The Nightmare That is Chronic Insomnia

Sherry McGuinn

After trying everything, what's next?

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The Tuesday before Thanksgiving was weird and surreal. More so than pandemically usual as I spent over five hours of the day in a dentist’s chair, with an IV in my arm, wafting around in LaLa Land.

I had to have a chipped tooth fixed, a deep cleaning, i.e., painful “excavation,” and some other thing that I can barely remember as one of the results of sedation is amnesia. That said, I can’t keep shit straight, anymore, as it is. Sedated, or not.

The night before the procedure I didn’t sleep. Not one hour. Not ten minutes. Nada. I was anxious about the appointment and also, my sleep meds (Xanax and Seroquel) aren’t working the way they once did. They used to knock me out all night and now, I awaken in the wee hours when the demons come out to play.

By the time my appointment rolled around at 9:40 a.m., I was looking forward to the sedation thinking I would actually get some rest, but that never happened. It’s called “conscious sedation” for a reason. Even so, I’m not complaining as I was feeling no pain and the work got done all in one sitting. Or rather, laying, as I was pretty much horizontal the whole time. With shades on and tubes everywhere. The “sunglasses” were dentist-furnished, by the way. Kind of a nice perk as it dims the disarming sight of several people working on your mouth at once.

Pretty freakin’ weird, nonetheless.

Hours later, though, the aftermath of all that stuff running through my veins kicked in with a vengeance. Incredibly dizzy and queasy, I spent the day flopped on our love seat in the family room and then hit the hay by 7:30. I couldn’t wait, albeit, I knew what was to come.

You see, this story isn’t about my lack of sleep, rather, it’s about my husband’s who suffers from chronic insomnia along with sleep apnea.

He never was what you’d call a “great sleeper,” but through the years, his condition has advanced to the point where he often goes for days without getting any real rest. Try to imagine that. Not merely hours, but days.

Thankfully, he works from home or I’d be in constant fear of his getting in a car wreck on his way to the office.

The worst part? There isn’t a damned thing that I can do to help him. He’s been through several sleep “studies,” has seen doctor after doctor, and has tried nearly every prescription and over-the-counter sleep supplement, available. I’ve rubbed lavender oil into his shoulders, we have a machine that emits a variety of nature sounds, I’ve brewed cup after cup of “calming tea,” I’ve even prayed to the voodoo gods, you name it.

Not being able to sleep, the residual effects of never feeling fully rested, are difficult to articulate unless you’ve experienced this first-hand.

The havoc that chronic insomnia wreaks on the body is akin to an out-of-control-bulldozer. Every condition is amplified. Every bodily ache and twinge is ramped up to full-throttle. And the mental and emotional toll is ravaging. The sleep-deprived start to question their own sanity…hearing and seeing things that aren’t there. According to Healthline, insomniacs can experience the following:

  • impulsive behavior
  • mood swings
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • suicidal thoughts

What a savage, cruel condition this is.

Frankly, I don’t know how my husband is able to function or do his job, yet he does. After only one night without sleep, I am a mess.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: It’s a hell of a lot better to be tired as opposed to being tired and hungover. That is hell, folks.

For us, bedtime has become something to dread. If I sleep a whole night through, which I rarely do these days, I feel horribly guilty. Rationally, I know that’s ridiculous, but I do, nonetheless.

Normally, when we retire for the evening, my husband and I both read our Kindles in bed. I usually drop off first, fairly soon after my sleep meds kick in. Oddly, my husband starts to drift off, first, from sheer, debilitating exhaustion, but, after a few minutes, he’ll awaken.

When he does fall asleep, he’s very vocal, talking and/or yelling if he’s having a nightmare. The other night, I was awake and watched him dart from the bed and shamble off at a good clip, making for the hallway. It took a couple of tries before I was able to awaken him and find out what the hell was going on.

Apparently, he saw a figure, a man, standing over us at the end of the bed and took off after this phantom!

My heart breaks for what my husband goes through. Every. Single. Night. Lately, I’m awake quite a bit myself and hear him get out of bed and make his way either to the office, where he’ll read some more or the family room where he’ll try to catch an hour or two in the recliner in front of the TV.

The creaking of the bed as my husband gets up. Loud and grating in the dead of night. Even more discomfiting in the wee hours. Not for the first time, I think, “We need a new mattress.”

When the hell did they get so expensive, anyway?

More creaking as he returns to bed, his back to me. I lie there, waiting for the inevitable, and I’m not left waiting for long as sure enough, my husband moans, softly, and then gets up, slips into his robe, and on shaky legs, leaves the room.

The creaking of that fucking bed. I hate it. I’m going to do something about it. That, at least, will make me feel as if I’m helping, somehow.

Will something as simple as a new mattress do the trick? Help dispel whatever is careening through my husband’s thoughts that won’t allow him to relax…and get the respite, no matter how brief, of a few hours of sleep?

I don’t know, but I have to do something.

As I said, we’ve tried everything. The next move, according to the doc in our ever-growing chain, is Cognitive Behavior Therapy. But first, we have to find a skilled therapist. More digging. More “trying someone on” to see if they fit.

But what else is there to do? We can’t just give up. That’s not an option. Somehow, we have to find a way out of this living nightmare for both our sakes. For my husband’s health and my sanity.

Ray Bradbury said it best in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“Oh God, midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon. But three, now, Christ, three A.M.! Doctors say the body’s at low tide then. The soul is out. The blood moves slow. You’re the nearest to dead you’ll ever be save dying. Sleep is a patch of death, but three in the morn, full wide-eyed staring, is living death! You dream with your eyes open. God, if you had strength to rouse up, you’d slaughter your half-dreams with buckshot! But no, you lie pinned to a deep well-bottom that’s burned dry. The moon rolls by to look at you down there, with its idiot face. It’s a long way back to sunset, a far way on to dawn, so you summon all the fool things of your life, the stupid lovely things done with people known so very well who are now so very dead — And wasn’t it true, had he read somewhere, more people in hospitals die at 3 A.M. than at any other time…”

© Sherry McGuinn, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.

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