Episode three: counting weeps and beauty sleeps; living with sleep anxiety

Work is for the day

Sleep is for the night

but what to do when the mind goes astray

resulting in little sleep before daylight

How to explain that for years

no matter how many counted sheep

at night time the thing you really fear

is not being able to fall asleep?!

I suffer from sleep anxiety. Believe me, I wish I was making this up.

What this means is that I worry that I won’t be able to fall asleep. And this in itself leads to a cascade of other fears: If I don’t fall asleep then maybe I’ll become an insomniac who dies of fatigue, OR fall asleep at the wheel OR fall asleep in the lab…an endless list.

It started when I was 15, and I am 30 now. It seems ludicrous that I’ve lived half my life with a fear that would probably never occur to anyone to have, just because sleep is such a natural thing. 

This has been one of my most unrelenting phobias. 

And it had gained control over my life for the most part. For years every waking minute was spent agonising in fear that come night time, I may not be able to fall asleep. But then I always ended up falling asleep. And the irony is I have never experienced drawn-out insomnia. In fact in the 15 years of this fearful state, I’ve never had a single night when I haven’t been able to at least get some sleep. At most I’ve had 100 nights spread over 15 years, when I’ve tossed and turned till 3 or 4 am. So yes, it does make me sad that so much time has been invested into trying to escape this phantom.

Escape it how, you ask? Well, by daily rituals. It is well known in my circle that I hardly do late nights out. I have a very specific bed time. And I never used to indulge in coffee, even though I often craved it just from its smell. My convenient excuse was that because my parents didn’t drink coffee (which was true), that I just didn’t either. Decaff was the most I would do. I remember once settling on my couch to drink a cup of tea I’d just brewed, only for it to occur to me that it might contain caffeine. A frantic Google search ensued, and once I discovered it did in fact contain trace caffeine, down the drain it went. This was 9pm and too close to my bed time to take a risk.

In fact, staying out late till 9pm would induce a panic in me. I just had to be home to get ready for bed. Then I would pray and pray that I would be able to sleep. Then the moment I woke up, I’d worry for the night to come. Every.single.day. For the past 15 years. 

There was this notion of balance in my head: ‘Day is for work, and night is for sleep. Anything else is wrong.’ 

And no matter how many insomniacs I spoke to who were unbothered by their situation or who had it under control for the most part, I couldn’t bring myself to release the fear of eventually becoming one, and what I imagined the horrendous consequences could be thereafter. 

The lack of control was wholly disconcerting. And apparently there are some others who feel the same way. In fact, as far back as 2001 (which was the same year my sleep anxiety started) someone had already shared their concerns online (which I only found in 2015.) 

So ashamed was I of this very unusual phobia, that speaking about it has always been hard for me. Acknowledging it out loud made me feel abnormal. But there is nothing else to lose at this point, and only healing and comfort to find. And it is always relieving to read from others who share this phobia, even though as of posting no one seems to have found a solution. At least there is a sense of not being alone in the grasp of this particular fear.

As of now it has eased up some, and I have better coping mechanisms. I’ve even been able to get some late nights out. But I have not been able to fully rid myself of it. Bed time is not the best time for me. On hectic days I still feel as shaken as I did as a teen.

I know why it started. And for years I hoped for a miracle cure. Now I know this is impractical. And this is what I’m realising about various mental hardships I struggle with: I may never be fully cured but I can still live a fulfilled and successful life. Yes I have low lows, but what I’m interested in is finding hope and new ways to cope. I’m also accepting that being ‘high functioning’ may likely be what has stopped me from seeking help for so many years.

As the pressure in my work life mounts, along with the realisation that I do need to pursue help, so does my anxiety. So there is no conclusion to this episode. But boy does it feel good to just let it all out. And perhaps now some of my friends and acquaintances will gain insight into why I hardly hang out late on the weekend.

This reflective piece is the third in a series penned by Furaha Asani on her mental health struggles.

Photographs by Mauwa Asani.

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