The link between insomnia and alcoholism — and my recovery from both
Counting sheep, listening to cassette tapes, heavy breathing, warm milk… I tried everything to cure my childhood insomnia. My mom gave me melatonin pills and they didn’t work, so I begged her for something stronger. It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered that warm milk did work—if I spiked it with whiskey. Then I began skipping the milk.
Starting around 10 years old, I dreaded bedtime. Alone in the dark with my anxiety-ridden mind, I would stare intently at the neon green numbers of the digital clock next to my bed, as they stubbornly climbed upwards from 1, to 2, to 2:30, to 3. Then the panic would set in: 3 am? I will surely die if I do not fall asleep right this second. Being tired for a day in fifth grade seemed like the worst fate imaginable.
For my 12th birthday, my parents got me tickets to go see Blue Man Group. The night before I was excited, so I lay awake, restless and miserable. Until 6 am. I woke up at 7 and spent my birthday in a zombified daze, too nauseous to eat cake. When I got to the show, I promptly fell asleep and missed most of it.
In high school, the stakes were raised. The night before my first final exam, still awake at 4 am, I went into my parents’ bedroom and begged my mom to hit me in the face.
“Knock me out! Please!” I said, like a legitimate insane person. To her credit, she refused.
I begged for sleeping pills. But my mom, being the holistic type—and again, to her credit—refused those, too. Knowing what I do now about my history with alcohol and other drugs, it seems clear to me that finding solace in sleeping pills at age 12 could have sent me down a dark path.
On the other hand, the melatonin she gave me didn’t help. The herbal remedy, thought to stimulate sleep and help regulate your REM cycles, stood no chance against the manic hamster wheel in my brain.
I started drinking in high school. At first, it was just on special occasions: cast parties, after prom, weekends. I loved the way booze gave me confidence and quieted my anxiety. In college, the insomnia got worse during final exams. So I started drinking and smoking pot by myself, just to help me calm down and sleep. By my sophomore year, I was drinking every night.
“It helps me sleep!” I would explain to anyone who wondered why I kept a bottle of bourbon next to my bed. But I wasn’t drinking only at bedtime. Frequently, I would pass out hours before I was in my bed, in the back of a cab or the corner of a party under a pile of coats. I wasn’t an alcoholic! I was a goddamn sleeping champion.
But though booze can literally knock you you out, it’s not the best remedy for insomnia. A review of various sleep studies found that alcohol can help some people fall asleep, but it interrupts the quality of sleep once you get there. Booze is metabolized quickly and, depending how much you drink, alcohol withdrawal symptoms generally kick in about halfway through the night. This can cause shallow sleep, multiple awakenings, nightmares, sweating and restlessness—the very problems I began drinking to avoid.
Alcohol also reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep where you dream. So if you’re really, really drunk, you might not dream at all. For years, I rarely did. Sometimes I had nightmares—but the kind where you are physically awake but in a blackout and have a lot of apologies to make the next day.
REM sleep is also thought to be the most mentally restorative stage of sleep. In addition to inducing restless, intermittent sleep throughout the night, disruptions in this cycle can make you drowsy during the day time and make it more difficult to concentrate. This can be a mixed blessing, if you’re trying not to concentrate on the fact that you’re developing a pretty gnarly alcohol problem.
“The immediate and short-term impact of alcohol is to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and this effect on the first half of sleep may be partly the reason some people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid,” explains researcher Irshaad Ebrahim, the medical director at the London Sleep Centre in the UK. “However, this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.” He adds that “alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid, and regular use of alcohol as a sleep aid may result in alcohol dependence.”
I don’t necessarily believe using booze to treat insomnia was the primary cause of my alcoholism. I think I was just wired this way. But it certainly didn’t help. Towards the end of my drinking career, I would routinely pass out in all my clothes, usually in my bed, usually with my shoes on. Some nights, I would wake up around 3 am, either with a hangover or still drunk, kick off my shoes, crawl to the bathroom for water. Then once I’d metabolized all that liquor, I would wake up again early in the morning, craving alcohol. If I didn’t have any on hand, I might go to the neighborhood bodega for a pack of Coors Light. Coors Light. Clearly, I was in a dark place.
So, I got sober. That’s often what happens after you regularly find yourself drinking Coors Light at 5 am. If you’re lucky, you recognize you have a problem, and you get help. I was lucky.
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But life without alcohol meant trying to sleep without alcohol. Early recovery was rough. Those first few nights without booze, my skin felt like it was crawling and I was sure I had bed bugs. I would spring out of bed and flick on the lights, hoping to catch the little critters, but they were always too fast for me.
As I would learn later, I was actually experiencing a common side effect of alcohol withdrawal. On the bright side: no bed bugs! Just a fairly serious substance use disorder.
During the day, I oscillated between periods of dark depression and waves of euphoria that are known in recovery circles as a “pink cloud.” But nights were almost always brutal. Even after the withdrawal passed, it was nearly impossible to fall asleep without booze to ease me into unconsciousness. For hours, I would writhe around dramatically on my bed, like one of Freddy Krueger’s victims. I tried—guess what?—counting sheep, warm milk, listening to music. I tore through every season of Frasier in my first month, twice.
But I persisted in tormenting myself, telling myself that life without alcohol would be joyless and miserable, reminding myself of the regrettable things I’d done while drunk, telling myself that I was a piece-of-garbage human who had wasted years of my life drinking, doing drugs and now, watching Frasier.
There are many reasons why people in early recovery may experience insomnia. For one, we’ve grown dependent on drugs or alcohol to fall asleep. It can take the body some time to adjust to a normal, non-chemically induced sleep cycle. In addition, whatever psychological difficulties propelled us to drink in the first place—in my case, mainly anxiety and insomnia—tend to resurface without alcohol or drugs to stuff them down.
For me, it took about six months before I achieved a relatively “normal” sleep schedule, and I still experienced occasional bouts of insomnia. But when I did sleep, it was glorious.
Hours and hours of uninterrupted slumber. I started dreaming again. And waking up without a hangover was bliss. On weekend mornings, I would bound out of bed like a kid on Christmas and wander around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, just enjoying my existence as a hydrated human with no headache and no apologies to make.
It was a few years into my recovery that my sleeping issues just slowly disappeared. Maybe it was being too tired from having a full-time job and busy schedule. Maybe it was my cocktail of 12-step meetings, therapy, medication, exercise and Netflix. And I’m still not “chill.” But at some point, I grew into a person who does not dread bedtime at all, who regularly gets eight hours of sleep a night. Sometimes I even fall asleep on friend’s couches or in movie theaters or at my desk at work.
I’m a goddamn sleeping champion. And I still find time to watch Frasier.