The Mantra That Made Me Stop Worrying About My Insomnia
When you tell a medical professional that you can’t sleep, they tend to reply with a familiar script: How’s your sleep hygiene? How close to bedtime do you check your email? Have you tried yoga or a mediation app?
How quaint, I think to myself. If all it took were a bit of lavender oil and foregoing an afternoon cup of coffee to ward off my recurring bouts of serious insomnia, I wouldn’t have found myself — after about three weeks of little to no sleep — at an emergency doctor’s appointment in February.
Begging for some way — any way! — to find sleep again, I tried to preempt the script by making the case that I’d already checked all the usual boxes: regular exercise, putting my phone away long before bed, cutting back on caffeine. I was there strictly for pharmaceuticals, preferably strong ones.
But this time, after listening to my spiel, the doctor looked at me matter-of-factly and said: “You know, insomnia will not kill you.”
I gulped back tears and said, “Well, yeah, but it makes life pretty difficult to live.” The doctor, no-nonsense but kind, agreed. But here’s the thing, she said: Plenty of doctors and military personnel manage long periods with little to no sleep. It’s unpleasant and far from ideal, but it’s not actually an imminent threat to one’s life. After all, you will likely fall asleep before your body shuts down.
Then she encouraged me to take some time off work to rein in my anxiety, and I left, prescription in hand. A few hours later, I reconsidered her point. What I had first taken as a kind of stiff-upper-lip Britishness (I live in London) started to seem more helpful and compassionate. It had been so many nights since I’d fallen asleep without worry, anxiety, or struggle, that sleep itself had become an obsession. I craved it so much, and it felt so unattainable, that I was unsure if I’d ever regain it again.
As with many insomniacs, my inability to sleep was compounded by anxiety about my inability to sleep. And my exhausted and catastrophizing brain had conflated never sleeping again with that ultimate thing we all fear: death. But maybe I didn’t need to go that far?