My 20-Year Battle With Insomnia: I’m Ready to Fight Back

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I am a terrible sleeper. I haven't always had trouble sleeping, but I can trace my nearly 20 year battle with insomnia to my years in graduate school. My grad program was a very challenging one, and most of it took place in my second language. The reading eluded me, and I don't think there was a single day when I could say I felt caught up. Add to that the fact that most of my courses were on Monday and Tuesday, and it meant that Sundays were incredibly anxiety-provoking.


Within my first year, I learned a pattern of Sunday night anxiety and insomnia, and that pattern stuck with me for years, even after I had finished my program and gone on to a more normal daily work schedule. Eventually I overcame the Sunday night blues, but it took years.

My next big bout with insomnia came after quitting a job. In theory, quitting a job should bring relief and better sleep, but for some reason it worked just the opposite on me. As soon as I quit my job I stopped sleeping normally and started the pattern that I continue to have to this day: fall asleep with no problem around 11 p.m., wake for no apparent reason around 3:30 a.m., remain awake for at least 1 hour, fall back asleep and feel like complete and utter crap when the alarm goes off at 7. Loll in bed until the last possible moment, throw clothes on and go to work.

This, people, is not working for me. It doesn't happen every night, but it happens with enough frequency that I have chronic insomnia and sleep debt. I've tried all the usual recommended tricks to sleep better, but now I'm going to try some new things, like morning light therapy, a few minutes of exercise upon waking, and some other suggestions I've been researching.

But first, I'm starting with this morningness-eveningness questionnaire. Maybe I'm just not a morning person. Or maybe I am and other stuff I'm doing is obscuring my true self? The source of the questionnaire is the Center for Environmental Therapeutics. Their mission is to

  • Educate the public, students and professionals about effective use of environmental therapies.
  • Offer authoritative information on non-medication treatments for seasonal affective disorder, nonseasonal depression and circadian rhythm sleep disorders.
  • Foster research on environmental interventions that promote alertness, energy, and performance — while combating fatigue, stress, depression and sleep disturbances that affect millions of people.

I just finished the questionnaire, and it was quite interesting. In the end it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, and I was surprised at its apparent accuracy. I don't know whether it really is accurate, but it certainly doesn't seem harmful. Here are the results, which I will use to try and shift my morning routine/bad attitude, as well as my nighttime routine and activities:

Melatonin onset: @ 10:30 p.m. (earliest time I could go to sleep easily)
Natural bedtime: @ 12:15 a.m. (this is related to the best time to start light therapy and/or use of light to help wake in the morning)
Light timing: @ 7 a.m.
Recommended sleep length: about 7 hours.

All of those times feel about right to me. They feel like the times when stuff should be happening. So maybe I can readjust my sleep hygiene to get there. Maybe I'll report on this weekly?

For more insight into how I'm hacking my life over 30 days, check out Lisa Hacks Life.

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