I’ve written about my insomnia a lot over the past few years (just click on the category labeled something about Health Conditions and you’ll see them all, and then some) (grin).
Indeed, this blog was born before this latest ongoing bout hit. (This blog is old. I started it in November 2008. The severe insomnia that I’ve referenced in previous posts began around March of 2010, although it would be a while before I got around to writing about it.)
But that’s not exactly the whole story.
The truth is, up until the spring of 2010, I had enjoyed relatively stable sleep, the type that was predictable and dependable. The type you could set your watch to…
…for about seven years.
Before that, my sleep was…dicey at best.
Let’s begin…well, at the beginning.
My memory goes way, way back. I remember having a “bedtime” of 9.30pm by the time I was in kindergarten. (Did I mention that I had totally open-minded parents? They were effective guides with old-school values, but they also had quite the progressive streak, supporting causes and mindsets that the general population is only now starting to embrace en masse.)
Anyway, back to my sleep stuff…
I remember mentioning my 9.30 bedtime to a school faculty member, who, to my surprise, responded with, “wow! That’s later than I go to bed!” And this person was a grown-up. By age 6, I’d had her beat!
Truth be told, I hadn’t given my bedtime a second thought. I had never once thought that it might be fairly late, especially for a kid my age. In fact, I didn’t even want to go to bed that early. But again, my parents were effective guides who set parameters and boundaries, and once the Supreme Court had handed down a ruling, there were no appeals.
So, I would oblige and go to bed. And I would read. I was bored, and my brain was thirsty. So yep, reading was a very logical choice. I was That Kid, the one who read under the covers with a flashlight. Heh.
Sunday nights were the worst. I could never quite place the source of the energy. I vaguely thought that it might have something to do with anxiety, but I usually couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I might be anxious about.
Sometimes, I could. During a particularly exciting time, such as starting a new school year, I could stay up all night. I did this for the first time in Grade 3, when I had just turned 9. Frankly, I’m surprised that I hadn’t pulled the almighty all-nighter until then.
I was the quintessential night owl. Since I was still growing, I needed plenty of sleep, but I usually didn’t fall asleep until late at night. By Grade 5 (age 11), weekends were my freedom; I routinely saw 4.30 or 5am before finally falling asleep.
Sleep became a source of stress for a very long time. I knew that sleep was crucial, and I knew that if I didn’t get enough of it (which meant at least 8 hours, back in the day), I wouldn’t function well the next day. And I totally wanted to function.
Sunday afternoons were tinted with a mild sense of dread about the rapidly-approaching evening, during which my battle for custody of the Sandman would ensue.
By my teen years, my sleep became ever-more-erratic. It reached the point where I ended up staying up the whole night about twice a week. One of those nights was–you guessed it-Sunday night. The other might be Wednesday or Thursday. Once I had stayed up all night on Sunday night and made it through Monday at school, this sort of reset my clock for a couple days, at least until it got off track enough again to warrant another sleepless night.
I remember being frustrated and telling my mom, when I was about 15-16, “the world doesn’t work the way I do. I don’t fit. My day/night rhythm is probably about 30 hours, not 24. This world that insists on 24 hours doesn’t work for me.”
The 30-hour rhythm broke down like this: 20 hours up, followed by 10 hours down. I knew exactly what I would have preferred, and that was it.
I was probably 16 years old when I realized that. That would have put a time-marker on 1993-1994. But I hadn’t heard of anyone else having the same issue, so I figured it was just one more thing that made me weird. And I had always known that I was weird. Nothing new there.
This continued for years. Finally, in my mid-20s, I managed to get my sleep cycle on track. I harnessed my health, took it seriously, went through a complete dietary overhaul, and started taking some supplements.
Poof! Sleep schedule restored.
Until…enter in a couple of critical life crises that occurred within 9 or 10 months of each other.
Suddenly, almost overnight, I all but stopped sleeping. Sometimes I needed a mere 30 minutes, before I was awake again, for at least another 18-20 hours, or possibly longer. A good night was four hours; if I got any more than six hours, I was guaranteed to have trouble getting to sleep the following night.
It’s like something woke up, broke, or got activated.
That was seven years ago.
Some things have changed, but despite the processing work I’ve done regarding the origins of the PTSD (I have 2 types, which ignited about 10 months apart), it doesn’t seem to self-correct.
At first, I cursed it. I agonized over not being able to sleep. I knew that proper sleep, in the proper amounts, between the proper hours, was crucial.
I was also well aware of the potential health risks that would undoubtedly rain down on me if I failed to throw a lasso around this issue. I knew about the weight gain, the blood sugar disruption, the memory problems, the depression and other mood disorders, the slower reaction times and higher traffic accident chances, the reduced brain detoxification, the poorer work performance, the higher risks of seizures, the bigger chances of psychotic episodes, and the cancer statistics.
I was painfully aware of all that. But there was nothing I could do about it.
I had to adapt my life, with complete shifts in consciousness and headspace. I began to fill the late-night time with activities that I liked. I began to sleep on the couch, armed with my laptop, the TV, an end table lamp, and probably a cat or two. Actively engaging in a relaxing, repetitive activity until I “passed out” on the couch was the only way I could fall asleep. The fact that the end table lamp was still on and the TV was blaring didn’t seem to impact whether I fell asleep or not.
Getting up to turn everything off actually made things worse. So did ceasing all activity and trying to fall asleep. That would simply guarantee that I would stay awake longer.
These adaptations have ensured that I would get at least some sleep.
It paid off, somewhat. During the years of 2011-2012, my sleep patterns yo-yo’d between 2010’s 2-4 hours of sleep one night, and 6-8 hours the next night. It literally see-sawed back and forth like that.
During the second half of 2012, I realized just how stressful my work really was for me, but I can only do so much to change that situation. I can’t stop working, nor can I choose a different line of work. Truthfully, I like what I do, so I wouldn’t want to switch careers. But there are aspects of my position that continue to stress me out.
My situation did improve.
But the problem has never actually gone away.
And in fact, it’s getting worse. Not quite as bad as it had been in 2010, but close. And I haven’t seen an 8-hour night in a while now.
Tonight, I had a breakthrough.
A lovely commenter on my other blog, a specialist in neuropsychiatric disorders, suggested that I might have something known as a chronorhythm (or “chrono”) sleep disorder. Often, people are diagnosed with insomnia when what they really have is a chrono disorder. I gave that some thought, and vowed to myself to research the topic further. It sounded very interesting.
Earlier today, I was talking with my partner, and I commented that my sleep/wake cycle has completely detached from the earth’s day/night clock. All this past week, I had seen 5, 6, even 7am, sleeping only until 8 or 9am, and then sometimes taking a 1-to-2-hour nap on my desk at work or at home.
Today, I got curious. I couldn’t recall the exact “chrono” term, so I searched her site for insomnia, and found the following blog post: “When Your Sleep Clock Is Broken“.
Well that was eerie. I couldn’t resist clicking. It began with a “sticky” at the top that talked about N-24 Awareness Day. Yep, I’d seen endless drug commercials on TV for medications that helped people with “Non-24”, typically aimed at men who have lost their eyesight (and thus, their visual daylight/night-time cues) in military battle and now have no idea when it’s daytime or nighttime, so they sleep and wake up at random times.
For me, “Non-24” was a buzzword that was created in order to sell more drugs to new population groups, untapped markets of otherwise-healthy people.
In other words, it hadn’t been a Thing, at least not to me.
The amazing author of the above-linked blog post, Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC (wow!) defines Chronorhythm Disorders as:
“the terms used to describe a variety of presentations of non-standard sleep patterns, in addition to Non-24-hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome”
(Emphasis is the author’s.)
She explains that these disorders are governed by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the part of the brain that dictates our sleep/wake cycles, and she goes on to give an excellent description of Non-24 near the bottom of the post:
“the chronorhythm disorder that appears when an individual’s brain & body insist that the day is longer than 24 hours..The body’s cue to fall asleep gets progressively later each day, so the sufferer is eventually sleeping during the day and awake all night.”
Another article states that:
“The sleep cycle of persons with N24 usually ranges from just over 24 hours (e.g. 24.1 hours) to as many as 28-30 hours in extreme cases.”
Chock another one up for “extreme cases”; this is not the first time I’ve read these words in reference to something that applies to me.
Interestingly enough, however, although the basic descriptions of these disorders have me nodding in emphatic agreement, the specific firsthand accounts that I’ve gone on to read so far describe a world that is different from mine.
Oh, it certainly applied to me at one time, such as my teen years, but they don’t apply to me now.
Take, for example, the mentions of fatigue, which tends to increase as Non-24/chronorhythm-disordered people progress through their workweeks, until they can use the weekend to catch up again.
I don’t have that. I definitely engage in what I had come to call “free-sleeping”, especially on weekends, particularly those during which my partner isn’t home; this fits the Non-24/N24/chronorhythm disorder to a “T”. But I don’t experience the fatigue I’ve seen reported by those who have the disorder.
So what gives?
This is where any knowledge gleaned so far from any research I’ve done leaves off, and my theory begins. Up until this point, I have merely described the facts of my experience and compared it with pre-existing information out there, written by experts. So far, nothing I have said is theoretical.
That’s about to change, because what I’ve talked about so far is simply what has been established by others, and now I’m leaving the boundaries of the existing map and venturing into uncharted territory.
I’ll repeat my last question, paraphrased: when the basic description of the chronorhythm disorders fits so snugly but the personal experience is so divergent, what gives? How can that even be reconciled? Can it even be reconciled?
As usual, I have a theory.
Enter PTSD, coupled with a naturally-yang disposition. (My partner has measured my energy levels, and they really do–literally–give a readout that is the exact equivalent of two people.)
So I’m the type that is both a “night owl” and a “morning person”. I burn the midnight oil…at both ends.
One of my forms of PTSD involves a chronic survival-threatened time period in which the effects grew way worse at night. This means that every single night, the appearance of the traumatic event is recreated, and I run the risk of it “hitting home” and triggering me. (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie has written about this on her blog as well.)
Since the original situation flared up at night, this also probably completely disrupted my fight-or-flight mechanism and my superchiasmatic nuclei, areas that are both quite central to the brain and quite key players within it.
This coincides with one anecdote I read in which the author was describing a charted sleep schedule over time and found one particular result t0 be…
“between that of Non-24 Hour Sleep Wake Cycle Disorder and that of Sleep Wake Cycle Disorder – Irregular Type”
M’oh yeah? That piqued my interest. My attention snapped to. I continued to read…
“In the irregular type of sleep disorder, the person sleeps at almost random times of day or night and for varying lengths of time. Usually there are several short periods of sleep scattered at various time around the clock.”
That…would be me. Ding! Nailed it.
So, I may have solved one mystery. The question now is, where do I go and what do I do from here?
- Medication? (God(dess), I hope not. As an absolute last resort, maybe.)
- Counseling? (That would be a good idea anyway, so that’s on the table.)
- Natural supplements? (They’re powerful and when well-matched to the central issues, they work well. I’ve used them to successfully regulate my sleep before, but I admit that that was in the pre-PTSD days, so I’m not sure if or how much that changes the game.)
I don’t know of anything else yet, so stay tuned; I’ve heard murmurs of sleep devices that reset the circadian rhythm (such as this one) and whatnot, but I don’t know enough about them to elaborate further, so I’ll save them for another post, probably one that focuses on the various intervention strategies and tools.
This chapter has concluded with a very important answer, but the story itself is far from finished. 🙂