by Lillian Csernica on April 9, 2022
When I was a teenager I loved to sleep. Stay up late, sleep late, linger in bed, the very definition of a layabout. Science now tells us teenagers need a lot of sleep because they’re growing both physically and mentally. Adolescence takes a heavy toll on the body and the mind. I’ll vouch for that. Living through middle school meant two of the worst years of my life. Sleep as a method of escaping reality became a coping mechanism. I had what the psychologists refer to as “peer problems.” I grew up alone due to my brother and sister both leaving home when I was only seven years old. Now I was in middle school, twelve years old, and my parents had just gone through a really messy, bitter divorce. The divorce meant Dad was gone and Mom had to go back to work, so I was a latchkey kid before the term had been invented. I was miserable. I could escape that only when I was sleeping.
For somebody who liked to sleep so much, how did I develop all three forms of insomnia associated with clinical depression? It’s been a long and stressful road from twelve to fifty-six, and life wasn’t exactly all rainbows and unicorns when I was a little kid. Just to be clear, let me explain the three separate forms of insomnia:
1. I have difficulty getting to sleep.
2. I have difficulty staying asleep.
3. If something wakes me up, I can’t get back to sleep.
Do I take medication for insomnia? Oh yes. Does the medication I take work? Yes and no. If I avoid caffeine, don’t eat the wrong foods and don’t eat too late in the evening, take my pills on an empty stomach and then go straight to bed, I might have an even chance of actually dozing off in a reasonable amount of time. All of that is referred to as good “sleep hygiene.” In general, my sleep hygiene is poor. I stay up too late. That’s when the house is quite enough for me to write. I watch exciting mysteries or detective shows or supernatural movies on TV. Many of these self-defeating behaviors are tied into my depression. Some nights I’m just too agitated to sleep and the medication makes no difference at all. Then there’s the problem of my body’s tendency to acclimate to medication within about four months. Am I still depressed? Oh yes. Will I ever be cured? There is no cure for Major Depressive Disorder. There is only support through medication and therapy, along with healthy living habits and a determination to keep on climbing up out of the darkness.
I know these things for sure:
Sleep deprivation makes depression worse and causes weight gain.
Depression will make weight gain worse.
Weight gain will make depression worse.
See how easy it is to get stuck in the labyrinth with no way out? The answer is sleep. When I’m asleep, my body is restoring itself and my mind processes what’s going on at various levels of my consciousness. That processing is essential. Picture your mind as one big file drawer. When you get enough sleep, all the files are in the right order and new material gets filed and cross-referenced appropriately. When you don’t get enough sleep, information gets filed incorrectly, memory doesn’t work right, and if the sleep deprivation goes on long enough, what you end up with is that file drawer yanked out, turned upside down, and everything dumped on the floor in an impossible mess. Sometimes the mess is so bad you have what the psychiatrists refer to as a “psychotic break.”
Bear in mind I’m talking about myself here. Different people need different amounts of sleep. Newborns do very little but eat and sleep. Teenagers need a lot of sleep not because they’re lazy but because of their mental and physical growth rates. Older people might not need as much sleep as people in their thirties or forties. Your mileage may vary. All I know is I need more sleep than I get, and that’s partly due to my own bad habits. It’s important to be aware of that. The more control I have over the causes of my depression, the more I can fight it. The more I keep up the fight, the more often I win. It’s when I forget that I can stand up against the depression that it takes over. Fatigue, chronic pain, the endless stress of two special needs children, and the pandemic make it very difficult to keep moving forward. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is my friend.
Right now I’m sitting here at 1:30 a.m. It’s been another long day in a long week. Before I go to sleep, I will write down at least three good things that happened today. I will light that candle and keep it lit against the darkness of depression.