Long before I ever became depressed, I shared a room for a while with a girl who was suffering on and off with depression and anxiety. I was amazed how little she slept; she was bemused by how much I did.
I used to sleep happily for 9 or 10 hours at a time. I loved to sleep. I loved to lie in bed all morning, dozing, daydreaming, happy in my half-awake thoughts and dreams.
I never knew that irregular sleep patterns go hand-in-hand with depression.
When I first fell, I used to sleep constantly. All I wanted to do was hide under the covers. I could sleep for 16 hours a day if I wasn’t working. But this was just a stumble. A lot of crying, some thoughts of death in general but nothing specific and certainly no attempts, a bit of self-harm but minimal and experimental, some aches and pains. And the unending need to sleep. I was comfortable in bed, happy almost.
But now things are different. This fall is no stumble but an out of control plummet down into a bottomless pit. I haven’t slept properly for two years. I long for those days of dozing and daydreaming. Now, without constant background noise and distraction, my mind rushes to ugly places. Daydreaming and dozing are out, even if I could do them.
So, exhausted as I am, I get comfortable. I settle down in bed, a lingering memory of the pleasure this ought to bring. But sleep doesn’t come often. I have to listen to audiobooks these days; another distraction, but while they calm me and help fight against the negativity, they don’t help with sleep itself. On the odd nights, I fall asleep quickly, I wake up within an hour. And I wake up frequently throughout the nights – 3 or 4 times is normal. Sometimes I’m awake for 20 minutes; sometimes an hour or more. And I wake up early. No matter how hard I try, I can rarely get back to sleep no matter how tired I am.
The insomnia makes things worse. I am physically, mentally, emotionally shattered. The panic of tiredness adds to the panic of anxiety and depression and multiplies it. Motivation, already low, is non-existent when coupled with exhaustion. I move slower, speak slower, think slower. I forget things. I am close to tears all the time. I wake up and start crying without knowing why. Tears fall regularly with no trigger except lack of sleep and join all those that fall due to other triggers. I spend more hours crying than sleeping on an average day.
I’m scared of sleeping pills. I’m scared of the control I would lose. My anxiety feeds my fears: what if someone came into my room at night and I was doped up on sleeping pills? What if there was a fire? I’ve tried herbal ones and the effect was worse – the anxiety meant no sleep at all.
I know how much lack of sleep is believed to affect mental function. I know it’s been linked to Alzheimer’s and other diseases. I know that people who force themselves to stay awake can suffer hallucinations and memory loss. But I don’t how to break this pattern yet. I vaguely hope that those happy years of dozing might have banked some hours and might minimise the damage. But for now, I stick to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter; I listen to podcasts and David Sedaris on YouTube. I use these to try to monitor how much sleep I get. I take hope from the days when the hours clock up past 4. I celebrate when they go past 5.