True Story: My Insomnia Affects Every Aspect Of My Life

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting, challenging, amazing things. This is the story of Summer and her life-long struggle with insomnia. 

For the record, Summer totally has her friend’s permission to post the above photo 😉

Tell us a bit about yourself! 
I’m Summer Grimes, and I’m 32. I live in Minneapolis with my 7-year-old Chihuahua, Edie. I love adventures like traveling on a shoestring and writing about it. I make a living as a copywriter for a digital marketing agency and freelance writer, and I write Hobo Siren.
Did you always have trouble sleeping? 
Always. My earliest memory I can determine is a Fraggle Rock waking nightmare in the confines of my crib, and a lot of my childhood memories are built around being awake while everyone else was sleeping. I remember looking around my classroom in Kindergarten at all the conked-out kids on their blue mats at naptime. I was always aware that everyone seemed to just fall asleep by resting.
Apparently, 60 million Americans struggle with insomnia and they struggle for lots of different reasons—both physical and psychological. What’s your story?
Insomnia has been a lifelong struggle—mostly difficulty falling asleep, but I have some other charming disorders thrown in as well: sleep talking, periodic limb movement disorder and sleep paralysis—to name a few.
I started sleepwalking around the age of 8. I mostly woke up undressed and huddled over my knees in a bathtub full of water. I also pulled out drawers and dumped out their contents. That was pretty annoying. The scariest thing I ever did was wake up at the bus stop when I was 15. I was fully dressed and wearing my backpack. I had wet hair from showering and had eaten breakfast. It was 3:30 a.m.
I believe the source of all this is multifaceted, and I’m aware of some influencing factors while others remain a mystery. But this has become the year I’m investing in my sleep. I’ve even started seeing a sleep specialist and I’m likely a candidate for cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia.
How does lack of sleep affect you on a day-to-day basis?
It’s tough. We’re not built to fall asleep at 4 and show up to work at 8:30. Perhaps half the time I wonder how I’m going to make it through the day. When I’m really sleep deprived, really simple activities can become overwhelming. I struggle with cognitive sluggishness, which interferes with my work. Someone who’s chronically sleep deprived is pumped full of stress hormones—like adrenaline and cortisol—that they’re supposed to access in more life-threatening situations. An overload of those means a messed-up immune system and skin and weight issues.
Do you think it’s had a longer-term affect on your life?
Absolutely. In a lot of ways it’s shaped my identity and my relationships.
Tell us about the different ways you’ve tried to treat your sleep issues.
* Waking early and forcing myself to run—makes for a rough rest of the day…
* Going to bed and waking up the same time every night—tough when life is so unpredictable or you want to socialize
* Alcohol—great for falling asleep, bad for staying asleep, and makes for a lousy tomorrow
* Deliberately depriving myself of sleep in hopes of later bingeing on sleep
* Sleeping pills or Benadryl
* Acupuncture and herbal supplements
Have you ever taken part in a sleep study?
Just recently. It was fascinating to see the science of what’s happening while I’m asleep—or trying to sleep. It was validating to learn it takes me several hours to fall asleep, even with a sleep aid, and that I spend virtually no time in REM or deep sleep. It felt like a scientific stamp reassuring me, “You’re not supposed to feel this awful every day!”
How do you feel when you’re getting ready for bed every night?
For most of my life I would’ve said I feel incredibly anxious. And while no miracles have occurred, I feel less angst these days. A lot of that is because I’ve been very adamant about putting my sleep first. My friends are now no strangers to my saying that I have to head home and start my sleep routine. It’s caught on nicely. Sometimes when I’m texting a friend late at night, they’ll scold me and ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing your sleep routine?”
I think most of us feel like we’re usually operating on some sort of sleep deficit and a lot of people consider it ‘bad manners’ to constantly talk about how tired we are. How do you deal with that? Do you ever want to yell “But I’m realllly tired! Like, it’s seriously unhealthy! I need more than a 20 minute nap!” (Because that’s what I’d want to do, like, every day.)
I think talking about sleep deprivation is a bit like talking about food intolerances: just not that interesting for the general public. Everyone knows the effects of a crappy night’s sleep, so I don’t expect a lot of sympathy—and I genuinely try to answer the “how are you?” question with something more interesting than “I’m really, really tired.” Because…that’s boring. We’re all tired.
I’m learning to give myself permission to stop feeling guilty for taking my sleep seriously. This means I might turn down plans or cut them short, because if I leave a dinner party at midnight and arrive home at 12:15, I’m likely to not fall asleep until 3:30 or 4:00 a.m., which means a miserable tomorrow. And that can set off a nasty cycle.
What do you think about the recent studies that state someone who has a serious sleep deficit has similar reaction times/decision making processes to a drunk person?
They’re spot on. I can be the absolute worst—confused, slurring, irrational. I also find items in strange places—like screwdrivers in the refrigerator or steamed greens in the cabinet. And I especially have a difficult time with verbal communication.Recently after several sleepless days I asked my mom to put a bag of clothing in the toilet. Then I corrected myself by saying, “…on the concrete.” As you can imagine, neither of those were anywhere close to my intended words.

I also apparently have the silly habit of stowing rather perplexing items in my handbag when I’m exhausted: a raw sweet potato, a small purple cabbage, a steak knife, a bottle of yellow mustard…to name a few. (This might be a good time to say that I don’t do drugs; these are all instances of my brain on sleep deprivation.)

Have you discovered anything that’s helped you get to sleep?
Taking it seriously like a disease. I don’t want to advocate for drugs, but I take a prescription medication that helps. It’s in the benzodiazepine family of drugs, so it’s used for anxiety but specifically to induce sleepiness. I try and use it as a last resort because of dependency fears.
Rituals have also been effective: powering down electronics at a certain time, no overhead lights after 7 p.m., using my bed for only sleep, deep breathing, positive visualization—even prayer. I’ve also learned to have an arsenal of laidback activities to do if I get really anxious about sleeplessness: I’ll take a bath and read or I’ll water my plants. But I avoid stimulating activities like organizing things, and turning on the computer is a no-no.
What advice would you give to others who are struggling with getting enough sleep?
Address it. Seek help—from whatever trusted source you’re inclined to pursue—and really stick with your sleep routine the way you would with any worthy goal that takes effort. Sleep hygiene (could we make that phrase sound any more sterile and not relaxing?) takes time to be effective. Make a plan and commit to it for a month or longer.Secondly, sleep is a serious issue, but my advice would be to try and relax about it. I recently came up with this loose mantra that I’ll meditate on in bed: Even if you don’t fall asleep, lying here is still resting. Finally, know that you’re not alone, and have faith that you’ll find relief.

Thank you so much for sharing, Summer. Do any of you guys struggle with insomnia? If you have and you’ve gotten past it – please leave your tips or treatments in the comments!

P.S. How to become a morning person (or at least fake it) 

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  1. Vanessa

    This is quite the opposite of what I experience. I can't get ENOUGH sleep! For me, I aim for 12 hours in bed and I still wake up super groggy.

    I've never "understood" insomnia since I'm the polar opposite. Thanks for a peek into your nighttime world.

  2. RM

    I get usually 2 or 3 days of insomnia per month (in a row), which I think it related to hormones/menstrual cycle. I'll be honest, the only thing that gets me to sleep at those times is marijuana. I can deal with one night of insomnia, but more than that and I start going a bit weird as Summer describes.

  3. Joy

    Wow, that sounds tough. Good on you for taking it seriously and prioritizing sleep.
    All the best!

  4. Brandy A. Brown

    I love the sleep study photo, I have a similar one! Your paragraph on the day-to-day is so spot on and perfect. That's the stuff I think we have to share with others so they get that it's a bit past the general tired of most people.

    I've always had sleep problems as well, but they tried every class of medications to help me get to sleep and none of them worked. (We thought Ambien worked until I deliberately stayed over at a friend's while taking it and had them tell me if I slept – I didn't – I just didn't do anything productive of note and didn't remember it.) When the sleep study was 'inconclusive' (I can always fall asleep when totally deprived of stimuli and bored – right into REM I go in waiting rooms, dentist chairs, classes with soft-talking professors, etc.) we have concluded that it's likely a REM disorder, but my issues of sleep paralysis, needing naps, and seriously sleep feelings. Now we treat my wakefulness so I don't end up taking an involuntary nap (usually accompanied by a delightfully scary sleep paralysis hallucination) every day with Provigil/Modafinil. It's what they use for narcoleptics, which I am not necessarily… but that in combo with some fast-release melatonin to get me past the insomniac hump sometimes (it was useless before this) and an abandoning of giving myself too many rules around my sleep + being kind to myself + getting a more flexible job has made all the difference.

    I hope you get to the bottom of things, and if you gain any more insights along the way, please do share!

  5. Sandra

    I am 59 and have always had a sleep problem, it got progressively worst in my therties, I was always anxious band could not turn it off, it was like let me get off the merrygoaround, please. I have been on anxiety medication, but it only calms me down for a few minutes and then I s,m full of energy and can’t get back to a routine. My husband always had a way to stress me, without even knowing. He would say, we can’t buy this we don’t have money for it, not this month, your budget for this week is x amount, I just found it intrusive, but then we wanted to buy and pay our house in 7 years. I guess everything that bugged me would result in me having anxiety attacks. I always introduce myself as the crazy person, because lack of sleep, you don’t put stuff where it belongs

  6. esteffany

    So, so with you on the chronic insomnia. Can be hell on earth. I feel ya.

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