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This Is What Insomnia Feels Like

Most nights I wake up some time between 2:00 and 4:00 and stay up for a few excruciating hours, the kind where you can feel every minute pass. It's been this way for almost two years.
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I can't sleep.

OK, that's not quite true - I can fall asleep, sure. The problem is that I can't stay that way.

I'm writing this and it's 3:00 a.m., which isn't out of the ordinary for me. (There's your problem! I can hear some of you saying.) Most nights I wake up some time between 2:00 and 4:00 and stay up for a few excruciating hours, the kind where you can feel every minute pass. It's been this way for almost two years. By now, friends and family are used to getting replies to their texts at really strange hours.

At first, no one was too concerned. I'm a college student - I was probably stressed about all the work I had to do, staying up too late working on projects, drinking too much the night before. But I'm one of those rare breeds of students (especially at my school, Emerson College, where everyone is working on at least 400 projects at any given time) who feels like my workload is more than manageable. As time went on and things got worse, I told my doctor. She thinks it's a medication side effect. I'm on a few different medications for a few different things. One of them is pretty well known for causing insomnia. One of them, however, happens to function as a mild sedative, which, in addition to treating what it's supposed to (which it does, and very well at that), we hoped would help me sleep. It has not. But it means I can't exactly be prescribed sleeping aids. (A cardinal rule of drugs: don't mix downers and downers!) It's probably for the best, though: have you heard of the rebound effect? Sleeping pills won't work forever, and coming off them can make insomnia worse.


"I've tried staying in bed and literally counting sheep. I've tried reading, hot showers, progressive muscle relaxation. But I almost always wake up, and it almost always takes me at least an hour to get back to sleep."

So, insomnia is routine at this point. When I tell this to people, they inevitably offer me some sort of advice. But here's the thing: two years is a long time, and I have tried everything. I've made my way down the medicine aisles - Dramamine, Benadryl, melatonin, Nyquil, it goes on. I can't use those drugs every night, though, even the more "natural" ones, like melatonin. It's easy to build up a tolerance to them, and then the rebound effect kicks in. So I've tried all the New Age-y stuff too: essential oils, aromatherapy, tinctures, (caffeine-free) herbal tea. I've tried cutting caffeine out of my diet entirely. (It didn't help, so I'm back to iced tea. I still try to avoid coffee, just in case.) I've tried banning technology from the bedroom. I've tried meditation. I've tried getting out of bed and doing something else; I've tried staying in bed and literally counting sheep. I've tried reading, hot showers, progressive muscle relaxation. But I almost always wake up, and it almost always takes me at least an hour to get back to sleep. One of the only things I haven't tried is a sleep study, but those can be really expensive, especially for a college student, even with insurance.

I'm not listing all this out as a weird sort of humblebrag (though if you want to be impressed, feel free). I'm just saying - hold the advice. Or at least the basic stuff.


"I spend most of my life exhausted."

So that's insomnia. I'm learning to deal with it. The nights are uncomfortable - very occasionally I'll get some nice reading done, though usually it's more of a staring at the ceiling situation - but I get through them.

Really, it's the morning that's a killer. It's the next day. And part of what makes the nights so uncomfortable is the knowledge of what happens when I wake up.

About a year ago, I was at the doctor to make sure a particularly nasty cold wasn't anything more than that. She asked, "Are you feeling particularly tired?"

"I don't know," I told her. "I'm always really tired." And it's true. I spend most of my life exhausted. But that day in the doctor's office was particularly startling for me: I made the realization that this was my new normal, that my body couldn't differentiate between "something minor" and "something big."

The next thing I noticed was my memory going. It's not quite dementia-level dramatic, but it's worse than it used to be. I'll remember telling something to someone, but won't remember who it was. I'll remember going out and where I went, but not who I went with or what I did. I'll remember sitting in class and learning about a certain topic, but I won't be able to recall a specific fact. There is evidence supporting the idea that a good night's sleep is required for the consolidation of memories. Without consolidation, there's no recall.

So I sit in class exhausted, which makes it hard to focus. When I do focus, it's hard to completely retain all the information... because I can't sleep the night after. I'll forget assignments - to bring them to class, when they're due, to do them in the first place. That's not minor, and it's not the kind of thing I would have done two years ago. Homework isn't much better. I can't get as much done - a lot of the time I'm doing homework at half-speed because I'm too tired to fully concentrate. While I have the same number of hours in the day as I did two years ago, I can't put them to use as effectively as I used to.


"I'll remember telling something to someone, but won't remember who it was. I'll remember going out and where I went, but not who I went with or what I did."

And, oh god, I have so much to say on how insomnia often isn't taken seriously. Some people seem to believe I can just snap out of it. Like: I get headaches when I'm tired. I asked one of my doctors if that was normal and she said, "Yeah, you just need to get some more sleep." I wish I'd thought of that! Some people just picture of it as a night where I just didn't fall asleep as early as I'd like. I'm guilty of that too - even I sometimes roll my eyes when someone mentions that their insomnia's been acting up.

And some people - professors, coworkers, other students - see insomnia mostly as a convenient excuse for not getting work done. And this lack of understanding - or lack of desire to understand in the first place - has very real consequences. I didn't mention it to my doctor for a full year simply because I just didn't think it was important enough. But insomnia can be a symptom of a larger health issue - and it can also cause such issues. My doctor made sure I didn't have an underlying illness, and at least now she can keep an eye on me and knows what to screen me for.


"While I have the same number of hours in the day as I did two years ago, I can't put them to use as effectively as I used to."

I've found a few ways to deal. I keep a planner that I check religiously; I take copious notes in class. I drink a bunch of iced tea in the mornings, which doesn't have quite the same crash as coffee. Cold water also helps keep me awake (drinking it, but probably splashing your face with it too). I try to rely exclusively on my memory as infrequently as possible. I keep my doctors appraised of my symptoms. And when I can, I try to make appointments and schedule my classes in the afternoon.

It's no secret that a lack of sleep is bad, and is felt particularly hard by college students. I feel lucky that, generally speaking, I'm stress-free, go to sleep pretty early, and have a manageable schedule. I can't imagine how bad I'd feel without it.

If you're fortunate enough to be able to a full night's sleep, cherish it. And if not, feel free to text me. I'll probably be up - at least for now.

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at abigail.williams@huffingtonpost.com. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.