Thursday 22 August 2019

'I was a great one for wandering around upstairs in the dark' - insomniac (59) who didn't sleep a full night in four decades

Mairead McGrath with Deirdre McSwiney, an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI), on tonight's documentary “Awake – the Science of Sleep”.
Mairead McGrath with Deirdre McSwiney, an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI), on tonight's documentary “Awake – the Science of Sleep”.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Imagine not sleeping eight-hours-a-night for 40 years. In fact, you never slept more than five hours a night. And regularly, you’ve only slept for two hours.

Mairead McGrath (59) from Thurles, Co Tipperary, has had trouble with insomnia since her early twenties. Her early memories feature her mother sitting at the end of her bed, helping her to get to sleep by repeating a prayer.

“One of the only times I slept seven hours straight was when I was under an aesthetic.”

“My worst night’s sleep would be none. One or two hours would have been very regular.”

“I would have a book or a kindle, or an iPad, or the TV on. I’d sit up because you’d drive yourself nuts if you stayed in bed. I’d get up and walk around. I was a great one for wandering around upstairs in the dark.”

Insomnia, a difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, can drastically affect a person’s quality of life. It can cause fatigue, mood disturbances, and decreased performance in work or at school.

Mairead realised she need help with her insomnia when she hadn’t slept for a few days straight in her early twenties.

“I did hotel management in college and that’s when it was exacerbated. I was working the dreaded shifts, so I could have been up until 4am working at an event and then up again for breakfasts the next morning.”

“I remember there was a period of a good number of days when I got no sleep and I went to the doctor. That was when I was first prescribed sleeping tablets. I think I slept for two days solid at that point. But they only worked for a short time.”

“I remember then I moved to Dublin and I was driving. I was always nervous about that. If you don’t sleep having taken a sleeping tablet, you can be like a zombie. But I was terrified not to take the sleeping tablets for fear they wouldn’t work.”

“You just don’t function right, and it makes you irritable as my family would attest to,” Mairead joked.

A few months ago, Mairead applied to feature in a documentary “Awake – the Science of Sleep”.

Deirdre McSwiney, an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI), which has an 75 per cent success rate, coached her in how to approach sleep.

“She helped me enormously. The first thing she did was told me that I wasn’t allowed go to bed before 12.30am, and then only when I felt sleepy. That was a real shock to the system.”

“Then she banned all sorts of things out of the room – no TV, no radio, no kindle. Your bed is for sleeping.”

“An hour before you go to bed, you go upstairs, clean your teeth, take off your makeup and all of that stuff, so that when you’re sleepy and going to bed, that’s all you’re doing, you’re going up and opening up the blanket and getting into bed.”

“The other rule is, do not stay more than 15 minutes in bed if you’re not asleep. Go downstairs and read a book or do something like that.”

Gradually, night by night, Mairead’s sleep began to improve. She was able to start reducing her sleeping tablets.

“It took a couple of months and then after about six or eight weeks I began to reduce the sleeping tablets. I’ve been off sleeping tablets for about three months, and I’m sleeping now.”

“I was ready to give up the sleeping tablets, because logically or medically they weren’t working.”

“I’m full of beans. I reckon I look better.”

“It’s remarkable, the change in me, in my mood, in my functioning, it is remarkable. I would have been a bit cynical, I’d never have tried out something like that before.”

“I’ve renewed an old hobby. I was in toastmasters, and I’ve rejoined it in the last month.”

“Awake – the Science of Sleep” airs tonight on RTE One at 9.35pm.

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