Wednesday 21 February 2018

My life as an insomniac

Gayle Green has led a sleep-deprived existence for 50 years. Now she's written a book to help fellow sufferers, reports Lisa Jewell

Sweet dreams: Author Gayle Green's book 'Insomniac' is part memoir, part probe into what is being done about it
Sweet dreams: Author Gayle Green's book 'Insomniac' is part memoir, part probe into what is being done about it

It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes Gayle Green gets seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. "When I wake up, I feel like I have jet fuel in my system," she says. "I realise, 'God, this is the way other people feel all the time.'"

Gayle has had chronic insomnia for more than 50 years. For most of her life, she has managed to function on just three or four hours of sleep a night. Nowadays, she can manage to get longer shut-eye but still wakes up every night and has to take a sleeping pill.

Most of us are cranky after just one night of bad sleep so it's hard to contemplate how someone can survive after a lifetime of what is essentially sleep deprivation.

"It's been a rocky road," says Gayle, who is a literature professor in California and has written a new book called Insomniac. "I tried to keep the insomnia to myself for many years and it had a big effect on my life."

Gayle, who is now in her 60s, doesn't remember much about having insomnia during her childhood but she recently found letters that her mother sent to her father while he was serving overseas in the medical corps during the Second World War.

"It was fascinating to read those letters," she says. "My mother wrote about having problems getting me to sleep when I was about 18 months old. I seemed to always be full of energy and didn't want to get rid of the day."

The problem became more obvious as Gayle grew older. "I'd read late at night because I just wasn't able to get to sleep. Then I'd stumble through the next day and try to grab a nap. That would make me stay up late again and the problem continued. But it was a lot easier when I was younger because I had more energy; I could get by on four hours of sleep."

But when Gayle started teaching part-time in New York, she had no control over her schedule.

"I had a lot of 8am starts which is a joke to someone who hasn't slept well the night before," she recalls. "I'm very lucky now in my academic career that I can structure my hours so that I teach in the afternoon and evening."

Gayle has also had to adapt her personal life to deal with insomnia.

"I didn't dare have a family because I didn't think it was going to be possible to raise children.

"If your sleep is already as bad as an infant's, it's not going to work when you have an infant who has the same type of sleep pattern. It would lead to too much stress and tension, so I just thought it wasn't fair to do that to a child or to me either.

"More than one relationship broke up over my insomnia. Most men I knew weren't terribly understanding of the problem. I did find a man who could deal with it, although because he has developed a snore and because of my insomnia, we now find it better to sleep apart."

One charge often levelled at insomniacs by the medical profession is that they're overly obsessed with sleep.

But as Gayle points out, if you've been pushed to your mental, emotional and physical limits by lack of sleep, you're bound to develop some interest in the subject matter.

In Gayle's case, it led her to spending six years researching and writing her book. It's partly a memoir, and partly an investigation into what is known about insomnia and what is being done about it.

Chronic insomnia, which is usually defined as insomnia that lasts longer than three weeks, affects between 5pc and 10pc of the population.

"We're going to have to figure out sleep before we get to insomnia," says Gayle. "Sleep science is still a young science -- it only began as a field of research in 1953.

"And though we've had some major breakthroughs with things like narcolepsy, there's still so much that we don't know about sleep."

Gayle attended a sleep clinic but it didn't show any conclusive results as to the cause of her insomnia.

The only thing that gets her through a decent night's sleep nowadays is a low dose of the sleeping pill Ambien. "I usually can't fall asleep until around 3am," she explains. "I'll get around three to four hours of natural sleep but I nearly always wake up again.

"I just know that I'm not going to get back to sleep so I take a low dose of the pill and sleep for another three hours until I wake up around 10am. Maybe once a month, I might sleep naturally for seven hours but that's fairly unusual.

"I would advise that people use medication as a last resort and try to re-organise their lifestyle so they don't need to take it.

"I have mixed feelings towards using sleep medication because I became addicted to a sleep medication that I was put on in 1980.

"But the newer medications are better and I think it's a case of finding one that works for you and making sure it's not causing personality changes."

Gayle knows first-hand how precious sleep is and says we should all appreciate just how important it is.

"I hear college students say, 'I'll sleep when I die', and I think some people do throw away just how important sleep is because they haven't experienced sleep deprivation.

"Insomniacs, on the other hand, can't ever take sleep for granted."

Insomniac is published by Piatkus (€16.25). Gayle's website is www.sleepstarved.org

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