Becki used to think her ability to survive on very little sleep was a talent until the panic attacks began. She tells us about how she learned to manage her insomnia.
Sleep is a major part of life. I realise this now but I didn’t used to think so. I thought I could do without it; mainly because I had to. I have an anxiety disorder and I’m incredibly anxious most of the time. I spend my time worrying uncontrollably about what has happened, what might happen, about anyone and everyone, and it doesn’t slow down. I imagine a million different scenarios a day of how I am going to fail.
It is exhausting to have a mind that never switches off.
I’ve always been very alert. Trying to live successfully with that battle going on is a challenge. As a child, I was highly strung. When I reached teenage years, I could go out with my friends and stay out all night without feeling tired and do it again every night without sleeping in the day. I was permanently buzzing, hyper, and never calm. I was always busy. My friends wished they could stay awake as long as I could and I saw it as a good thing; a kind of resilience.
Then, quite suddenly, I started having panic attacks. I had no idea that that’s what they were or what was happening to me. They happened usually when I was on my own, in my bedroom, when I wasn’t busy. I thought I was breaking; that I was completely losing my mind. I didn’t know how to tell anyone. Things spiralled quickly. I felt scared of everything and my resilience gradually disappeared. In the strange new surroundings of university at 18, my panic hit an all-time high.
I made excuses about not having many lectures and went home most of the time, to be near the familiar. I was absolutely focused on trying not to let people see what was happening to me.
I moved into my own flat in my home town and gradually stopped attending university altogether. At this point, sleep became completely elusive.
As I lived on my own, nobody knew how bad it had become. If I ever mentioned how much sleep I’d had, I found that people just didn’t believe me. Most nights I just didn’t go to sleep. I went from completely hyper to deeply exhausted, but if I tried to go to bed the sleep would not come. I’d cry from being so tired but just lying down and not being able to switch off. I tried so hard. I’d lie there all night sometimes going out of my mind and not knowing how to calm down.
Some nights I’d sleep for an hour, maybe two; that was major success. The worst week I remember was staying awake seven nights in a row; hallucinating by the end of it but powerless to do anything about it. Life continued like this for years. I tried to ask for help but people continued to be dismissive. I didn’t think I should be wasting doctor’s time and didn’t want to risk reliance on sleeping pills. So, in the true way of an anxiety sufferer, I came to the conclusion that it was my fault and just got quieter.
Soon after, however, one of my friends finally noticed how exhausted I was and suggested somewhere I could ask for help. My immediate response was no - I was coping (of course I wasn’t), many people were worse off than me…but she encouraged me. It’s a long story, but that’s when I learned that I had been suffering with panic attacks all this time. That it happened to other people too. I couldn’t believe it.
I started to learn about what I’d been experiencing and ways to make it more manageable.
At around the same time I met my partner, Mark. When we moved in together I couldn’t hide things any more. He quickly saw how little I looked after myself – I mean I always had my make-up on to keep up appearances – but I didn’t eat properly by any means, and sleep, what sleep? Over the last few years Mark has looked after me and helped me learn to look after myself. With a combination of his support and therapy, I have learned ways to relax, and now I sleep better than I ever have.
You probably won’t become ‘fixed’. I’ll always be battling with anxiety. However you can get to a point where you start to enjoy moments of life alongside the difficulties. The support of others absolutely changed my life. Talk to people, open up; don’t think about how others perceive you. When someone dismisses you, try again. I refused to let people really see how bad things had become and I wish I had just let the mask drop sooner.