Pillow talk: Confessions of an eye-mask addict

On the struggles of sleep, their causes and their cures.

Art: Claire Ollivain

Art by Claire Ollivain.

Insomnia, to me, tastes like a deep-fried Mars Bar. Sickly sweet and coating my tongue with an impenetrable fat that numbs my taste buds. I tried this gluttonous treat for the first time following a sleep-devoid night. It had been at a sleepover with my friends, one that was pretty high stakes as I had just moved to a new school. 

Bleary eyed, I watched as the morning light leaked into the room and I realised that I wouldn’t be getting any sleep. It was a familiar feeling of failure; sleeping was never something that came easy to me. 

During isolation, after reading article upon article about ‘wild dreams’ and ‘sleep disruptions’, I came to the realisation that there was never much discussion about sleep illnesses before COVID-19 . 

I asked Dr Sarah Blunden, who is the founder and director of the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep, why insomnia was not as widely talked about as other health issues. She told me that overall many GPs and other health practitioners weren’t attuned to the fact that sleep loss has such a significant effect on physiological and psychological outcomes.

Dr Blunden remarked, “sleep was something that we could always give up doing for something that we deemed [more] important…now, the importance of sleep has started to creep into [the] conversation a lot more.”

As I struggled with my own sleep difficulties around ten years ago, the lack of social conversations surrounding insomnia led me to feel isolated. Unable to fall asleep, I would feel like the only person at night awake in the world.

These feelings are something many of us are currently experiencing in 2020. Validated by a noteworthy trend in Australia, there has been a spike in the popularity of the search term ‘insomnia’ on Google from 50% to 92% between March and April, 2020.

During my discussions with a slew of sleep experts, I began to recognise how such a sudden shift in the sleep paradigm had come about (caused by COVID-19 related disruptions).

Throughout it all, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘join the club.’

I have often attempted to explain what I experienced growing up, but I didn’t possess the vocabulary to describe it. Associate Professor Bartlett defines insomnia as being “a difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep, waking too early.” Importantly, to qualify as insomnia these dysfunctional behaviours “occur repeatedly at least three times a week, and it’s been present for at least three months.”

For me, it was the associated social impacts that highlighted that my sleeping was abnormal. Camps, sleepovers and any overnight activities would fill me with irrational dread.

I often did try my best to stay put the whole night. Usually, it would end up with me small and self-conscious, knocking on my friend’s parents’ bedroom door, often crying and asking to go home. Sometimes the parents were sympathetic, other times they would tell me to go back to bed and try again, but that made me long to be at home even more.

I resorted to assembling a sleeping toolkit. Armed with my yellow bear Wattle, and my extra soft pillow drenched with lavender oil (so enthusiastically done by my mother that one time she accidentally poured some in my eye!) I felt ‘prepared’, or so I thought.

Rosie, my best friend since childhood, laughs when lavender oil is mentioned. When I smelled lavender, I would think of you struggling to sleep and that was kind of hard… just because you were usually [di]stressed…”

The more things I sniffed, sprayed and clutched in an attempt to alleviate my over whirling mind, the worse it became. Rosemary Clancy terms what I experienced as ‘performance anxiety’. It sounds lewd but she had nailed in two words what had tormented me for so long.

Clancy believes that sleep hygiene rules have good science behind them; things like getting up at the same time every morning, getting sunlight and going to bed when you feel sleepy, are all sleep conducive.

Yet, she highlights that “if you try to follow the sleep rules perfectly you will actually create insomnia… you start to distrust your brain’s capacity to sleep. And that’s when you start waking up during the night getting frustrated or scared, especially about next-day functioning.”

 Paradoxically, the culmination of tools I tried scared off my sleep even more. 

By age thirteen, my sleeping was so disruptive to my health and wellbeing that my mother took me to see a sleep counsellor. I recall being very open-minded, trusting that maybe this would be the solution. But it didn’t go quite as planned. The counsellor ended up hardly talking about sleep, and instead psychoanalysed the relationship I had with my parents.

At the end of the session, as an afterthought, she pushed a rainbow covered tape in my hands. I was meant to listen to it before bed and envision that I was a dolphin. When I discussed it with my mother, she raised her eyebrows and conceded that maybe it was not one of her best ideas.

On our recent walk with my dog, I asked her if she could pin down why my sleeping issues began. She described how her and my dad struggled at settling me as a baby. 

“As parents of an only child, we were perhaps more anxious and more cautious, making sure to keep quiet, keeping the room dark and things like that,” my mother reflects.

I became so used to an environment of quiet and calm that even today I cannot sleep without an eye mask and earplugs. I questioned Dr Blunden almost sheepishly, but she reassured me, “we have triggers that make us sleep, we go into a bedroom, we brush our teeth… that’s fine.”

Nonetheless, she flagged the issue of becoming dependent on sleep aids (which to be plainly honest, I definitely am). Dr Blunden expresses that if you go to sleep and are “worried that you need a mask, a mask in itself is not the worry. It’s the importance you’ve placed on it that’s the worry.”

I view this sequence of little actions that I do before slumber almost like a placebo for me to rest. Regrettably, Professor Bartlett states that anything ritualistic surrounding sleep can be dangerous, “if you get into a pattern where [you think] if I don’t do this, I can’t sleep… you create pressure again.”On the whole, my sleeping issues have now dissolved. It came with the awareness that I will eventually fall asleep – even if it takes a while longer.

Professor Bartlett tells me it’s normal to have intermittent nights of bad sleep. It makes sense as it’s “ a direct response to something that’s happened in terms of work-related, family related… [or] mental health.”

Whilst talking to the differing sleep professionals, I was presented with an opportunity to reflect on my own sleep behaviours.

However, over the days that I conducted the interviews, my mood dropped, I was tearing up throughout the day and was second guessing my ability to sleep. Ultimately, it was clear that my suffering was not buried as deep as I thought.

I even felt guilty conducting my interview with Rosemary Clancy on my bed as she talked me through the effects of using our laptops and devices in our bedrooms; creating “sinful associations, especially of bed with wakefulness.”

It gave me a bit of a jolt to change my practices, with Professor Bartlett stressing to me that “the person who sleeps well doesn’t know what they do… they’re able to put thoughts to the side.” 

For some, like me, this may not be a realistic possibility. Thinking before falling asleep can also be a positive thing.

Often, we need time to process everything that is going on around us, whether that’s what has happened in our day, or what would have been a better argument in a ‘heated discussion’ we were having with someone.

I have learnt not to hate those nights where my mind can’t seem to slow down, as they have given me some of my best ideas. Sleep is a more complex thing for some, and that’s okay, because it’s important to remember that sometimes our bodies have a mind of their own.

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