What is it like to have insomnia?

So what is it that comprises the sleep disorder insomnia, and makes this topic ubiquitous on television talk shows, on internet blogs, and on the minds of millions of people globally who feel like they’re exhausted all or most of the time?

Insomnia is an insidious condition that is common among adults of a variety of ages, cultures, and backgrounds. The luckiest of people claim they sleep soundly for 7-8 hours every day, but for insomniacs, sometimes even 2 hours of unconscious rest is considered a regular night’s rest time.  There are many different theories about the causes of insomnia, all of which have created treatments ranging from drug therapy, talk therapy, Electro Convulsive Shock Treatment, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, all the way to the other side side of the spectrum of homeopathic cures like tart cherry extract, melatonin, 5HTP, kava kava, St. John’s Wort, and valerian root extract.  Which is right for you, and who do you trust for  advice on a vital component of daily life, a good night’s rest?

These questions were on my mind years ago when I began the journey down the road of middle age, and the increased awareness that I was not feeling refreshed and invigorated by my sleep patterns.  There was a marked change in my affect and it was noticeable by those closest to me.  It was time to consult my doctor for advice, as I had done many years ago when I suspected that I was suffering from situational depression. I had to know if my fatigue and malaise was treatable, and if increased exercise, change of diet, or something else was needed in order to help me regain normalcy.

I am very grateful to my primary care physician for his thorough evaluation of family history, and the integration of my daily life stress factors.  He thoughtfully explained that many busy professionals who suffer depression also have issues falling asleep and remaining asleep for 6-8 hours every evening.  He questioned me about caffeine use, and whether I attempted a normal schedule of sleep and wake cycle every day.  After consideration of the need, he said to me “this is a real issue, and to give you a sense of severity, sleep deprivation could kill a healthy person faster than starvation.”  That message stuck with me throughout the years.  If a person intentionally wanted to kill me without using a bullet or poisoning, and chose sleep deprivation, this disorder would cause my death before the effects of lack of food.  I felt as though I had just been diagnosed with a dread disease.  I knew how bad it felt every morning to drag myself from bed, drink my coffee and drive to the airport for my job.  The insidiousness of insomnia is that it’s not a visible ailment, like a broken arm in a cast.  Someone needed to believe that you were telling the truth about the impact of sleepless nights.

Due to the nature of my work, I was shuttled about the globe like an orbiting satellite, one week in the Philippines, the next in Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria after that, Argentina Brazil, or Costa Rica in a seemingly rotating cycle of travels.  Four different schedulers plugged my name into a spreadsheet every week, and it was my job to get the proper visas, airline reservations, hotels and cars, and to bring the necessary tools and presentation materials with me to appear like a fully functioning, senior learning consultant for the benefit of imparting complex leadership skills, knowledge, and expectations, all the while answering tough questions, maintaining client relationships, and preparing for the next assignment that popped up on my work schedule the following week.

In spite of the complexity of changing learning program content, frequently adapting our leadership training curriculum to meet the needs of a rapidly changing company, I still wanted all of my participants to have a positive and memorable experience.   I wanted to give them what they deserved, which in my mind was the chance to meet other leaders in a safe environment, and to enjoy the learning experience that was our 3 day, award winning workshop for people managers.  There were many components of a successful training program delivery.  It began as participants walked through the door, and encountered my smiling face and firm handshake.  It progressed to making each participant feel heard, like their own personal experiences shared in conversations about a subject largely contributed to the class experience.  I remembered their names because they were indeed memorable leaders.  Activities, exercises, and many questions were part of a good 3 day workshop, which also included a guest executive speaker who could provide the perspective on why leadership at IBM was our best chance of success in a changing marketplace, and in an uncertain world, multi-cultural and diverse in nature.

This job was the culmination of a career spent on the fringe as part of smaller business units that comprised the company census of 500,000 employees.  My last three years were spent as part of the corporate headquarters Leadership Center of Excellence, working alongside the finest peer trainers imaginable.  Program leaders who had been executive assistants to Vice Presidents and CEOs of the company.  Those like me, had the tough job of conveying to the first line leaders that their job was the most difficult job at IBM, but also the most important.  My teammates were unimaginably tireless and brilliant, and it was my honor to have been accepted as a member of the team after my own division could no longer afford to duplicate the global reach of the corporate headquarters team.  My skills were a match to join corporate IBM’s Armonk, NY Headquarters delivery team, and in turn, each of my original teammates joined in-country teams in their regions across the world.

There had to be an answer. There must be a fix for this problem, which I was doubting about myself. I had trouble accepting that I had succumbed to sleep loss and what had been mild depression, well controlled by medicine.

Back to the doctor I went, this time armed with my Delta and American Airlines travel itineraries, some effort to show that I was not merely complaining to obtain drugs, but I did indeed have a busy travel schedule.  My doctor shook his head and said no, I think I have a better idea.  Let’s order a sleep study and make certain that your condition is not brought on by sleep apnea, or some other explanation for chronic lack of sleep.  The test was painless and very conclusive. I had no sign of sleep apnea, but instead abnormal indicators that normal sleep patterns were elusive for me.   My number of nightly arousals, those short periods of times where I would wake, then have to return to sleep, were 3 times greater than the average person for my age and gender.  The results showed that I did not achieve the restorative sleep cycle of REM sleep, where adult growth hormone was released and led to the feeling of energy and the enthusiasm of rising out of bed to a new day.

My physician drafted a stern letter, attaching the summary sleep study report, and advising that he had been treating me for mild depression for 7 years. The toll of long haul international travel on my sleep cycle was causing secondary symptoms of insomnia.  He concluded by writing that without the opportunity for at least 2 days of resting down time between travels, mild depression had escalated into symptoms of panic and anxiety.  Attention to scheduling the long haul flights was needed, and at least 2 days off for each 7 calendar days (a normal weekend) were needed for not less than 6-8 weeks to allow for some time to recover.   I was immensely grateful for the effort it took to draft such a letter, and also grateful for the 2-3 months of gaps between long haul international flights that ensued.  Unfortunately the layoffs continued, and on paper, if it appeared that employee utilization days (those days spent teaching a class) were less than the standard range, it meant you were a target for being surplussed.  My project leader explained to me that if I could not keep pace with travel requirements, then I would be replaced. With no project work to offset my salary, I would certainly be laid off.

His words sent me back to the frenetic pace of preparing for travel, flying to the offshore locations, delivering intensive 3 day workshops, then traveling back home in the least cost carrier and route.  Unpack the dirty clothes, wash, dry, fold the clothes and repack them for the next trip.  The damage had been done, and I existed on ambien for sleep, wellbutrin for depression, and vitamins and various supplements for the other symptoms of exhaustion.  Soon new responsibilities emerged, requiring the absorption of new classes, those requiring me to teach workshops for presentation skills and techniques of effective presenters. It was one of the most prestigious of opportunities I could have hoped for, and I was not up to the challenge.

Everyone has their own story to tell.  Mine has its component of bad timing, and grueling demands of energy and time.   I lost many personal relationships due to the extreme nature of time spent away from home.  The redeeming elements of the job were working with some of the most intelligent, creative, and hard working individuals, at one of the world’s most admired companies.  Your story is important and will help others to see themselves on the hamster wheel of futility.  If this blog helps just a handful of people to seek help, to disclose to their employers that they’re in survival mode rather than flourishing, or to ask a spouse for extra patience when expecting full participation immediately after the end of the work week, then the blog will have fulfilled a great purpose.

Please join me on http://insomniacsare4real.com and tell your story.  Share what worked for you, but also what didn’t work.  Be respectful of those whose stories may not be as poignant or as grave as yours because each person has a different threshold and tolerance for stress.  I look forward to hearing from those who feel comfortable enough to talk about what stress is on your mind when you turn out the lights at night, and what alarm clock concerns give you anxiety for the coming days.

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