Samantha Park stares out window, eyes fixed on the bright moon. She figures, by its position in the sky, that it must be around 2 a.m. Frustrated, she settles back under the covers in yet another attempt to doze off. A light sleep eventually follows, though it doesn’t last long. The sequence repeats itself hour after hour until her 6 a.m. alarm alerts Park that it’s time to get up.
“You’re waking up constantly and just being really, really frustrated,” she says. “Your body is telling you, ‘Wake up,’ and you’re like, ‘No thank you.’”
Park, a junior at the University of New Hampshire, is one of approximately 10 percent of Americans who suffer from chronic insomnia. Insomnia causes a person to lose out on sleep for prolonged periods of time, leading to exhaustion, lack of focus, and anxiety.
Imagine sitting in a boring meeting after pulling an all-nighter. You can’t keep your eyelids from drooping, and your mind wanders to the coffee in the breakroom. Now imagine experiencing that feeling every day. One in three Americans is not getting the recommended seven-to-nine hours of sleep, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control. However, some aren’t just staying up late. At least 40 million people suffer from actual sleeping disorders like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or Park’s condition, insomnia.
There are two types of insomnia. Primary insomnia occurs independently, meaning it’s not generated by a specific condition. Park suffers from secondary, which is the most common. It’s often a side effect of medication, illness, or a mood disorder, like Park’s anxiety. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people with insomnia suffer from this type. Both have the same effects, though the details of a sleepless night vary from person to person.
Like most insomniacs, Park experiences extreme difficulty falling and staying asleep. “You look over, especially if you have a roommate or a significant other, and that person’s sleeping, and you know they’re getting the rest they need,” Park says. “And you’re just like, why can’t I do that?”
Park assumed that her sleepless nights were a normal part of college life. But an annual checkup changed her mind. When her doctor asked how much she slept in an average night, Park faced a distressing realization. “I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe four or five hours on average, obviously sometimes far less.’ And he said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s horrible.’ He was really shocked, which shocked me. It made me realize maybe this is a problem.”
Outside the Bedroom
The morning following Park’s sleepless night, she prepares for work as a laboratory research assistant. She takes deep breaths, trying to clear her head as she tosses on her white coat. There’s no room for mistakes in this environment. As the day goes on, she notices her hands shake as she pipettes exact measurements into tubes. A yawn stops her in her tracks as she struggles to regain control of her movements. She refuses to let exhaustion stop her from doing her job, yet a voice in her head reminds her that if someday something bad happens as a result…she can’t fathom finishing the sentence.
“It’s not easy pipetting very small amounts of liquid into this microscopic tube when you’re exhausted,” she says.
A lack of sleep creates endless opportunities for poor judgment and mistakes. Just one wrong move and an accident can occur. Eric Dyken, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Program at the University of Iowa, studies these situations. “If you fall asleep in certain jobs, you kill people,” Dyken says. “If you’re sleep deprived, you could bury a mistake.”
From the workplace to the road, exhaustion’s effects can be seen everywhere. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driver fatigue results in approximately 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths per year. The stats make sense: Sleep-deprived drivers have the same or worse hand-eye coordination skills than drunk drivers.
Plus, sleep deprivation can cause road rage. Otherwise even-tempered drivers can easily turn aggressive, says Steven Zorn, M.D., founder of the Iowa Sleep Clinic in Des Moines and Fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Many people, when they don’t get enough sleep or they have poor quality sleep, their fuse is a little shorter,” Zorn says. “They react without thinking sometimes.”
The dangers of sleep deprivation aren’t limited to lethargic accidents or temperamental outbursts. A 1989 University of Chicago study proved that severe lack of sleep can, in fact, cause death in its sufferers. The study, now condemned by PETA, subjected a number of lab rats to total sleep deprivation. Between days 11 and 32, all were dead. No other cause of death could be found outside the sleeplessness. In addition, the rats’ appearance changed from healthy to scrawny and weak. The study was ultimately unable to explain exactly why sleep is necessary, though it opened doors for the future of sleep medicine. Of course, no similar study can be practiced on humans, but doctors predict the effects would be much the same.
Dyken says the study shed light on the immense importance of sleep. Previously, it wasn’t thought that lack of sleep could do any great harm—and no one believed it could result in death. “[Researchers found] there was something restorative and necessary about sleep for life. Biologically we need sleep to keep alive,” Dyken says.
Clearly, the dangers of losing your nightly eight hours are dramatic. But it’s tragically easy to wave off sleep problems as unimportant, as Park did for the first five years she dealt with insomnia.
“It was something I never really meant to bring up because there were
a lot of other issues I was focusing on,” says Park, who’s also diagnosed with anxiety. “[Sleep] really wasn’t in the forefront of my mind because I thought, ‘I want to be happy and functioning. Who cares if I sleep or not?’”
But after her wake-up call at the doctor’s office, Park realized just how negatively the lack of sleep was affecting her life. “When you’re not sleeping—even though you try to convince yourself that you’re fine and functional—you’re really in this haze, and you’re not as present as you can be,” she says. “It made me feel detached from myself, because I knew that I wasn’t really all there. You’re walking around like a diluted version of yourself.”
Can you buy sleep?
There’s no simple cure for insomnia. Park tried many methods to fall and stay asleep. From sleep aides to urban myths, nothing was off the table.
“I’d try guided meditations, teas, and aromatherapy sprays. I’d try a ton of different things,” she says. “I’d try to be blank in my head, but that didn’t work out very well.”
Park isn’t the only one who’s tried a variety of products to chase a good night’s sleep. Given America’s sleepless epidemic, it’s no surprise sleep-related businesses are so lucrative. In 2012, $32 billion were spent on improving sleep, according to a “Fiscal Times” report. The Center for Disease Control finds that nearly nine million Americans take sleeping pills.
Park’s insomnia is now well- controlled with the use of medication. Her solution, however, didn’t come without a few bad experiences.
“My general practitioner prescribed me a medication for sleep,” Park says. “It was an anti-psychotic, which are known for having these hypnotic effects and making you feel kind of sedated. I tried it, and I felt like a zombie. When I tried to wake up the next day, I wouldn’t wake up until 2 or 3 p.m., so I never took it again.”
Finding the right treatment is worth the trial and error. Park recently started a new drug, and she’s been sleeping through the night ever since. “I took it, and it was perfect for me,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m on a drug.”
Park was lucky to find a solution for her insomnia. But millions of Americans still find themselves unable to rest. Sometimes the mere thought of sleep is enough to keep their minds racing. “Before, I’d really dread going to sleep,” Park says. “Because as much as I wanted that release, I knew I wasn’t going to get it.”
Park remembers that pain and hopes everyone struggling with insomnia gets the help they need. She believes her therapist describes it best: Sleep really makes you feel like more of a person.