I’ve never been great at sleeping. I’ve suffered from insomnia, off and on, since early childhood.
Most of the time I simply lacked the ability to feel tired, as though part of my brain was missing. If I did sleep, I suffered from tremors – I would be interrupted multiple times by nightmares, negative thoughts, sweating and hyperventilating.
Eventually, I had to survive on brief daytime naps to ensure I got some rest.
By the time I was a teenager, my bouts of insomnia had been normalised to the point where it was just who I was. My dark circles, tired presence and nocturnal behaviour was even a running-joke between me and my friends.
I finally realised I needed help when I was 18. It was 4am, five months after I’d moved away for university, and I was lying awake sobbing for the seventh day in a row. I had now, officially, not slept for a week.
It had already been awful relying on rapid naps and sweet coffee to make it through lectures for six days, but something about rounding off a full, sleepless week hit home. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
I stayed awake until opening time and trudged to the GP, expecting to leave with a referral to a specialist and sleeping pills in-hand. I’d seen characters on TV shows get sent to sleep clinics just for snoring, so surely, I’d receive support.
Feeling (and probably looking) vacant, I ran the doctor through the symptoms, how long it had been going on, and asked for help. Instead, he told me to cut down on partying – patronisingly adding ‘although it is tempting as a fresher!’ – and to minimise my caffeine intake. He didn’t even ask me if I drank, let alone how many units.
I left only with a leaflet on sleep hygiene and a feeling of helplessness.
What followed was two years of sleepless nights and me trying to be taken seriously by medical professionals. That first visit was probably the worst, but it set the tone for being constantly misunderstood and brushed off.
I missed job interviews, lectures, and social events. Some days, holding a conversation was a fight. My friendships were deteriorating. Only I knew how ill I truly was.
At one point, I was prescribed Sertraline, an anti-depressant which carries the potential side effect of… insomnia. Despite this, the GP insisted it would be worth a try.
I tried it for a couple of weeks, but my symptoms quickly became worse. When I told the doctor this, he said I didn’t have to take them anymore but failed to offer an alternative.
Eventually I began spending £150 a month trying to cure myself. It didn’t matter that I was an unemployed student, I just wanted to sleep.
I threw money at any product in purple packaging with decorative clouds that promised ‘a good night’s sleep’; from books and apps to copious amounts of pillow spray and packets of sleep aids. Using all of these items and more finally worked.
My finances took a bit of a hit – never to a point where I was in danger, but a lot of money I should have spent on course books was spent on sleep capitalism. I also felt a little ridiculous needing so many lotions and potions just to become unconscious, especially when I started dating and had to bring it all to partners’ houses.
But I didn’t mind much. I could finally sleep, and that meant I had a better chance at finding a job, passing university and having an actual quality of life.
There are a number of factors that could cause insomnia aside from ‘partying too much’ – an assumption I feel the doctor made based on my gender and age – from stress, life events, a poor diet, to inconsistent schedules, physical pain, or medication.
And according to a study produced by the Society for Women’s Health Research, (cis) women are more likely to suffer from insomnia. This is partly because we are more likely to experience stress, but also because we are susceptible to a larger range of potential causes, such as the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause.
In my case, it was probably a catastrophic combination of stress, poor mental health and difficulty managing my period and contraception.
Despite this, women are less likely to be taken seriously by medical professionals and more likely to need a second opinion (especially women of colour). I was already all too aware of the gender bias in doctors’ offices – what I didn’t realise is that this unfortunately extends to sleep health as well.
Approaches to women seeking help for insomnia must change, or the consequences could be disastrous. Severe sleep-deprivation can cause a person’s immune system to weaken and come with a plethora of mental and physical health problems.
What’s more, if a patient has not slept for an extended period of time, doctors should consider writing the patient off work or education. According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), deadly car crashes as well as workplace accidents can occur when dangerously sleep-deprived people take the wheel or attempt to operate machinery.
With these possibilities in mind, medical professionals should assess every patient who enquires about insomnia on a case-by-case basis, getting to know the individual symptoms and probable causes. Insomnia is much more serious than it’s perceived to be and should be treated thoughtfully.
My insomnia is now, fortunately, a thing of the past. After two years of spending £150 a month on sleep products and using over-the-counter sleeping pills, I was able to forge a normal sleep cycle, which eventually became natural. I began slowly cutting out products, one at a time, before letting go of sleeping aids altogether.
With the help of a new job that included a shiny private medical package, I was able to see a sleep specialist, three years after my first request for help. They helped me make meaningful lifestyle changes to support my sleep.
I began regularly exercising, and transformed my bedroom into a literal ‘Bed Room’. It has nothing but a bed in it; no TV, no excessive décor, not even a mirror. This means when I go there, my brain knows it’s time to sleep and can’t put up much of a fight.
Once I finished studying, I found a flexible job and started a happy relationship. With a happier life that worked for me, sleep became easier. I’m now getting around 8-9 hours a night (sorry for the flex).
I’m grateful every day that sleep is now achievable for me, but I can’t help but feel angry about the initial treatment I received from doctors. The answers I paid for should have been available from the beginning.
For any woman suffering from insomnia, I encourage you to take an honest, objective look at your life and identify stressors that need diminishing. If you can get a referral (or you have the funds to do so privately), I think it’s worth going to a sleep specialist directly.
Treating insomnia can be a slow and daunting process. As the condition differs for each person, overcoming it involves a lot of trial and error, but it’s worth going through the basics (no technology in the bedroom, diet, exercise, etc), even if it’s just to rule them out.
The most important advice I can give is not to accept it. Insomnia is not who you are, or an inevitable part of a woman’s role in a stress-orientated world.
You deserve support, and a good night’s sleep.
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