For many months I’d watch the clock on the wall read eleven then twelve…one…two…three…four…five. Finally, as the little hand crept towards six a.m., I’d drift off to sleep. If I were lucky, I’d sleep for four hours. But more likely I’d wake up after two or three hours. I survived on little sleep for a long time. Once my bedtime corrected itself to a more normal hour, I suffered from waking up every forty-five to ninety minutes, usually in a state of panic or terror, struggling to breathe and engulfed in pain, tingling or burning. Awake and suffering through the dark hours that everyone else was enjoying in dreamland, I moved through my life like a zombie. I was sure that I would never sleep normally again; I was permanently ruined. Fortunately, like most of my fears of lifelong damage, it wasn’t true. My sleep finally corrected itself.
Insomnia is a classic benzo withdrawal symptom (If you’ve avoided it, count yourself lucky!). No matter how hard we try to fall asleep, or to stay asleep, we can’t make it happen. And that is part of the problem. We try too hard! We worry about sleeping, and that creates an even more “sleep adverse” emotional state. Like all benzo withdrawal symptoms, insomnia is best dealt with by practicing acceptance. The less we worry about it, the better our chances of relaxing and (hopefully) falling asleep and staying asleep.
Benzos downregulate GABA receptors, which means we don’t have the hardware to “calm down.” Until our receptors repair themselves (and they will), we have difficulty relaxing our thoughts and bodies. We have a hard time falling/staying asleep. Once we are more healed, our ability to relax in thought and body, and to sleep, returns.
Many people try supplements or other drugs to help them sleep in benzo withdrawal. Melatonin, an over-the-counter remedy helps some people greet the Sandman. It’s usually chosen because it is a naturally occurring substance in the body. However, we have to keep in mind that melatonin is a hormone. In some countries, it can only be obtained with a prescription. (Just because something is labeled as “natural” doesn’t mean that it is without consequences.) I tried melatonin and had a bad reaction to it, while others take it and find it helpful. You’ll have to do your research about its action in the brain/body and experiment with it to see if it helps you.
Some people find that an over-the-counter or prescription strength antihistamine helps them to sleep, while others turn to sedating psych meds. Remeron, Trazadone, Seroquel, Lunesta, Ambien, Elavil, and other drugs have been prescribed to people in benzo withdrawal for relief from insomnia. All psych meds (and the “Z-drug” sleeping pills) remodel the brain and may have a withdrawal syndrome. I tried Elavil for a few days, and Remeron as well, and I am so glad that I didn’t take them for more than a few days. (Both made me feel awful and neither helped me stay asleep for more than two hours.) It is, in my humble opinion, better to find other ways to sleep than to take more psych meds. Remember, we are suffering in benzo withdrawal because of a psych med!
I know how hard it may be to face the day when you’ve not slept well. I know what it is like to stare into the long dark hours of the night for weeks and months on end. It can be demoralizing and create a lot of fear that we are never going to get well and be “normal” again. We have to hold onto the knowledge that other people suffered from insomnia in benzo withdrawal, and they eventually were able to sleep. We will too, in time. We can cope better with insomnia if we let go of our expectations of sleep and live courageously in the “unknown.” We can’t control most of life and to let go and accept the mystery of each unfolding day and night is empowering. It can help us worry less and embrace life on life’s terms.
Most of the things I worried about or feared in benzo withdrawal never came to pass. I recovered, eventually, and life went on. Not only am I in a better place emotionally than I was pre-benzos, but my sleep is also better. Benzos change the architecture of sleep. For close to eighteen years, my sleep had not been what it should have been, no matter how many hours I snoozed. Now benzo free and (mostly) healed from the damage the drug caused, my sleep is more restorative, and my dreams are vivid and beautiful. I wake up ready to face the start of a new day. At night, I eagerly slide between my linen sheets to fall into a luscious slumber.
Make peace with your insomnia. Don’t let it worry you. It will get better. Do your best to fill the long hours of your nights with something that distracts you. I read, watched movies, played video and word games, and wrote in my journal. Sometimes, I laid in the dark and closed my eyes and rested as best as I could. I’m not saying that it was an easy time in my life. It wasn’t. It was hard. But like all the other challenges in benzo withdrawal, it passed. And the crazy thing? I’m a much better person for having traveled the rough and rugged road of benzo withdrawal. I’ve got coping skill for all of life’s hardships and heartaches that I never had before. You will too, once you are more healed.