Friday, August 19, 2011

Childhood Insomnia Resulting from Stress

Growing up in an environment with a borderline personality mother and a malignantly narcissistic Dad compounded by a period of simultaneous major-life-stessors (moving, death of grandmother, death of grandfather, parental divorce, parents remarrying), I developed several symptoms of stress. Insomnia was one of the resulting symptoms, which when your sense of safety and trust are shattered, having difficulty falling asleep is a normal reaction to abnormal events.

Part of the stressful environment was my very controlling BPD mother. She controlled what we wore: picking up and purchasing our clothing (not giving us a say) as well a laying out our clothes on the bed every day. She controlled what we ate and having us clean our plates or sit at the table until we did. A couple of times, I vomited in my food, only to be given more. She controlled our bathing, even washing our hair at the kitchen sink until we were middle school age which became very embarrassing when friends dropped by-- lying on the counter with my head in the sink and my mother scrubbing my head. She even controlled our bed time and awake time with early bed times and late awake times.And once we were put to bed, we were to remain in our rooms until a set time.

I developed insomnia around 9 years old; however, up to that age, I had years of being put to bed so early that I would stand at my window and watch the children play outside ... and then sit in bed and sing to entertain myself. I remember hearing my mother and Dad watch TV, and I could smell the aroma of freshly popped popcorn wind its way through my room. I also can remember hearing them go to bed and thinking I should be asleep by now. My bed-time didn't have anything to do with my schedule, sleep requirements, or body clock. My bed-time was based on the need for my parents to have alone time from the kids.

My awake-time also didn't have anything to do with my schedule, sleep requirements, or body clock. I woke earlier than my mother allowed my brother and me out of our rooms, so I would sit in my bed and count pennies, listen to the am-radio, or use my hands as puppets. All of our toys and books were in the play-room so we didn't have those things to occupy us . My brother would be awake in his room, and I would be awake in my room, and we were not allowed to play with each other. So we waited for the time we were allowed to leave our bedrooms. I had a small clock to keep an eye on the time so I knew when we were allowed out of our rooms.

At times, my mother refused to get out of bed and she would lock herself in her room. She would stay all day  in that dark room. During these times, my Dad would take care of us in between going to work. He would call from work to make sure that my mother got out of bed after he left us in the play-room while she was still sleeping.

From 1976 to 1977, I said goodbye to my friends when we moved to a new home in a new school district. I started new a new and shortly thereafter I lost my grandmother to a stroke. My mother had become very angry and lashed out at us. Notably that Easter, we were told we were ungrateful and selfish because we were upset that Easter bunny didn't come when she was still mourning the loss of her mother a month earlier. She tossed Easter tee-shirts at us as we stood in the dining room. My childhood ended at this point, and I knew my world had completely changed.

After my grandmother's death, my grandfather lived with us, and my mother was very cruel to him. Ultimately she kicked him out of our house for very petty incidents (crumbs on the counter, urinating on the toilet seat) and wrote him a scathing and scarring letter. She used my brother and me to hurt him more by not allowing us to mail him letters after he moved. I felt tremendous guilt about this. A year later he died, my mother had an affair with my Dad's best friend, and my parents divorced. The divorce was nasty, traumatic for us kids, and lengthy. Safety and trust had been shattered...

Now back to the onset of insomnia: I can remember the EXACT night that the insomnia started in 1977 when I was 9 years old. Most anxious children do not have a specific event that triggered their anxiety, but some do. Certainly some situations can be anxiety producing, especially those that disrupt the child's sense of structure and order in their world (parental divorce, deaths in the family, trauma, moves)

We had moved to the new house, I had started the new school, and my grandmother had died. One night my parents said goodnight to me as usual, and I didn't fall asleep. I started to feel sweaty and clammy. I heard the AC turn on ... and then off ... and then it come back on ... and then it turned back off... clearly communicating to me the passing of time. Then I could hear my parents walk past my bedroom to go to bed. The lights went off in the hallway and the house was quiet. Time kept passing and I didn't fall asleep. I started to get anxiety ridden and I cried hoping that one of my parents would come check on me-- but neither did. I called out for my parents.

What resulted from here was a long period of time where I didn't sleep. But what was worse than not sleeping was the dread from the moment I woke-up until the the next bed-time: the dread of having to go back to sleep and that frightening, traumatic, horrifying, anxiety-ridden feeling of being lonely, alone, and helpless to insomnia. I can't even describe the nauseating, deep-pitted, empty feeling when I couldn't sleep. I felt like I was the only child / person in the world that experienced this problem-- like I was the only person in the whole world that was wide awake in the middle of the dark and quiet night. I had no idea that other people have the same experience. 
Interestingly, I didn't feel sleep deprived. I wasn't sleepy during the day. I only had increasing anxiety about sleep. One night, our parents took us to meet Darth Vader at a local mall, and I was only fixated on the impending doom of bedtime. I also remember getting a doll as a gift and only associating the toy to the dreadful insomnia I was experiencing. I remember playing with friends during the day-time and only thinking of the terribly long night I just endured and the next night quickly approaching that I would have to endure again.

My parents didn't talk about the insomnia. My parents offered little comfort when I was upset and crying during the night. In fact, my mother didn't come to my room after the first night... my Dad did. And he really didn't have much to say other than he has to get up early in the morning for work. He suggested the counting sheep and playing a baseball game in my head ... and later he got permission from my mother to allow me to turn on the bedroom light and read Reader's Digest Condensed books (not any other book was allowed). I read through these books at lightning speed as I was up most nights to 4am and distinctively remember reading the series about Emily Pollifax.

Could the insomnia have been avoided? I believe so. If my parents had been more aware and subsequently more communicative and supportive about the changes in our family life (the move, leaving friends, changing of schools, death), I think some of the stress could have been eliminated. The way my family dealt with stress was to go to a movie (basically, to "deep six" the situation and not talk about it). But how could my parents have been more communicative and supportive about the changes in our family life when they are self-absorbed? And how could they have been more communicative and supportive about stress that they caused or contributed to? For example, if my mother had handled the death of her mother differently, acceptance of her passing would have been easier.  Rather than hiding in a dark room sedated, she could have set a different climate. Instead of attending a funeral for my grandmother, we were subjected to my mother's anger directed to my grandfather. 

And if the insomnia wasn't avoided, I think I could have worked through the sleepless nights with guidance from my parents. Perhaps I would have had a few sleepless nights but with having the comfort of alternatives (ie: watching TV, playing with toys, drawing and writing) and the comfort of knowing others have insomnia too, I would have been able to more effectively deal with the insomnia. Instead of feeling alone with parents ignoring my cries and calls and instead of my parents being angry at me for keeping them awake, I could have felt supported with the love of my parents.

I researched insomnia with children and found some wonderfully supportive parents on message boards. I love this mother's response to a mother who has a 9 year old with insomnia:  

My son has always been a difficult sleeper. We allow him to read in bed with a reading light so he doesn't keep his younger brother awake. I snuggle with him for at least 10 minutes and during this time we talk about his day and settle ourselves. When he was younger we used to do a breathing exercise to calm and focus him, nothing fancy just deep breathing in and out. From my experience having a set ritual each night is helpful. One thing we've done that's worked as well is having him listen to music with headphones. Keeping the room as dark as possible is also good with a light he can control like an LED reading light so he can either read or use it as a night light. Sometimes I also put him in a warm bath before bed or encourage him to take a shower.

Try to create an atmosphere of calm, when bed time becomes anxiety producing there is no way to sleep. And be sure to explain to him that there is nothing wrong with him, some people just have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. I came to the conclusion years ago that I just need less sleep than other people, my son is the same way. Lately things have been better, he's asleep pretty consistently by 10pm, but these things go in cycles. It sounds like this lack of sleep is distressing to him so I would avoid having him lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, that was always the worst for me as a kid and exacerbated my anxiety about sleep. 

Amen! Bravo! Oh how I wish I had parents that were thoughtful, patient, and flexible like this mother. Obviously my parents were not deficient simply with handling my insomnia. Insomnia was just a small part of the whole-- the whole being a childhood filled with dysfunction, toxicity, confusion, conditional love, and impatience that my parents created. 

Although the insomnia subsided, for decades I have carried that horrible sick feeling of being alone in a forever-long night. If my child ever develops an issue with sleeping (or any other for that matter), I will be completely supportive, understanding, and patient. I have been very comforting with my child during times of sleep pattern changes through the years, still feeling the effects of not having my parents' reassurance (security and safety) through childhood. To this day, my parents have no idea (nor do they care) how terrible that insomnia experience was to me... and how to this day, I can feel the after-effects.


  1. You poor sweetheart. That is what happens with a lot of anxiety. It gets focused into something( insomnia) steeming from the chaos going on at home. Its like people who have panic disorders. They have anxiety about something or many things clustered together. Then they have that first panic attack out of the blue (overload of stress) and then all the focus and energy goes towards the issue of panic. and the fear of having a panic attack. The same with the insomnia. Your parents were unable to recognise that it stemmed from the environment nor were they are to have insight into how damaging this was for you.Reminds me of my frequent need to always have to urinate. I was obsessed with the teachers knowing I couldn't go thru a class without having to go therefore I needed special permission. Also I vividly remember telling my dad was chest was hurting . I showed him where it hurt and told him that it felt like my heart was beating very loudly...pounding. I would always be thinking about my chest. So between the frequent need to urinate and the heart palpitations ( I was about nine at the time).No one picked up any clue that I might be anxious.
    Thank God that today we are parents who try to be intuned with our children. We have broken the pattern.

  2. "Thank God that today we are parents who try to be intuned with our children. We have broken the pattern"... amen Monica! Thanks for the comment about anxiety / panic attacks... great information. xo

  3. Please try Trauma Release Exercises, they have changed my life. I used to have awful insomnia since childhood, I was stuck in that fear mode of being hypervigilant, I couldn't relax. I now sleep so well, no nightmares or midnight panic attacks. There are videos on youtube and you can downlad an instructional video. Search 'David Berceli TRE'. I would really recommend it. After doing them, if feels like you've had a deep massage and a valium, I feel so relaxed and 'cleansed' of the anxiety from my body.