Derrick hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in 15 years. He had always been able to sleep 7-8 hours a night until he became a security guard working the night shift at age 27. He attributes the disruption of sleep patterns—sleeping during the day, awake at night—to the development of his insomnia. Now 42 and working as a van driver during the day, he is still unable to sleep for more than 3-3.5 hours a night.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
It started when I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep. I would sleep 2-3 hours, get up to use the bathroom, and then never really fall back asleep. When I tried to sleep during the day, it was the same, no more than three hours of sleep. Sleeping during the day was hard because even though you need to sleep, life goes on around you. Sometimes I would try to nap for about half an hour during the day to catch up, which helped some, but didn’t totally make up for the sleep I was missing.
As far as symptoms go, I never really feel alert during the day. I am always tired, and not at my best or as sharp as I would like to be. On Mondays I can get away with it, but by Friday it catches up with me and my legs feel like they have no spring to them.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I didn’t pursue a diagnosis until I was about 35, when I started working a day job and still couldn’t sleep for more than three hours at night. The diagnosis took about a week. I had to fill out a questionnaire about my sleep habits and spend a night in the sleep clinic. They monitored me and saw that I couldn’t sleep straight through the night. After that, they told me I had insomnia.
Did you make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to insomnia?
The biggest change I made was keeping to daytime work. I also cut out caffeine and tried to keep the same routine and hours. I’ve tried sleeping pills but they only extend my sleep to about five hours of sleep and I don’t feel rested in the morning. They make me feel lethargic and it takes a while to get going.
I also have to be careful of the kind of work I do. When I worked in a case packing plant, my job was to move the boxes along the assembly line. One day I didn’t move my hand out of the way fast enough and ended up spraining my wrist.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
My girlfriend tries to understand my sleeping problem, which helps, but things still get tense sometimes. There’s definitely a strain when she needs to sleep and I can’t. I go downstairs to the basement, or try sleeping in a different part of the house.
What advice would you give to someone living with insomnia?
I think it’s important to keep to one schedule and stick with the same routines. Stay off the coffee and caffeine. Also tell everyone in the household that they have to make some adjustments. But you also need to keep their schedule in mind. You really need to get your body adjusted to one schedule. I’d also say don’t get on sleeping pills; try to do it naturally. Also, lower the noise: no ticking clocks, just quiet when you’re trying to sleep.
What is the biggest effect insomnia has had on your life?
The biggest effect is not being as sharp as I want to be. If I want to do some school work, or go to college, it’s hard because the sleep deprivation affects my memory. I can’t retain new information easily, and it sometimes takes me awhile to catch on.
The other thing with insomnia is that I feel like I have so much more free time. When I sleep only 3-4 hours, it leaves me with a lot of time to do household chores like washing clothes or doing dishes.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.