by Brian on December 12, 2008

in In the News,Only in Israel

It’s been six years now since I’ve been unable to sleep without pills. It’s not something I like to talk about, despite the big drug companies’ reassuring promotion of sleep medications as a safe and tested long term solution for the some 30% of sufferers around the world who report regular bouts with insomnia.

I didn’t come to sleeping pills lightly. I tried every alternative before settling on traditional meds. I did Chinese herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy, vitamin supplements, SAM-e, melatonin, peanut butter (for the magnesium in it), Valerian, Calms Forte, reflexology, magnets, and more. I exercised regularly. I limited my caffeine intake. Nothing seemed to help except the pills.

My pill of choice has been Zopiclone (sold in the U.S. under the brand name Lunesta). When I first started it, I got a guaranteed 7 hours of sleep. But over time, that dropped down to 4-5 hours. So I’ve had to supplement. Sometimes that meant a half a Zopiclone or an Ambien in the middle of the night. Other times it was a Lorivan (a benzodiazepine also known as Ativan in the U.S.) which acted as a further tranquilizer.

The problem was, the more meds I took, the more tolerance I seemed to develop. Even with all the crazy cocktails I put together, I couldn’t seem to get more than 5-6 hours sleep when I really need 7-8 to feel productive the next day.

I didn’t want to keep upping my dosages. And I certainly didn’t like some of the side effects (Lorivan reportedly can impede memory function, and mixing too much can zonk you out for hours in the morning).

So I decided to go cold turkey. To stop taking the drugs entirely and see what happened. My doctor recommended the approach. He said that maybe once the drugs were out of my system, my sleep cycle would return to a more normal one. It wasn’t going to be easy, he warned me. I might go for days without sleep before finally collapsing into uneasy slumber.

What I essentially planned on doing was the equivalent to checking myself into a personal home-based rehab program. The first step was accepting that I was just as much an addict as Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears (though not to the same drugs of course).

I needed a period of time when my detoxification wouldn’t interfere with my work. That opportunity presented itself following a recent vacation. We returned a day before the beginning of a long weekend in the U.S. That meant my clients overseas wouldn’t be needing me for a few days. It wasn’t a lot of time but it was a good starting point.

I took my pills on a Tuesday night, got a paltry 5 hours of sleep, then jumped into a 24 hour plane journey home the next day. I don’t sleep on planes anyway, so that automatically cut down my sleeping time and gave me an excuse not to lie in bed unsuccessfully trying to snooze.

On Thursday night, after 36 hours of being awake, I finally hit the sack…to no avail. I got maybe 2 hours of restless sleep total. I would have gotten out of bed (the sleep specialists tell you that if you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, you should get up lest you begin to associate the bed with negative behavior patterns) but I was too exhausted to move.

Sleep is a critical component to one’s life. It’s 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.

In the morning, after 48 hours of not sleeping, my bones ached. The cut I’d gotten on my knee a few days earlier remained stubbornly resistant to repair. I was developing a cough.

Worse yet, I was stumbling when I walked, missing stairs and nearly tripping. I was agitated, alternately short tempered and depressed. It felt like I was in the midst of a never-ending jet lag.

I called my doctor. He said that what I was experiencing was a both a result of lack of sleep and withdrawal symptoms from the meds.

Friday night I finally got some sleep. Not enough – 5 hours – but it was on a par with how I was resting with the drugs. On Sunday night, I slept nearly 7 hours and felt absolutely great the next day. Monday night I dropped to 4.5 hours.

Over the course of the next weeks, I averaged maybe 3 good nights to 4 bad ones. That was worse than in my pill popping days. Nevertheless, I am categorizing my rehab experience as a cautious success. It’s not so much how I feel physically but my emotional response. I have taken a huge step towards healthier living. I have faced the abyss head on and while I haven’t necessarily won, I can hold my head up with pride that I at least tried.

I can’t tell you yet where I’m going to end up. Too many nights of 4-5 hours and I may go back to pills, albeit hopefully on a lower or more sporadic level. For now, I’m muddling through with a lot of optimism…and not a small amount of caffeine.

To my insomniac readers – please feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts (and encouragement).

* * * * *

For more information on insomnia, I recommend Gayle Green’s excellent new book Insomniac. Green writes about her life-long fight with sleeplessness. She’s tried detoxing too, but to no avail. She goes into great details about which pills she’s taken, what the side effects are, what she’s using now. A good read, especially for doctors who must treat their patients (when sleep education in medical school consists of a 4-hour seminar, according to Green).

Another book I’ve learned a lot from is The Promise of Sleep by Dr. William Dement of Stanford University.

Finally, Crazymeds is a great community site about psychoactive medical drugs. Irreverent, lots of personal anecdotes, and distills medical knowledge about the drugs. Also check out Sleepnet.

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