Let’s Talk About: Insomnia

First of all, can I mention how glad I am to have found the online ASD community, someplace where I can tell people: “I can’t help it,” and be believed and understood. (Not to say my parents don’t believe me, but it’s really hard for them to understand some of this stuff, because of that Communication Chasm.)

So, this is going to be the first in a series of posts “Let’s Talk About”, which will look at some of the things I experience and invite people to join me in discussing them. And our first topic is insomnia, because it’s potentially linked to what happened to me yesterday (see Sensory Overload Fun (Not!)), and because I’ve been trying to deal with it lately.

As you may guess from the topic and what’s written in the preceding two paragraphs, I have a tendency towards insomnia. It often hits without warning (unless I’ve had it the night before), and usually involves me staying awake most (if not all) of the night. There seem to be a number of different factors that can contribute to it, and they aren’t always the same ones each time.

Intense Focus:

  • A new obsession / special interest. Quite often this involves stories, usually fanfic, for a new fandom. (Though when I first got involved in the ASD online blogging community, reading your blogs came close….) I’ve spent on the order of 36-48 or 60 hours awake at a time sometimes when I get hooked on a new fandom, trying to read all the stories available that look interesting. I lose total track of time, so focused that I’ll look at the time one minute and it’ll be close to midnight, and then the next thing I know it’s 5 or 6 in the morning, and I’m still wide awake and involved. I’ll note the time, think that I should probably get some sleep, and next I know it’s noon. I don’t eat very well when this is going on (at least if I’m living on my own), and generally the only thing that can distract me before I’ve gone through all I want to is my cat(s).
  • The resumption of an older special interest. This tends to result in what I call partial insomnia, where I do get at least some sleep, but not nearly as much as I should be. In this case, I generally manage to give myself a “slap to the back of the head” at around that 5 or 6 in the morning mark, and go to bed then. (Which, of course, results in being tired the next day if I then have to wake up at 8 or so for work. If not, I tend to sleep until noon.)

Sensory Overload / Meltdowns:

  • Night-time is quiet. It’s dark. There are so few people around. It’s comfortable. I am a night-owl par excellence, and this is a large part of the reason why. I don’t tend to have sensory overloads at night, and it’s good for relaxing, calming myself down. As a result, when I get the chance, I like to be up at night. This doesn’t always lead to insomnia – from 2003 to 2008 I was working as an overnight security officer, so I would just sleep during the day – but it can.
  • There are times when I just have to curl up in a dark room in the middle of the day because I’m coming close to sensory overload, am experiencing sensory overload, or am running low on spoons (see my post Sensory Overload Fun (Not!) for an example), and quite often that results in me falling asleep. So I tend to be less tired – or less likely to go to sleep, because sometimes I’m just as tired when I wake up – and that can result in problems sleeping at night.
  • As I mentioned in my reply to Musings of an Aspie‘s comment on my post on Meltdowns and Control, sometimes having insomnia and being tired as a result can help prevent me from going into meltdown. Unfortunately, it does tend to result in shutdowns, but sometimes all I’ve got is a choice between one and the other. I tend to prefer shutdowns because they’re less messy to deal with, but meltdowns are probably healthier.
  • Sometimes, especially lately, I find myself just too hot to go to sleep. I have issues with heat in the first place – an allergy, or a hyper-sensitivity – and with what’s been happening to me lately, my body thermoregulation is a mess. As a result, if I don’t wear socks to bed, I’m shivering. If I do wear socks to bed, I’m too hot. And sometimes I’m both. Sometimes I can get to sleep, but there are times lately when I’ll end up covered in sweat and either can’t get to sleep or can’t get back to sleep.

Thoughts / Imagination:

  • The one thing that Mom and I share regarding insomnia is that sometimes our thoughts just won’t shut up. I can’t stop thinking about things, and quite often when that happens, I can’t get to sleep. It just won’t happen. My thoughts keep going round in circles, and I get caught up in the whirlpool they form. (Whirlpools are a very common image / metaphor in my life.) Sometimes I can break through this by getting up and reading a story or something (like I did the night before last), but sometimes it just ends up leading to the second situation under “Intense Focus”.
  • As mentioned in my post ASD Behaviours and Traits, in order to get to sleep as a kid, I had to start acting out an adventure (usually in my head, but sometimes I follow the actions as well, as long as it doesn’t entail moving around a lot). Quite often, I still do. So what happens when I’m drained of energy / spoons, and don’t have enough to come up with an adventure? I quite often spend ages tossing and turning, trying to work something out, and usually (like above) have to start reading something to distract me or prod my imagination in order to get to sleep. (And just like above, sometimes that leads to the second situation in “Intense Focus”.)

[Edit: Feb. 27/13] Pain:

  • My usual reaction when I have a headache is to concentrate on something (usually reading, either a book or online, or sometimes my own writing) to distract me from the pain. (Note that this is a headache I actually feel more than just a dull throb in my head – those headaches I have practically all the time.) This helps, but it can lead to insomnia because I’m so focused on ignoring the pain by concentration on something else, that it leads to one of the Intense Focus situations above.
  • If I have a migraine-intensity headache (and note that these are not always migraines, though I sometimes have those as well – but they can be tension headaches), I quite often try to sleep off the worst of the pain. This can lead to insomnia from having slept during the day (leading to the kind of Sensory Overload situation mentioned above).
  • Sometimes, when I have a really bad headache, I simply can’t get to sleep because of the pain. I toss and turn in bed, and it usually leads to the first situation above, because I need something to distract me since the pain is so bad. (Note that painkillers – acetominaphen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) extra-strength help a bit – they can take a normal headache down to the low throb that I feel pretty much always – but only somewhat. I think going through loads of those during my childhood and teenage years [because nothing else would work on the headaches] has made me partially immune to their effects.)
  • And then there’s other kinds of pain. Those can lead to insomnia for all the three reasons listed just above. It’s just usually headaches that cause that type of pain. [/End Edit]

Unfortunately, insomnia often leads to more problems than it solves; problems with self-regulation (meaning both sensory and emotional), problems with concentration and focus, and problems with the amount of energy / spoons you have available. Which can lead to a self-perpetuating situation (or, as I call it, a “whirlpool” – see above). It’s doubly hard for me when it involves more than one of these situations, because a solution that works for one may not work for another, or may lead in to another.

Like the past two nights. Sunday night I had the “my thoughts wouldn’t shut up” problem, which led to me reading a book to cut it out, which led to me going to sleep around 4 or so. Last night it was the re-discovery of a special interest issue, and the results of sensory overload from yesterday.

[Start Edit] Then, Tuesday night (the night of this post) I ended up staying up all night. No sleep whatsoever. It screwed my proprioceptive system up for Wednesday – I was clumsier than usual, and had a lot of trouble remembering where my skin ended, which led to a lot of rubbing my hands together and rubbing my thumb along my finger to remind me. Then Wednesday night, I slept 10-11 hours, and today (Thursday) I feel a lot better. Still yawning (you don’t fully recover from insomnia until after two nights of good sleep in a row), but I’m much more awake and chipper today. [/End Edit]

And I can’t control it. Even if I do notice the time, quite often it means very little to me, or I’ll forget it minutes after having seen it. And communicating this verbally to people? Argh! It tends to make me sound like an idiot. After all, who loses track of time in the middle of the night, when you should be trying to sleep?

As for drugs… well, I very rarely get drowsy even with drugs that are supposed to cause sleepiness, let alone have it as a side effect. (Unlike Mom, who gets knocked out on NeoCitran.) Sleep aids might put me to sleep for four hours. I’ve even tried melatonin, and while it sometimes works, sometimes it leaves me exhausted and drained the next day (even if I’ve taken it 8+ hours before I was supposed to wake up).

What about the rest of you? Inquiring minds want to know! 😉 Let’s Talk About it!

😉 tagAught

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: Insomnia

  1. Vathara

    As far as the “brain won’t shut down” – I have some tricks that, sometimes, work. One I use is picturing myself sneaking past flesh-eating zombies. That way, my subconscious says, “oh, there’s a reason to be stressed out!” And sometimes is satisfied enough to shut down and go to sleep. Another trick is to just picture “blue”. Don’t ask me why blue specifically. I just focus on the image and the word. A third trick I pull out if nothing else seems to work… picture myself with an axe chopping down dead trees into piles of firewood. And I count the piles in 10s.

    1. tagAught

      I know I mentioned this to you in chat ({Hugs}, btw, and feel free to comment on any other posts as well), but thanks, Vathara!

      😉 tagAught

  2. Ariane Zurcher

    Wow! So much of this I could relate to… you described a much more extreme version of what I go through. My daughter can and will stay up until very late, but melatonin has made a huge, huge difference and for that we are all grateful as her dis-regulation is so much worse when she’s exhausted and acts of self injury are more severe as well. Such a great topic!

    When I first found Autistic blogs I was up until 2 and 3 every night for a few weeks. I was very obsessive and when I found a blog I liked I would go to the first post and read everything that person had written! It was exhilarating as well as exhausting!

    1. tagAught

      Ah, yes, it definitely is! Both exhilarating and exhausting, that is. Which is part of the reason I think I can’t stop it.

      I’m glad to know that you can understand this – it’s always helpful when there’s a connection made.

      And thank you for commenting! *smiles widely at you* It’s good to see you on my blog! 😀

      😉 tagAught

  3. Kat

    I have the intense focus and thoughts/imagination issues with insomnia. The way I currently deal with them is with a set routine: make dinner, watch one episode of a TV show (usually one I’m otherwise caught up on and therefore can’t continue the story) and go to bed. Sometimes I don’t make dinner until 10 or 11 at night (my goal time is 7 or 8), but at least I’m getting more sleep than I would if I didn’t watch the TV show. And being fairly active helps in that I know I need to sleep and eat in order to keep up my activity levels.

  4. Ross

    Very interesting post indeed.
    I found your blog via KatzeDecimal and am just having a bit of a binge session just now. This post stuck out and immediately drew my attention because it’s something I have major problems with.

    I was officially diagnosed with Aspergers just a few weeks ago (age 27 and it explains so much about my life) but about five years ago I was diagnosed with M.E. and had to give up my work and pretty much most of my life because of it. When I sleep, I sleep for a long time and trying to wake me has been likened to trying to wake a coma patient.

    At first, I thought the M.E. diagnosis fit the bill pretty well, I certainly sleep for long periods of time and when I am awake I don’t really ‘feel awake’ if you know what I mean. But after my PDoc referred me for ASD diagnosis, I started reading up a lot about it and something I keep seeing is insomnia and fatigue. It makes me wonder if it may be in fact the soul cause of my constant exhaustion because I do get bad periods of insomnia but always put it down to that old expression “too tired to sleep”.

    I often find myself unable to shut my brain off, it likes to think up the most random and pointless things at three in the morning, especially if I’ve been working on something during the day which I didn’t get to finish to my satisfaction but it also happens if I haven’t done much that day because my brain starts thinking of all the things it wanted to do or could have done had I had the time/bothered to do so.

    For years now I’ve had no sense of a ‘sleep pattern’, I seem to progressively shift round by an hour or two a day. This makes commitments like work or friends extremely difficult if not down right impossible. Though of course, everybody reacts to this differently. Some people are very sympathetic about it whilst others have the most incredible advice which clearly I’ve just been too stupid to think of like “go to bed an hour earlier each day” or “set an alarm and get up when it goes off”… Yes, because I never tried that, thanks you’ve fixed me. If I go to bed an hour earlier than the night before, I can almost guarantee that I wont sleep at all that night. As for the alarm, I have three, one of them is a vibrating one that shakes my mattress… I still sleep through them all and when I do wake up I just feel more tired because the last few hours of rest weren’t as peaceful because my subconscious was aware of the noise.

    Over the years I have tried several methods and suggestions on helping me get to sleep at ‘reasonable’ times, but none of them have ever worked or if they did it was short term only then my body adapted and went back to it’s insomnia driven exhaustion. I’ve taken pills, I’ve meditated, I’ve done relaxation therapy, herbal remedies, lavender oil on the pillow, strong painkillers (amitriptyline), and the list goes on.

    The only thing which is a solid part of my ‘sleep routine’ is that I always go to bed with the TV on with the screen dimmed and volume low. Normally when I mention this, people jump off the deep end like this is the reason I don’t get to sleep, but the truth is if I didn’t have the TV on every night then I’d sleep a lot less than I do right now. Every night I put on old DVDs of shows I’ve watched since I was a kid (I’ve probably very literally watched all of them at least a hundred times each by now). I find it helps to drown out most of my brain’s random thoughts because it gives it something to listen to and focus on, I don’t watch it but just listen so my brain makes up the pictures and it gives it something to focus on but because it’s all shows I know so well it doesn’t have to work too hard. Without the TV I’d end up lying on my back staring at the roof wondering if I should perhaps get up and start cleaning the house or maybe I should research if penguins have knees…

    Wowsers, sorry I didn’t intend for this to be so long I just got a bit caught up in it all haha.

    1. autisticook

      “maybe I should research if penguins have knees”

      Oh man, now you’ve got me wondering as well, and I need to get ready for bed in about 5 minutes because otherwise I’ll be up until 4am. 😛

      1. Ross

        Hahaha, I’m sorry I probably should have mentioned that the answer is yes, yes they do have knees but they are hidden under feathers. 🙂


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