The school year from 2004 to 2005 was perhaps the most stressful year of my life. I was in a volunteer teaching job that I was not by any stretch of the imagination good at, I wasn’t getting along with my roommate, and my romantic relationships were rocky at best. It was in this environment that I first experienced sleep paralysis. I woke up in the bright morning unable to move, with a sound like rushing water filling my ears and the strange sensation of my homunculus being stretched and compressed beyond the normal confines of my body. To complete the eerie experience, I had the auditory hallucination of the words, “the world is coming to an end.”
Thus began my now long history of grappling with sleep disorders. The next symptom to appear was a kind of panic attack that occurred when I was first falling asleep. Just as I was drifting off and beginning to lose a sense of time, my mind would fill with the existential fear of death, and I would wake up with a gasp or a scream. This happened only a few times in that first year, but as the years went by, it became a much more common occurrence. When at last I sought treatment, it was happening nearly every night.
As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that I have always suffered from at least a mild case of restless legs syndrome. When confined to a space with little legroom, I would feel a sort of muscle twinge, like a little inch long wedge burrowing into the back of my thigh. To relieve it, I would need to find some space, stretch my leg out, walk around a bit. I always thought that this was a common complaint of anyone with long legs, but as I researched my other conditions, I found out that this was a syndrome of its own. Moreover, when my fiancée moved in with me, she reported that I would kick my legs up in the air while sleeping in a repetitive, rhythmic motion.
I approached my doctor, first about the panic attacks. We tried clonazepam first, then zaleplon, and finally paroxetine. That cleared up the panic attacks almost entirely. Unfortunately, it also exacerbated the restless legs. So I went on clonazepam in addition to that medication. That blunted the condition for a while, but eventually I had to increase it to the maximum prescribed dose, and even then I would have episodes of kicking in the evenings.
It all began to pile up. I would start a given day off all right, but by mid day I would crash, feeling groggy and unable to focus. If I indulged the feeling and took a nap, I might go under for three or four or five hours. I read up on polyphasic sleep, and attempted a siesta schedule for a while. It helped, but as soon as my schedule was disrupted by a trip or an ill-timed meeting, I would be right back where I started. I went back to my doctor one more time. My case had escaped his expertise; he referred me to a sleep specialist.
That brings us to today. At the specialist’s direction, I’ve stopped taking the clonazepam, stopped donating blood since that can cause an iron deficiency that exacerbates restless legs, started taking iron supplements, and started doing my darnedest to get to bed and get up at reasonable times. It’s not an easy road. Discontinuing the clonazepam has led to the restless leg feeling spreading out, no longer a localized twinge but a tingling that surrounds both of my thighs and sometimes proceeds into the day. I grapple with bouts of insomnia, and need to pursue odd remedies like lying on the floor to relieve the tingling.
But I have hope that it’s getting better. It’s getting easier to get out of bed in the morning. My head feels less foggy during the day. And I’m beginning to beat back the tide of lost productivity that this whole lengthy episode has occasioned in my work life.
I’m not sure what point I have been putting this into a blog post; perhaps I mean only to warn my readers to appreciate their restful sleep. We live in an always on society, where entertainment can be had to every hour of the night or morning, and it’s easy for even a morning person (like me) to stay up late surfing the Internet or playing games. But the impact this has on our quality of life cannot be underestimated. While I’ve been suffering from these symptoms, I’ve been less creative, less ambitious, less patient. At times it could be said to border on depression. Don’t do that to yourself. Choose a lights out hour and turn off the electronics then. Take a refreshing nap when you can. Ease up on the caffeine. Your body will thank you for it.
(As an aside, I dictated this post using voice recognition software. It’s fun! I highly recommend giving it a try if you have a few bucks to drop on something like Dragon.)