In university, Dutch Godshalk felt like a superhero running off little to completely sleepless nights, but by 25, that superhero feeling faded and his high turned into an unpleasant accumulation of feelings.
Physically overheating, his heart rate would continuously race, leaving him feeling out of breath. The feelings got worse with the less sleep he got.
His brain started to feel as though it was growing against his skull, making his head feel heavy and his vision blurry with the pressure of a headache like one has never experienced. His mind also started to go.
One night after another, those feelings grew and accumulated to form a “weird mask of toxic whatever” swelling in his head.
Wandering thoughts and blurry vision caused the bathroom tile to blend together and left him feeling as though he was constantly walking through an aquarium.
Godshalk’s insomnia became his kryptonite.
Listen to Dutch’s story by clicking on the audio reading.
From superhero to head underwater
Over the past five years, Godshalk has been on a journey with his insomnia and he isn’t alone. Insomnia is a more common sleeping disorder and it is found that roughly 30-35 per cent of people experience brief insomnia symptoms.
Insomnia is divided into two groups, those who experience symptoms and those with a syndrome. When the symptoms become clinically significant — experiencing them three times a week consistently for three months — a person’s insomnia will be considered a syndrome.
Godshalk compares the effects of his symptoms over time to that of a smoker.
“I used to be a smoker and when you’re in college and you’re smoking, it doesn’t matter because you have a young body and it can do anything. Then once you get older, this thing that was not an issue starts to make you slow and you’re coughing and you don’t feel great,” said Godshalk.
Working as a 9-to-5 journalist after university, the lack of sleep was catching up with him and the accumulation of its impacts began affecting his day-to-day life. Godshalk began pursuing freelance work as a writer to better accommodate his sleep schedule — orienting his life around not sleeping when most think he should.
Similar to other sleeping disorders, insomnia causes daytime sleepiness, and mood swings along with other mental health-related concerns and can impair concentration and memory— all effects that can greatly impact personal relationships and one’s professional life. One study estimated that the U.S. workforce takes a $63 billion hit annually due to insomnia.
Taking back control
It was while he was in the middle of a work project, Godshalk came to the startling realization that he wasn’t sleeping anymore — nearly at all. Previously, he would lose a day or two to his insomnia but when he realized he was missing five days in a week, the alarms in his head sounded and he asked himself what he could do better.
“I saw a sleep doctor. I did all the things that were being recommended to me. I wrote an essay about it just out of some sort of this desire to kind of take control back from something that was plaguing me,” said Godshalk.
Determined, Godshalk listened to his doctor. He started with the more standard techniques, setting boundaries with his phone, working out and monitoring his diet — most importantly no caffeine after 4 p.m.
Despite the steps he had taken to prioritize his sleep and overall health, something still didn’t add up.
“I was in one of the best shapes of my life, but I’m looking in the mirror and I’m seeing this sunken, pale, frail person who can barely move around,” said Godshalk. “It messes with your psychology and it just makes you extremely depressed.”
So, Godshalk started seeing a therapist. He became more aware of his own mind, the thoughts that were living in it and the ones that kept him awake all those years.
“I did six months to a year of therapy, just talking about things and taking some antidepressants. Sleep started being a little bit easier to fall into,” said Godshalk. “It gave me fewer things to worry about when I wasn’t sleeping too because that’s one of the things about an insomniac, they’ll just lie in bed and their mind will race.”
Mental illness and sleeping disorders can be a very intertwined web. Sleeping disorders can exacerbate mental health issues and on the flip, mental health issues can lead to building sleeping problems.
On the subject of insomnia, The National Alliance in Mental Illness says that “insomnia is rarely an isolated medical or mental illness” adding that “approximately 50 per cent of insomnia cases are related to depression, anxiety or psychological stress.”
Godshalk emphasizes the mental health impacts of his insomnia, especially as he found it difficult in his personal life to have open conversations about it.
“It can feel lonely and scary when you can’t do what everyone else seems able to,” said Godshalk.
Creating flexibility in his life to schedule sleep by working freelance has been vital for Godshalk. He also takes anti-depressants, goes to therapy, has an understanding partner and still makes sure to follow the standard suggestions for improving sleep.
Though he knows his journey with insomnia will continue and may be a bit of a rollercoaster, Godshalk finally feels as though he has found how to balance his insomnia with his day-to-day. When he does struggle again, he’ll remind himself of what he tells those who reach out to him, connecting with his story.
“Nobody stays awake forever,” said Godshalk. “You’ll find the sleep. You’ll wake up feeling refreshed at some point soon, and then you’ll have the energy and the mental acuity to just carry on with your life or try and deal with this problem in a more constructive way, but the despair that people feel when they can’t sleep does pass.”