What I learned from my insomnia

Alan O’Mara talks about his experience of sleepless nights

Written by Alan O'Mara


From talking to people all over the country on the topic of mental health, I have realised that depression has the potential to affect a person’s sleep pattern in two very different ways. There are those it stops from sleeping (me!) and those who will sleep too much.

I can only talk about the former but insomnia always reminds me of going to switch off my computer. Most times growing up a pop up box would appear saying 'Windows is shutting down'. It always left me feeling trapped in that state.

Unfortunately when it comes to sleeping you can’t unplug the power source or remove the battery to force it into hibernation. So you must lie there. You and your brain in a world of its own – staring at the ceiling thinking, questioning and wondering about everything in your life.

Occasionally I struggle to sleep and I now know that I am not alone in that club. Some nights I read, others I fall asleep to a relaxing playlist I call ‘dreamy sleepy nighty snoozey snooze’. I have a mindfulness CD that takes me through breathing exercises to encourage the body to wind down as a last resort. Simple things that I have learned work for me.

On one particular occasion I remember, absolutely nothing did the trick and my insomnia proved to be a catalyst to a singular suicidal thought entering my brain. I suppose as I grew more and more frustrated, my brain put forward this as a logical way to stop the internal conversations pulsing through my mind. Thankfully on this night, the notion left my brain as quickly as it came in. This whole process happened in seconds. In, out.

Rather than allow the frustration completely consume me, I put my two hands behind my head and asked myself what is stopping me from sleeping? What am I thinking about? What is worrying me? Once I began that process I realised there was nothing new upsetting my balance; nothing I hadn't addressed previously in my life.

I wondered if maybe I couldn’t sleep because I had been away on holidays for a week and did little or no exercise. Maybe I needed to burn some energy in order for me to switch off. I hadn't played a game of football or trained for six weeks because of injury. Was my body telling me I was missing something? Is it that release that playing sports provides me that I was missing? Maybe sport is not a valve, maybe it is just a distraction. Does football just compress this stuff for me? Internal conversations. One mind, two voices and they are away again!

I typed all this into my phone and noted my thoughts and feelings as in recent years that always seems to help slow my brain when I am struggling with my mental health. It might not work for everybody but it works for me. However, at 3am I accepted that my body wasn't going to switch off and I turned to Netflix to occupy my mind. Then I suddenly realise that it is 6am and the alarm that I had originally set 8 hours ago goes off in 90 minutes.

Insomnia is a lonely experience too and you think about the fact that everyone you know is in a happy dreamland; a check for online Facebook friends confirms I am in a world of my own. There is no movement in my house and I can hear the rain tapping off the window of my bedroom.

Out of nowhere a yawn occurs. At 6.11am I see my opportunity. I feel the body trying to switch off again but all of a sudden I start worrying about tomorrow. Will I be too tired at work? Will I call in sick? What mood am I going to be in after sleep deprivation? I remind myself that worrying about the near future will do me no good. A second yawn seals the deal. When my alarm eventually went off I resisted the temptation to lie in bed all day and feel sorry myself. A hot shower jumpstarts my day.

Those couple of hours felt like an eternity to me but I endured them. I’ve learned to understand that when I struggle to sleep that something within in me is off balance. I try to appreciate that I have a very clear warning signal – the occurrence of insomnia for the first time in my life was an extremely important part in me reaching out for help with regards to my mental health. 

These days I try to see my rare spells of insomnia as those big flashing lights on the side of the motorway that we often see urging us to slow down. I am grateful for the ability to recognise them.

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