By Sarah Bregel
Updated Jan 14, 2019 @ 3:00 pm
Credit: Copyright 2018 Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocsky

I finally decided to visit a psychiatrist to confront my battle with sleep the week after my 32nd birthday. I'd always been a troubled sleeper. I attributed it to anxiety, which had worsened with age and having children. But it had been months since I'd slept more than a couple of hours a night. I tossed and turned every time I laid down to rest, even when it seemed that nothing specific was bothering me. None of this was helping the mounting stress on my marriage — the usual parenting stuff, I thought — but I was convinced my exhaustion was the problem, not our relationship.

As I grew desperate, my efforts to get to sleep got more and more extreme. I kicked my husband out of bed, or jettisoned myself to the couch with the dog. I took herbal remedies, over-the-counter medications, Sleepy Time tea, valerian root, and edibles. I forced myself to exercise even when I was exhausted and took nightly hot baths after getting my kids to bed. I meditated and smoked pot. None of it worked.

I was fragile, emotionally and physically drained. After detailing my ongoing battle with sleep to my doctor, I left with a prescription for .5 milligrams a night of Klonopin. I knew there were downsides to taking benzodiazepines, that they were highly addictive and could potentially increase anxiety and disrupt memory with long-term use. But I couldn't bring myself to worry; after taking the first one, I slept solidly for the first time in what felt like years. I felt healthier than I had in a long time. I could focus on my work, was more patient with my kids, and had the energy to exercise. I started running and doing yoga more consistently. The bags under my eyes, which I had thought were just a part of my face, faded. I looked and felt like a new person.

As I began to feel more rested and healthy, the strain of my marriage became harder to ignore. I cared about my husband deeply, but I was no longer in love with him. I think I had known this for some time, but a year after I started taking Klonopin to sleep, I finally said it out loud. Perhaps the meds helped me get there; I was more equipped to handle the fallout. And so I let my marriage break apart because I knew it was for the best. We cohabitated at first, then rented an apartment we would swap in and out of to make it easier for the kids in the short-term (birdnesting, I learned this was called). It was sad and scary work.

The first night I slept away from my family, I imagined I’d be wired all night. But my head hit the pillow and I drifted off to sleep before I had even had a chance to pop my pill. “A fluke!” I thought. And it was. But I wondered if somewhere inside me, the ability to sleep without drugs still existed.

The next few months were a rollercoaster. I found that the half-pill before bed I had been prescribed didn't put me to sleep anymore, so, with the doctor’s blessing, I started taking a whole one. Sometimes I’d take more.

I’d read enough about benzos to know that they weren’t meant to be taken long-term. My two year anniversary was rapidly approaching, and here I was: dependent. I knew the longer I continued, the harder it would be to eventually quit, so I decided it was time to slow down. I made a conscious effort to scale back my dosage. To be clear, doctors do not ever recommend altering your own dosage of psychiatric drugs. Quitting cold-turkey isn’t advised, either, due to the withdrawal symptoms, which can include panic attacks, irritability, nausea, and in cases of long-term use, even seizures. I eased off the pills anyway.

I began to take half a pill again, even when I really felt like I needed more. After five or six groggy, strung-out days, it started to do the trick. I was still anxious and exhausted. But I slept, relieved that I had my usage under control. Then one day I ran out of pills altogether.

My husband was finally moving out, so the house constantly looked like it had been ransacked. This, on top of the regular demands of caring for our two children and my work, meant that I had no time to get to the doctor for a refill. I was terrified of what this would mean, but out of curiosity — and necessity — I went without. I fell asleep a few nights in a row. Another fluke, I imagined. I was sure I’d be back to my insomniac tendencies in no time. But despite stress at home and at work, somehow I was winding up well-rested. I was taking good care of myself — eating well, exercising — all made possible by my pattern of good sleep. The biggest surprise was it was coming without tremendous effort.

Don’t get me wrong, the emotions of all this were still wringing me out. Once my husband had completely moved out, I kept being surprised by my sadness. I came home from a jog in tears, sat on the floor and sobbed — and then got up to shower and pick up the kids from school. That night, I laid my head down and slept anyway. I had confronted the main stressor in my life and now I could see that my insomnia had arisen from an issue I’d been ignoring for years — whether or not I should leave my marriage.

Now sleep and I mostly find one another. It is not a perfect relationship. I will never be someone who hops into bed and falls asleep quickly and easily. I still have to exercise, drink chamomile tea, and eat a balanced diet. Too much alcohol or stress makes things more difficult. On those nights, I really wish I still had the drugs. But I can manage.

Now that I’m on the other side, I don’t have any regrets about taking Klonopin to help me through. We take care of our mental health the best way we know how and when nothing else worked, I found a medication that did. I believe that those pills gave me the rest I needed so that I could find the strength to truly move on. The pills did what they were supposed to, so ultimately, I could do what I needed to. Sleep, yes, but then everything else that came after.

Instead of self-care, let's talk about self-maintenance. This month, we're focusing on whatever it takes to get by.