I have a lot of symptoms when I’m depressed: mood swings, fatigue, memory problems, unreasonable anger, sensitivity to criticism, guilt, self-doubt, hopelessness, apathy — none of it’s particularly good, but some are worse than others. One of my worst symptoms has always been insomnia. It’s kind of a funny thing, because I’m exhausted all the time, but when I finally make it to bed after a long day of cleaning, caring for my family, and checking as many items as possible off my to-do list, more often than not I end up staring at the wall for hours wondering if my life will ever be normal again.
After months of four or five hours of sleep every night (this was during my second pregnancy), I went to the doctor and begged for help. I couldn’t take it anymore — I was forgetting everything, losing mental acuity, and was nearly incapable of interaction with my nearly two year-old son. She told me to take a mild painkiller/sedative (non-narcotic), which would be safe for both me and my baby, and would help me sleep. It was like manna from the gods, and I slept like a log every night for the rest of my pregnancy.
Then my son was born, and I stopped taking the sleep aid. I figured my sleeping schedule would be unpredictable for a while, so I should just try to get back into the habit of falling asleep on my own. Unfortunately, the insomnia came back quickly and vengefully, as if it had been waiting until I was unguarded to steal back the sleep I’d been enjoying over the past few months.
I’ve been dealing with the insomnia for almost 18 months now. On a good night, I am able to fall asleep around midnight. On a bad night, I’m up till 3 or 4 am. Neither of these situations is actually all that great — my day starts around 7:30, when my older son wakes up; sometimes earlier.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, short sleep duration (less nightly sleep than the recommended 7-9 hours for healthy adults) comes with many risks, including but not limited to:
- Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents
- Increase in body mass index — a greater likelihood of obesity due to an increased appetite caused by sleep deprivation
- Increased risk of diabetes and heart problems
- Increased risk for psychiatric conditions including depression and substance abuse
- Decreased ability to pay attention, react to signals or remember new information
In addition, chronic insomnia is linked to increased risk of illness and morbidity. Sleep and depression have a complicated relationship, as it’s not definitively known whether sleeplessness causes depression or depression causes sleeplessness. Either way, insomnia is a very common symptom in people with depression. And for a person with postpartum depression, the extra hours of lonely introspection that often accompany wakefulness in the wee hours are the last thing she needs.
This post isn’t necessarily a guide to how to get more sleep — there are specialists, such as those who work with the National Sleep Foundation, who are far more qualified than I to deliver that information. Instead, I wanted to give you the one piece of wisdom I’ve learned over the past year-and-a-half. Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, but I think it warrants repetition, since you might have heard it already.
Don’t give in.
Insomnia can be a dangerous symptom of postpartum depression, perhaps one of the most dangerous, but I made the mistake of viewing it as a sort of blessing in disguise when my PPD was at its worst. Let me explain: during the day, I am Mom. I’m Wife. I’m Maid. I’m Friend. I’m All of the Above. I have hardly a second to just be Me, and I’d often end the day thinking to myself, “What a waste of time.” This was the postpartum depression talking, of course, but it got to me. I started to think that the hours of the day weren’t nearly enough time to accomplish what I wanted to do with my life, apart from my obligations to others.
I started to relish those wakeful hours of the late night and early morning, began to see them as “me time,” when I could work on my novel, fold laundry while watching back episodes of TV shows my husband doesn’t care to watch, blog, do my toenails. But then morning would come, and I would be miserable. Not necessarily extremely tired, because more often than not I would be wired to the point of discomfort, but cranky. Irritable. Just plain mean. Insomnia is not a color I wear well.
I’m trying desperately to change my mindset about sleeping. It’s not a checkmark on my to-do list; it needs to be a priority in my life. All the not sleeping I’m doing is seriously compromising my health and is most likely interfering with my recovery from postpartum depression, not to mention probably preventing me from losing all the baby weight I’ve not been able to shed.
There’s no easy fix for insomnia, I know this, and like I said, I’m not suggesting I have any answers about that. But I do want to encourage all of you who may be dealing with insomnia, as I am now, to make sleep a more important part of your daily routine. Don’t allow it to become an afterthought, as I have. Do whatever it takes to make it to bed at a reasonable hour, and try to be tired when you get there. You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking, Easier said than done, but I know it’s possible. It’s worth a try, at least.
So what do you think? Have you had problems with postpartum depression and insomnia, how have they affected you, and what, if anything, worked?