Sleep: A Strange (or Not-So-Strange) Enemy

I’ve gone through large portions of my life being chronically sleep-deprived for one reason or another. In the early years of my eating disorder, I didn’t like sleeping because it felt like a waste of time that could be spent doing anything else that burned more calories. I would pace around my room for hours every night forcing myself to stay awake until the last possible moment, when I could no longer keep my eyes open. Once I started binge/purging, I was often kept up by that. I would be so tired but also so hungry that the urges were impossible to ignore. Nine times out of ten, I would choose b/ping over sleep. Some nights I would get less than an hour of sleep before having to leave for class or work the next morning. I struggled to stay awake during these daytime activities and sometimes crashed as soon as I got home, which then just led to an even later start to my nighttime b/ping. It was a vicious cycle.

When I first started writing this blog, I remembered my sleep issues all occurring in the presence of my eating disorder. Then I recalled a funny conversation I had with some family members several months ago that made me realize I was actually weird about sleep even before my ED officially began. My mom and my aunt were talking about taking long family car trips and my mom said, “My kids usually slept most of the way, except Rebecca- I don’t think I ever saw her asleep in the car. I guess she just never got tired!” This sparked memories of those long 10+ hour car rides we used to take to visit family out of state and I replied, “It wasn’t that I never got tired, it was that I always forced myself to stay awake in the car. I was miserable!” I saw sleeping as a sign of weakness. At 5, 6, 7 years old. What a weirdo. No one ever told me sleeping was bad or anything; I came to that conclusion all on my own.

When I first got into therapy, a lot of professionals tried to insinuate that my parents held me to unattainable standards or even that they put strict limitations on what I could eat, do, say, etc. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. My parents held me to very reasonable standards and were not at all restrictive about how I lived my life, what food I could eat, etc. No one ever told me I was only allowed to sleep X hours a night or that I couldn’t eat X type of food. All those rules came entirely from my own strange brain. And not only that, but once I imposed those rules and had people take notice of my weird behavior, I thought it was absolutely essential to uphold that version of myself. Once I became known as the kid who didn’t sleep in the car, I had to be extra careful about never to allowing myself to fall asleep in the car. Once people knew me as the kid who never ate in front of people, I couldn’t let that version of myself die either. It made no rational sense but it was the way I lived most of my life.

One of the first things I noticed about inpatient facilities for eating disorders was how obsessed they were with sleep. Upon my first admission, I was immediately put on medication to help me sleep, before I was even asked if I had trouble sleeping. If a nurse noticed me still awake during one of their routine checks during the night (usually every 10-15 minutes), they would ask what was wrong and if I needed more meds to sleep. Apparently anyone who took longer than 15-20 minutes to fall asleep at night had severe insomnia!

I never liked taking meds for sleep because they always left me extremely sleepy in the mornings. I would struggle to stay awake in groups and sometimes even meals. As if meals weren’t hard enough, I had to continuously pinch myself to stay awake. When I would ask to be taken off the meds or when I refused to take them, it would go down in my chart and I’d be labeled a “difficult patient,” all because I didn’t want to fall asleep in my cereal.

This was a theme throughout most of the inpatient and residential facilities I passed through over the years. Many places had doctors prescribe patients powerful antipsychotics as sleep aids. I remember the first time I was handed Seroquel; I was so confused. I knew my meds, and I knew that Seroquel was an antipsychotic. Why was I being given an antipsychotic when I displayed no psychotic symptoms? I quickly learned this was becoming the new trend in the mental health world– prescribing antipsychotics for their “off-label” uses, many of which included drowsiness. Seroquel, Risperdal, Geodon, Zyprexa– I’ve been on them all that some point, mostly for the sole purpose of helping me sleep, even when I never asked for help in the first place. Speaking of Zyprexa, it is also commonly prescribed to anorexics to “help them gain weight,” as weight gain is a common side effect of the drug. Because, you know, that is totally the answer– give someone who is already terrified of gaining weight a drug with a known side effect of weight gain. That will totally work! They won’t suspect a thing! That one is wrong and ineffective on so many levels, but doctors still use it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using medication to treat (actual) insomnia. The problem I had with these facilities’ obsession with sleep was that they did what this article referred to as “medicalizing sleep.” Sure, there are countless physiological processes that occur during sleep, many of which have been studied in depth. However, the overall concept of sleep itself is impossible to measure. We’re also constantly being fed mixed messages about sleep. We’re repeatedly being told how important a good night’s sleep is, how adults require a solid X hours of sleep per night while children and the elderly need X (it’s always changing). Entire clinics are devoted to helping people learn to “sleep smarter” and doctors are handing out medication for sleep like it’s candy, including powerful antipsychotics. On the flip side, we set multiple alarms to make sure we wake up at the same ungodly hour each morning, and some professions have people working 60 and 70 hours a week. How do we reconcile these two mindsets? We’re being told that the quantity and quality of our sleep has critical implications, and yet we’re being expected to endorse lifestyles that make getting sufficient sleep impossible.

The idea of sleep being a sign of weakness was probably not completely invented by my own strange brain. My parents did not instill this into me, but modern society might have. When we run into people we haven’t seen in a while and they ask how we are, chances are both sides will say something like “I’ve been so busy!” It’s good to be seen as busy. It makes us feel productive and useful and sometimes it can even be a source of competition. We’ve all probably been a part of many “who’s the busiest?” conversations, either at work or amongst family or friends. “I am so busy this week. I have to do x, y, and z, all while managing Project A.” Then someone chimes in, “Is that all? That’s nothing compared to my week. I have to do a, b, c, and d on top of managing Project x, y, and z.” And so goes the game of one-upping; everyone wants to be seen as the busiest. Bonus points for mentioning how much sleep you’ve sacrificed.

There are countless parallels that can be drawn between sleep and eating. I know I’m not the only person with an eating disorder to have these warped ideas about sleep. I like to think that the distorted thoughts and behaviors I have (or had) around sleep developed much like my distorted thoughts and behaviors around food did. No one single person drilled these ideas into me, nor did society force them upon me. It was likely a combination of my innate personality traits interacting with the messages I received and interpreted (in my own way) from society. I’m lucky to have, over time, cultivated a progressively less black-and-white view of these things. Sleep is not all bad or a sign of weakness, and neither is food. I can admit to liking both now, which seems like such a silly thing to even point out. Sleep and eating are both basic human needs, and yet for so long I could not allow myself to admit to liking either one. Well shit, the secret’s out. I do love sleep. And food. Never believe an anorexic who says she/he dislikes food. Everyone likes food, and I’d even venture to say that most people who develop anorexia (or any eating disorder) probably “like food” even more than the average person. Otherwise, there would really be no disorder… but that’s a topic for another blog. 😉
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