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Why Can't I Fall Asleep? Battling a Lifetime of Insomnia and Panic Attacks

04/13/2014 09:31 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2014
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This post originally appeared on Bustle.

I was terrified of sleepovers as a little girl. It wasn't being away from home that bothered me -- I was perfectly capable of leaving my parents and familiar routines behind. During the day, that is. It was the part of sleepovers when you quit singing along to Disney songs on your friend's little cassette player and finally went to sleep that petrified me.

I feared sleep and its absence equally. Away from home, I suffered from terrible nightmares, dreams of a woman with long fingernails and a black, forked tongue sitting at the edge of my bed, of witches who emerged in the moonlight.

The only thing worse than the dreams was not falling asleep at all. On the floor of my friend Katie's living room, I watched as she and my sister curled up in sleeping bags on either side of me, their breathing steady and peaceful. I'd stare at the digital clock on the microwave, watch as it moved through the wee hours. If I fall asleep now, I'll get five hours of sleep, I'd think, forever counting backwards from a morning I was sure would never come. I'd watch the glowing green numbers till the gray pre-dawn, when I'd finally fall asleep, awakening just a couple of hours later, sweaty from bad dreams.

Though I was always a tightly-wound kind of kid, I didn't develop full-blown panic attacks until my early teen years, when I was staying with my grandparents in Mobile, Alabama for the summer.

I wasn't exactly a night owl, but they went to bed way before my bedtime. To cope with my creeping fear, I read the books I found on their shelves -- everything from early editions of Winnie the Pooh to The Da Vinci Code -- but inevitably, it was time to go to sleep.

The first night, I lay in the beautiful guest room with twin beds reserved for grandchildren, acutely aware of the emptiness of the other bed. Images poured into my head. Some came from movies -- I remember envisioning blood pouring out of an elevator, a skeletal, longhaired girl clawing her way out of a TV set.

Some came from my imagination. Chronic nightmares came to life that night. The black-tongued woman and all the witches visited me, real to me in the dark room. Each person I loved died a hundred grisly deaths in my head. I lay there, pinned to the bed, drenched, shaking, my heart feeling constantly like it was about to either leap out of my chest -- or just stop beating. Up until that moment, I had never felt so certain I was about to die. I didn't know it yet, but I was having a panic attack.

Dawn came eons later. My early-to-bed grandparents were, thank goodness, also early to rise. As soon as I heard my grandmother in the kitchen, turning on The Today Show and pouring juice, I fell into a deep sleep.

The attacks returned nearly every night during those long weeks. I loved my grandparents, but dreaded those nights, eyes wide, breath shallow, bathed in terror. I was constantly exhausted. I never told them. I didn't want to seem ungrateful or silly.

Though I stopped having panic attacks every single night as soon as I came home to my familiar bed, they still visited me throughout high school and college. Whenever my routine changed, when I slept somewhere new or pulled an all-nighter, I paid for it with at least one night of nearly unbearable dread.

Of course, there are definitions for this, clinical language, pathologies. No one fully understands the cause of panic attacks or their accompanying diagnosis, panic disorder. Factors like genetics, extreme stress, and a particular inclination towards anxiety all play a part. Lots of people have panic attacks, actually, though few have more than one or two severe ones in their lives.

As with anything else, there are pills that address panic. I have tried many of them -- from Trazodone to Xanax to Clonazepam. Trazodone gave me even worse nightmares; Xanax is scarily habit-forming; Clonazepam knocked me out too much, leaving me fuzzy for hours, even after a full night's sleep. I have since foregone all three in favor of melatonin supplements, and sometimes, Sleepytime tea.

What really helps are audiobooks and podcasts, which I listen to while I fall asleep almost every night (my favorites are cheesy YA romances and NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me). Luckily, my boyfriend enjoys Peter Sagal's goofy jokes as much as I do.

I haven't had a nighttime panic attack in a long time. I attribute this to a lot of things, like better-managed stress and good "sleep hygiene," as they're calling it these days. I am also lucky enough to sleep every night next to someone I love, someone who will pull me closer if I ever wake up afraid. He too used to suffer from sleep disorders -- sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations.

His body next to me makes me feel safe. Maybe it's against my independent or feminist principles to feel saved by a man, but at my most vulnerable, waking from a bad dream, the truth is, I really don't care. In this, and in many other ways, we have rescued one another from our worst nightmares.

Still, I will always dread the jaws of both sleep and sleeplessness, will always walk the line between waking and dreaming nightmares. Sleep will always be the necessary enemy. I am never very far away from fear, and I still count the hours before the sounds of dawn, anticipating the sunrise that will deliver me, once again.

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