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OCD and Insomnia




(The picture above is one of my nights via the Jawbone Up tracking bracelet I wear. Look! I was in bed for eight hours! How fantastic is that?)

The term night-owl sounds so much better than raging insomniac, but I suspect the former implies we have a choice. I know I’ve brought up insomnia in previous posts, but I thought going in depth would be good since most everyone I’ve met with OCD has insomnia to some degree. We are not the type of people who nod off within five minutes. No, we’re the people who make up the social media regulars at three a.m. Choosing to do something with our time gives us that illusion of control again. We’d be awake anyway so why not actually accomplish something?

So, what keeps us awake?

Easy. The past, the present, and the future.

The past–

You remember that one time you spilled your books outside of junior high; and they slid across a hill and papers went everywhere; and everyone laughed at you; and no one helped you pick them up? I do. I remember it at least once a month. Sometimes twice.

You remember that one time you got in trouble in third grade and had to apologize to the entire class? Ugh. Yeah. That.

You remember when you were in an abusive relationship and having issues with psychosis? Actually, my memory of that is pretty scattered…and that’s haunting. I guess that’s common in PTSD–flashbacks and faded memories. I try to avoid thinking of those days because my memories are funhouse mirror or watercolour paintings running. But of course I still think of them.

What about earlier today when your daughter leaned over the ferry’s railing, what if she’d fallen overboard? She could have! She didn’t, but she could have!

All these minor and major episodes are on replay in our heads. Sometimes it’s the recent past. Sometimes it’s the long distant past. Often OCD meds target memory and make our memories sketchy, but I still manage to obsess even then, just not to the same degree and it’s only at night.

The present–

Did you lock the door? Okay, you did. But did you? You get up and lock the door. You either lock the deadbolt or the regular lock, but never both, because that’s two…and unlucky…and besides when someone tries to break into your house, they’ll anticipate you locking both and will unlock one while locking the other. Or they’ll kick in the door. Hell, what if they kick in the door? They might kick in the door.

At least you have a dog. Is the dog okay? Is it too cold tonight for him? He’s an old dog–will he still be alive in the morning?

But did you lock the door? Right. You did that. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

The future–When I was a teenager, I had three frequent nightmares that played out in my head when I was awake and asleep. One, that my younger sister would drown when I wasn’t around. Two, that when I drove a car, I would hit and kill a pedestrian. Three, that my mom would take me grocery shopping and while I was waiting with her in the check-out line, she’d run back for an item, and I’d be standing there, waiting for her to return, with no money to pay for it, with a full line in back of me. I obsessed about these things and other things but these were big time.

The first one was paralyzing. I finally talked to my mom about it because I didn’t actually want my youngest sister to be around bodies of water…ever. Whatever my mom said calmed me down.

The second one kept me from getting a license until I was 18.

The final one…happened…and it was just as bad as I’d anticipated, but then the fear lost its hold on me…finally.

Now, of course, I have new issues that keep me awake. Some valid, some minor, some irrational, and some major. Sometimes, it’s just plans for the next day. The worst–the very, very worst is when needing to get up at a certain time IS what keeps me awake. “Wendy, you have to go to sleep. You have to wake up at 7 a.m. to do that thing. You can’t sleep in. What if the alarm doesn’t wake me up? Did I get those papers signed that I needed to? What if I missed one? For the love of all that is good, go to sleep! If you go to sleep now, you can get five hours and thirty-two minutes of sleep. Go to sleep!”

I have this beautiful wish that I wish with all my heart late at night: I wish I could shut off my brain. It’s so loud and crowded and shut up shut up shut up! I don’t know what it’s like to have a quiet mind. My head is a crowded room with someone dark spewing poisonous whispers in a corner. Sometimes I’m in that corner too, and sometimes I’m on the other side of the room, but it’s so loud and crowded. At night, it’s even more obvious…which is why I write or read. Anything to distract me from the crowded room.

How do you cope with insomnia?

There are hundreds of ways but every individual will respond differently. For example, my mania makes it so few sleeping meds work on me. I use a drowsiness side effect of a relatively harmless med to take the edge off. (I won’t say which one because that reeks of giving advice.) (For those longing to jump in and mention Melatonin–my body doesn’t play nice with it, but I do know others who’ve had success.)

I’ve tried various meditation techniques but my room is too crowded for me to hold my concentration on it long enough. Sometimes, picturing myself in a hammock and repeating to myself various inane things like, “You are in your hammock. Nothing can hurt you. You are safe in your hammock,” helps me calm down enough to drop off.

Some nights, I get up and do yoga and the stretching loosens me up enough that I can relax. I know that exercise can go either way with me–it can help or make insomnia worse. It’s a mixed bag.

Other nights, I tell myself bedtime stories. I build on a story every night until it bores me or I turn it into an actual written idea. Lately, I can’t manage that because I’ve been reading too many other people’s stories so my brain can’t find my voice in the crowded room. Most often, I read, write, or get online until I’m exhausted…until I’m yawning…until I can’t think…and then it only takes twenty minutes to get to sleep.

I hate that the less sleep I get, the more it takes its toll on my body and the worse my OCD gets. Typically, I go through insomnia jags. Weeks of four hours of sleep a night broken by weeks of averaging seven hours of sleep. I think most women will experience this fluctuation in sleeping patterns due to hormones. I’m not sure if it’s the same with men.

So, insomniacs of the world, unite. What’s your average night’s sleep? How do you get to sleep? What do you do when sleep isn’t happening?

*None of these posts on OCD can replicate or replace a visit to a health care professional and are my own personal experience and opinions. Please seek help if you feel you or someone you love needs it.*


6 Responses so far.

  1. John Ross Barnes (@BarnestormJohn) says:

    Yikes. I’m not OCD I just think about things pretty much like you’ve described. A lot. Thanks for sharing this one. I worry that if I say the things I’m afraid of I will be “speaking them into the real” and either they will happen, or something worse will happen because I broke the rules and the bad things will punish me.

    • I have that same fear of “speaking them into the real” but I’ve filed it under superstition. It feels illogical anyway. It’s frustrating to be a realist and highly superstitious all at once.

  2. Yikes! Oh, Wendy, how do you manage? I’ve had the voices-in-my-head thing maybe 6 times in my life. That you deal with it regularly, and still can write humorously about it, only increases my respect for your coping skills. I turn into a shuffling, dull-witted, you-know-what with a nasty attitude (think zombie without the overwhelm desire to eat other people) if I have to go several days with less than 6 1/2 hours sleep. My hat’s off to you.

    • How do we know you don’t have an overwhelming desire to eat other people??? Until I know that, I’m not hugging you. Probably.

      I’ve had insomnia my entire life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have it. I think that helps with managing. I’ve never averaged a healthy amount of sleep and few meds work on me to fix that…this is my norm.

  3. I get up and work now three am till six and have an hour in the afternoon if I can via hypnotherapy audio book, accepted along time ago I just don’t need as much sleep sometimes so doing something helps 🙂

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