When Insomnia Turns you Into a Zombie

Are you translucent with tiredness?

Standing under the shower, I’m overcome with dizziness and feel like I’m about to be sick and pass out.

This is because I haven’t had a regular night’s sleep for a few days although I couldn’t tell you exactly how many. I used to survive on the occasional nap instead but now I don’t even do this anymore because there simply is no time.

The thing about my kind of insomnia and how I deal with it is that one day tends to merge seamlessly with the next. As a result, I end up losing track of time altogether. On occasion, I can’t even remember when I last saw my bed.

Since I’ve wrangled insomnia for years, I’ve learned to make peace with it.

But before I did, I used to spend nights awake, tossing and turning, seething with frustration. Because I’m a freelancer, I can set my own hours. As long as work gets done, it doesn’t matter when it happens, be it during daylight hours or in the middle of the night.

But I have a problem: I don’t know when to stop.

After losing my writing voice for five years to major depressive disorder, my brain seems intent on making up for lost time. Which is silly as I don’t have a time machine and there’s no catching up.


But this doesn’t stop my brain from presenting me with one idea after the next after the next and demanding I do something with it. While it’s a relief to be creative and functional, this kind of pace is relentless. I’m wary of sustaining it lest I should collapse once more. Then again, I’m still hanging on to writing for dear life a year after getting back to it; I’m still trying to lift myself out of the hardship caused by being incapacitated for five years.

If my focus is sharp, it seems to come at the detriment of sleep.

Some would be quick to label this as mania.

It isn’t. I’m calm, composed, and organized. What’s more, I take regular breaks, spend time with my family attending hospital visits or lending a listening ear whenever either or both of my parents need to talk. Besides, dinner time is sacred and unhurried in this household so even if I’ve been pounding the keyboard for hours, everything stops at least once a day. We’re French, we like to eat, and meals are both a ritual and a time-honored tradition.

On the rare occasion I can take one, a short nap tends to reset my brain and I wake up refreshed, or as refreshed as a zombie can be. I’m never not translucent with tiredness with purple circles under my eyes concealer can no longer hide, and a pallid rather than pale complexion, even in the middle of summer. Smartphone filters do a good job, though.

Often, I experience life in a blurry slow motion. I’m fine in front of the page but everything else seems to take longer than usual. Sunshine bothers me, ditto noise and strong smells. My internal thermostat starts malfunctioning; I’m either too hot or too cold, seldom comfortable. Worse, insomnia also messes up my appetite, which is as variable as my body’s ability to process food and absorb nutrients. I can go without being hungry for days and then my appetite returns with a vengeance, often with extreme digestive distress in tow.

Much as I love food, it can turn into torture without adequate rest.

My insomnia tends to be reactive and a symptom of extreme stress.

I’m currently in Europe, mostly staying in Paris with my parents as my stepmom undergoes more treatment for Stage IV cancer after her last protocol failed, as did the one before that. As her sole carer, my 71-year old father is struggling and his health isn’t the best either. Thankfully, I have the extreme good fortune of friendship holding me together and a safe place to escape to whenever needed.

Being away from home for so long throws up a whole host of new worries too as my two cats aren’t used to life without their indoor human. Both of them have been instrumental in helping me stay alive during those years when human warmth was in short supply; their presence in my life is a balm to my achy heart and we miss one another terribly.

I rescued them and we have a fusional relationship. When I was home for six weeks in the spring, Trudeau — my tuxedo — was asleep on the chair next to me as I worked. He’d frequently wake up, stretch, and pull on my sleeve to demand pets. Or place his front paws on my shoulder to nuzzle my neck. Or head-butt my arm to stop me typing so I could give him some love.

He even went one further and booped my nose once. I was away for three months and he sensed very clearly I would leave again.

I’m afraid my cats think I’ve abandoned them. My being away from home is a hard blow to those two little guardian angels in furs to whom I owe my life, and no, this isn’t hyperbole. Those two fuzz balls forever tether me to the world and helped me deflect suicidal ideation day after day.

Alas, the more guilt-ridden I get, the more elusive sleep becomes.

The physical manifestations of stress-induced insomnia can be rather itchy.

In my case, they translate into rashes. When I’m lucky, I just get the one at the back of my neck. When things get out of hand, it colonizes my hands and feet and, sometimes, chest. Spend at least eight hours horizontal and oblivious the world in bed and they lessen or even subside overnight.

The absence of appetite doesn’t bother me as much — digestion was never my strong point so I don’t mind a break — but not eating makes me weak after a while. Hence the problematic episode in the shower on occasion and having to sit down periodically.

Until I’ve established a base in the EU and am officially back in the health care system, I can’t afford to enlist private medical help. Besides, the one time I did so in the US, I had such a terrifying adverse reaction to the sleeping pill I was given that I won’t try that again. What was supposed to knock me out activated me, and I ended up hanging on the sides of the bed and waiting for it to pass. And that was after I took only half the prescribed dose.

Plus anything that might impair my cognitive functions would prevent me from working and that’s not an option. I just can’t afford to take the risk any more than I can afford to take it easy, slow down, or have a rest so I go through life a little wobbly with skin the color of bathroom fixtures.

Paradoxically, I’m more alive right now than I’ve been in years and I’m finally transitioning back to being fully functional and alive. If this means going through yet more discomfort until it happens then so be it.

It’s progress.

Sleep tends to return when things calm down so this is what I’m working on. Meanwhile, I’m monitoring how my body reacts. When it sends me the message it’s had enough, I know I need to drop everything and go to bed. When it threatens me with an impending shutdown and nausea, I teeter to bed and flop, regardless of what time it might be.

A nap helps but seven hours of sleep mean I wake up a new person, albeit one with increased sensitivity, something I didn’t think was even possible as I feel everything all the time. In my current situation, this is par for the course so I cheer whenever I have a good night’s sleep. There’s no point in getting annoyed if tears come easily; crying is catharsis and I welcome the release as and when it comes.

Taking care of yourself means listening closely to what your body is telling you even when your mind seems to be coping.

You might think and feel you’re fine but your body is wont to disagree eventually; when it does, it’ll give you some clear clues you probably shouldn’t ignore.

Because you’re not superhuman; none of us are.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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