Last updated: Apr 17, 2008
collette-szitta
Collette wouldn't let insomnia interfere with her competitive running.
(COLLETTE SZITTA)
Before the sun rose every morning, my father was out of bed. When he couldn't sleep, he would rise, trying not to wake us, and immediately leave for an hour-long bike ride. I couldn't understand why he would get up when it was still dark out.


Now I get it. My father was an insomniac—and it runs in the family.

About five years ago, I lost my job. Almost simultaneously, I began having trouble sleeping. I was anxious about money—How I was going to find another job?—and supporting my four kids. For weeks I was sleeping two, maybe three hours a night, total. I'd sleep for an hour, wake up, sleep for half an hour, and wake up again.

Being awake when everyone else is sleeping is one of the most frustrating things I've encountered. I was afraid of waking my husband and kids, so I would lie in bed and worry about how tired I was going to be the next day. I'm not a good daytime sleeper, so I knew nighttime was my only time to rest.

One day I watched a TV show that compared drunk driving with driving while tired. Being tired impairs people more than drinking. With my lack of sleep, I didn't feel safe driving anymore. My father had fallen asleep while driving, and I didn't want that to happen to me.

My breaking point came about two months after my sleep problems began. One of my passions is running—it helps keep me balanced and feeling good—and I've never had a problem heading out the door and running five or six miles, easy. But gradually, it became harder and harder. I physically could not do it: It got to the point where I could only make it one mile before I was exhausted and had to scale back.

Dealing with the stigma
I didn't want to feel like garbage anymore, but I was afraid of the stigma. When you say you have problems sleeping, people think you're nuts. They think you should be able to fix it by yourself. I would compare myself to people who can sleep, and think, What's wrong with me? I tried to find any other reason for my sleep problems; I even had my thyroid checked. It was fine, but I wasn't.

Eventually I saw a psychiatrist, and she suggested I take over-the-counter medications. I tried both Tylenol PM and melatonin. Tylenol PM helped, but melatonin didn't make a bit of a difference. I still wasn't sleeping through the night. With over-the-counter medications, I was worried about becoming addicted and having to monitor my own doses.

Making changes without medication
My husband is very anti-medication, so I was determined to find ways to sleep without it. I have dozens of magazine subscriptions, so I started reading any articles with sleep tips. I started experimenting with them, hoping at least one would help me sleep.

I tried everything from spending time outside every day to banning the cats from the bedroom. At first I made changes to my schedule. I noticed running later in the evening made me restless, so I tried to run in the mornings. I got into bed at roughly the same time each night and read instead of watching TV.

Then I began making changes in my bedroom. I turned the temperature in my room down to 64 degrees and kept it as dark as possible. I noticed subtle changes, but at that point I think my body was too set in its ways. I still wasn't sleeping consistently through the night.

open quoteI rely on my medication, but not solely ... My husband and I sleep in separate rooms when he works the late-night shift, so he doesn't interrupt my sleep.close quote
—Collette Szitta, Insomnia Patient
Getting help
It was hard to admit, but I couldn't do it myself. No one can function without sleep—it's not healthy for me or anyone else. I went back to the psychiatrist and got a prescription for trazodone, an antidepressant frequently prescribed for sleep problems. It's nonaddictive, so I felt safe taking it long-term.

It isn't a miracle drug. At first my dose was too low, and I continued to wake up throughout the night. Then it was too much, and I woke up feeling hungover, with headaches and dizziness. After three months I found the right amount, and I was able to sleep.

Finding a balance
Now, four years later, I rely on my medication, but not solely. My husband does shift work, so we sleep in separate rooms when he has the late-night shift so he doesn't interrupt my sleep. And I noticed that I sleep much better when I limit my caffeine intake, so I've stopped drinking coffee and eating chocolate during the day. I still practice the good sleep hygiene tips I've learned over the years, and I know they're helping me too.

I feel like I'm healthy again and living to my fullest potential. I no longer dread my bedroom, or lie up and worry all night long. I've gone back to competitive running, and I'm even planning to run a half marathon. And why not? If I can beat this sleep problem, I can do anything.