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How I Finally Started Sleeping Again

photo of Carolyn Gillihan
March 27, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

By Carolyn Gillihan, as told to Jennifer Clopton

My battle with insomnia began around the age of 50. I had never had much trouble sleeping before, so when it first hit me, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

I would go to bed feeling bone tired, but as soon as I turned off the lights and put my head on the pillow, my body would suddenly come to life. A feeling of intensity flooded through me, as if I were on steroids. My body felt like it was vibrating.

Night after night. It was as if my body was experiencing a fight or flight reaction every time I lay down to sleep. No matter how tired I thought I was, when I got into bed, my body suddenly felt full of electricity. The sensation felt like fear, but I didn’t have any idea what I was afraid of.

When these feelings came, often I would go downstairs and pray, which helped a bit. But much of the time I stayed in bed, trying to fight the feelings and hoping they would go away.

I would eventually fall asleep, but I often woke up multiple times and my sleep was frequently restless. On average, for about 15 years, I got 3 to 5 hours of sleep a night. It got to the place where I deeply dreaded bedtime. As soon as I would lie down at night, I knew I would be struggling to sleep, watching the time tick by, wondering and worrying how long sleep would elude me. It was awful, and I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning.

I tried many ways to fight the insomnia. I frequently used Benadryl, sometimes Chlor-Trimeton (an allergy medication) and melatonin, but none worked for the  long-term , and they often made me feel “off” the next day. I found that I was better off in the day without using some sleep aid. An alternative doctor suggested some supplements, but they didn’t bring consistent relief. It seemed that everything I tried helped for a while, but then ceased to be effective. I also tried to find the “perfect pillow,” but nothing ever made the difference I needed to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest.

After countless failed attempts to fix the problem, I just accepted that I was an insomniac and that’s the way my life would be.

But then I finally talked about this with one of my sons, who is a therapist and who made a special study of sleep deprivation. He explained that my insomnia wasn’t necessarily a biological issue or how I was wired, but could in fact be treated by changing my habits through a specialized kind of therapy called CBT-I (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia).

I was very pleased to learn that there are methods to help with insomnia, and that I didn’t have to continue to try new medications that always failed. So we started by assessing my problem. I stopped all sleep medications and kept a 2-week log, charting what time I went to bed, how long it took to fall asleep, how often I woke up at night, how long I stayed awake during those interruptions, when I finally woke up in the morning, and when I took naps. The results were illuminating to me. Even though I knew I was struggling, I was surprised how long it took me to get to sleep, how often I woke up, and how long I was awake during the night.

Then we used CBT-I to set about trying to change my sleep patterns. CBT-I teaches you to identify the behaviors and thoughts that are keeping you up at night and then it arms you with positive tools and behaviors to replace them.

This meant I needed to start living by some new rules:

  • I no longer lay in bed for hours on end when sleep eluded me. If I couldn’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, I had to get up and go into another quiet room with dim lights and read or do a puzzle. I wasn’t allowed to access screens or computers. I had to stay awake for either 30 minutes or one hour and then I could go back to bed and try again.
  • I cut out caffeine after 12-noon. I now only have one cup of coffee in the morning and avoid chocolate and caffeinated teas later in the day too.
  • I eliminated naps.
  • I committed to regular, daily exercise.
  • I created a nighttime routine, which involves taking a bath well before the time I want to go to sleep so I’m ready to head to bed when I first feel sleepy.
  • I also worked really hard to change my thinking patterns at night. Planning and preparing for bedtime now involves clearing my head of negative thoughts and deciding I will focus on them at another, more productive time.

Slowly, over a few weeks, I started to notice some differences. I no longer felt like I was fighting myself and lying in bed for hours before falling asleep. I was fixing bad habits I didn’t even realize I had, and I began to retrain myself to go to sleep.

Now most nights, when I go to bed, I fall asleep and I sleep well for 6-8 hours.

It does take self-control to maintain the healthy sleep habits I’ve learned, and I have to admit that I’m not always a perfect sleeper. I still struggle from time to time, but problems, when they come, are just occasional. Now, I really do look forward to going to bed.

I would never have thought I could retrain myself, at the age of 67, to be a better sleeper. But I have. I think another key to my success was realizing this wasn’t something I could, or had to do alone. It feels like a solitary struggle when you’re lying in bed at night and you think the rest of the country is fast asleep. But help is out there if you just start talking about your challenges and asking for assistance.

Nobody thinks twice about getting a trainer at the gym, and this doesn’t feel any different than that to me. I simply reached out to an expert to help me with this important part of my health, and now I’m happy to say I do believe I have a handle on my sleep challenges. I finally have the tools I need to peacefully close my eyes at night, and that has truly been eye opening.

Carolyn Gillihan works part-time on staff at a psychology clinic in southeastern Indiana, and she tutors adults and students of all ages who have dyslexia. Her husband Charles is a retired pastor. Together they raised 5 outstanding sons and currently have 8 grandchildren.  

Read more about sleep problems in WebMD's special report Why Can't We Sleep?

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