There’s no easy way to admit this: I’m a drug addict. My particular addition is relatively benign and not in any way illegal – it’s sleeping pills. But I’ve been hooked on them for 13 years now, since the days when helicopters would fly above my house during the Second Intifada on their way to Bethlehem or Beit Jala and I got so tense I couldn’t fall asleep. Maybe that makes my insomnia a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or maybe I’ve always had it – even before the Intifada, I didn’t sleep well as a teenager, and my mother says I would never go down for a nap as an infant. (Sleep researchers say that’s a clue to something they call “childhood-onset insomnia.”)
But now I’m doing something about it. I’ve entered solitary rehab; my own personal detox program. Over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve been voluntarily cutting back on my pills in an effort to, if not cut them out completely, then “reset” my system so that I can sleep longer on less.
So far, it’s been tough. If I used to get 6-7 hours on 7.5-10 mg of Zopiclone (the European equivalent of Lunesta in North America, also known as Imovane), I’m down to 3-4 hours during this initial detoxification period. And that’s at cutting my dosage only in half. Will I be able to sleep at all when I go off completely?
I know what I am getting myself into. I’ve done this before. In 2008, I was in worse shape, taking more pills and mixing several types in what I knew was a dangerous brew. That time, I went cold turkey from day one. Only after I was too far into the process to turn back did I consult the Internet to realize that an “all or nothing approach” was a mistake. My bones ached. I developed a persistent cough. I missed steps walking down stairs and felt like I was staggering around in a state of unrelenting and mercilessly unforgiving jet lag, as I went literally days without a wink of sleep.
But after two months, my body passed the nasty and “reset.” I was able to sleep without pills. It didn’t last long – maybe another three months at most, but then I only needed a couple of milligrams to get me to sleep. My “tolerance” slowly edged back up until today, at the beginning of 2014, I feel the need to do it again.
During the past five years, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on sleep. I’ve read every book and scholarly article on the subject, from Gregg Jacobs’ best-selling “Say Goodnight to Insomnia” to Dr. William Dement’s “The Promise of Sleep”; trawled the countless online forums for people with insomnia (not sleeping will give you extra time to do that); and even had a personal meeting with Gayle Greene, author of Insomniac, one of the best layperson’s books on the subject, when she visited Israel a few years ago.
Before you write me with your helpful recommendations, please know that I’ve tried all the alternatives - Chinese herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy, vitamin supplements, SAM-e, melatonin, peanut butter (for the magnesium in it), Valerian, Calms Forte, reflexology, magnets – and I know they don’t work for me. (The one most promising med, GHB, which apparently has no long term sleep-related side effects, contains the same active ingredient used in one of the most notorious date rate drugs, and so is banned for use.) My meditation practice is helping but is not a cure either. I’ve come to accept that my particular insomnia may have been triggered or exacerbated by stress but is not beholden to it; there is clearly a chemical component that I’m not going to shake on my own.
I also know that sleep doctors weigh which is more harmful – taking sleeping pills or lack of shuteye. Sleep is the time when the body heals itself and revitalizes the immune system. You can only go so many hours without sleep before you die. That’s why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. So, the current thinking goes, even unnatural sleep may be better than none at all.
Paradoxically, lack of sleep is also a temporary cure for depression. If you’re feeling down, pull an all-nighter and you’ll do better the next day.
An odd side effect of not sleeping: you eat more. Research is showing that sleep impacts ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that tell the body when it is hungry and when it is full. Too little sleep and you have a greater chance of trending towards obesity. (Fortunately, one of the ways that I push through my exhaustion is by increasing my exercise regimen, so I seem to be balancing out on this front.)
Ironically, both sleeping pills and lack of sleep negatively affect memory. At my age, memory is something I want to protect. In another surprise, I feel slightly more creative with less sleep than too much. Does that make me the stereotypical cantankerous writer? I’ll let you be the judge: how’s this article? Coherent…or pungent?
If all goes according to plan, in another 1-2 months, I’ll be sleeping OK off meds and then the next five-year clock will start its countdown. It’s kind of like my wife’s colonoscopy, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. I know it will hurt, but I’m willing to put up with the pain because I can envision a brighter future. In fact, I may already be seeing the benefits: last night I got 6 hours of sleep on half my old dosage. Encouraging!
To my family and friends, I ask that you bear with me. I may be dazed, I may snap, but I will ultimately come back and hopefully be a happier, healthier person.
See you on the other side!