I battled insomnia for most of my life, starting when I was thirteen. Its inception was that night of horror in November of 1956 as I lay sleeping in the bottom bunk, my rosary tucked safely under my pillow. It makes sense for those of us who were sexually assaulted while we were asleep to be afraid to go to sleep. Without realizing the origin, we feared a sleep that would pull us back in time. My youngest daughter, who was the only daughter to escape being sexually molested by my second husband, says that she cannot sleep unless the television is on. When she was a small child, she knew that as long as her stepfather was watching television her sisters were safe.
What a terrible legacy. Along with the insomnia I experienced nightmares of such a severe nature that whenever they occurred I woke up screaming, thrashing my body around, punching the air at an invisible enemy, hysterical and sobbing with terror. It would sometimes take me hours to calm down and the after effects kept me in an almost zombie state for the rest of my day. All I knew about the nightmares was that were of something coming over the top of me, like a steamroller, crushing the life out of me. These nightmares happened several times a year and didn’t cease until my father died. It took me many months to realize they were gone for good and I didn’t connect the two until I was in recovery. Having those nightmares was another contribution to my inability to sleep. Who wanted to sleep if that’s what I had to look forward to. Over the years, I used sleeping pills and anti-depressants, tried hypnosis, alcohol, Transcendental Meditation and anything I could think of to try to sleep. During the day, after a sleep deprived night, I chain smoked to keep myself awake. I discovered that if I re-applied my make-up in the middle of the day it gave me a fighting chance of staying awake. After reading that insomniacs used too much salt, I cut back on that. I clung to any cure I heard of as if it were a life raft. Nothing really helped until I went through recovery.
As any insomniac knows, being sleep deprived is dangerous. It impacts your ability to drive a vehicle safely, it affects your work ethic, impacts your memory and your sense of humor and it deepens your depression. I’m convinced that if everyone who committed suicide had a good night’s sleep every night the suicide rates would go down dramatically.
Being afraid to sleep is different than your typical insomnia. A large number of people who suffer from periodic sleep deprivation, but were not sexually abused as a child, have problems in their life that seem insurmountable, lead such a crazy life that when they crawl in bed they can’t turn the energy off, are grieving over someone they lost, and other such difficult problems. For a child sexual abuse victim, who may or may not have been assaulted as they sleep, their insomnia is caused by an unnamed fear, something related to the sexual assault: their inability to control what happened, their inability to describe what happened, their fear that if they go to sleep something bad will happen to them or the shadow figure, that hovers over them with chains, is waiting to enslave them once they fall asleep.
What can you do about this Afraid to Sleep crisis in your life? I offer up an excerpt from Repair Your Life, A Program for Recovery from Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse (you might look into working this program. We have a book page on it on our website):
Check with your local health food store. A number of herbs have a calming effect. Chamomile and other herb teas aid sleep disorders. Evening Primrose Oil, available at any drug store, is a great natural way to promote emotional stability. Avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and excessive sweets. Alcohol is a depressant, and a 30 minute walk will do you more good than a few beers. Although studies are emerging regarding the benefit of a daily glass of wine in warding off cardiovascular health disorders, use your head and remember, moderation in all things. Follow these rules for good sleep:
1) Keep caffeine intake to a minimum.
2) Use salt sparingly, if at all.
3) A hot bath with a good book, soft music, and a lighted candle (white for serenity) has a calming effect before bedtime.
4) Eat early in the evening and avoid large meals if possible.
5) Always retire at the same time.
6) Establish a comforting and stabilizing ritual prior to bedtime, i.e., lay out clothes for the next day, brush your teeth and bathe, set the clock, read something bland for a few minutes before turning the light out.
7) Avoid intense or worrisome phone calls before retiring, as well as any late-night dealings that may encourage stress (paying bills right before bed time will usually insure tossing and turning)
8) Don’t exercise to excess in the evening—a short walk perhaps to ease tensions. Keep in mind that daily exercise improves sleep.
9) Make sure the room temperature is comfortable.
10) If you begin to toss and turn, get out of bed and fix a glass of warm milk or non-caffeine herbal tea. Insomnia intensifies once you begin worrying about it, so anything you can do to distract yourself (unload your dishwasher), eliminates the problem.
My husband, who suffered no childhood traumas, falls asleep the minute his head hits the pillow. He has never had insomnia. Lucky guy!