My deepest fears manifested themselves in my safe haven of sleep.

As a result, I began to fear the nighttime. These horrors made it difficult to fall asleep, no matter how much I desired it. I tried everything my doctors recommended: I turned off my devices early, changed the brightness settings on my phone and computer, stopped drinking caffeine altogether, and made my bed as comfortable as possible. Nothing helped. I'd lay there for hours, staring at the ceiling, my head clouded with thoughts. The next day, I'd drag myself out of bed, feeling more zombie than human. And worse, there were the few, isolated incidents of sleep paralysis, where I would wake up while I was still dreaming. They were horrifying.

It was enough that the illness had messed with my brain. It was enough that the illness had seeped into to my appetite, my interests, and my energy. But did it have to disrupt with my sleep too? That blissful haven of rest was stolen from me by depression.

However, I knew that sleep was important important to my wellbeing. I grew even more desperate. I could see how the exhaustion was affecting me, making me more irritable, more prone to sadness, and less motivated. I begged my doctor for medication, but the only kind they could prescribe was for anxiety and was addictive, so I could only take them on truly bad nights. They helped, but even though I took them sparsely I soon ran out. It wasn't enough.

I had to get my own non-prescription drugs and then melatonin supplements to be able to sleep normally. I think that the greater amounts of sleep I got truly helped me to improve. I felt better, stronger, and even happier.

Sleep, I think, is not addressed enough in the context of mental illness. People talk about the emotional symptoms of mental illness, but often they ignore the physical symptoms, too - the fatigue, the lack of sleep, or the oversleeping. There were days when all I wanted to do was sleep, but I'd hit the bed and be unable to. It was torture. And yet, the doctors could not do anything for me.

Sleep helps the brain to restore and replenish. The more sleep I've been getting, the better I feel. And so I think it is important to emphasize the importance of sleep and sleep deprivation, especially among the mental illness community. Sleep can be a blessing, but it can also be scary for those that have struggled with it like me. Please remember, there are ways of coping.

When I wake up from a nightmare now, I make myself breathe - in and out, in and out, a steady rhythm. I remind myself it's not real. I remind myself that I'm safe. I think of good things. I count sheep. I do anything and everything to relax. Slowly but surely, I drift off to unconsciousness.

One day I will wake up from a good dream. I will not have been woken up throughout the night. I will feel refreshed, replenished, and happy. But until then, it's nice, at least, to know I'm not alone.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.