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Can Lack Of Sleep Literally Drive You Mad?


Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 Can Lack Of Sleep Literally Drive You Mad?

Dominik Diamond, a presenter claims that insomnia nearly sent him insane as reported in the Times (10 05 09).

The article has a distinctive tone, whereby there is an introduction to paranoia, parched throat, sneezing, shivers, dizziness, hot and cold flushes, eyes that sting and water constantly are most definitely not the symptoms of the recent flu epidemic but that of long term sleep deprivation common to many.

Moreover he goes on to stress that it is also a debilitating illness and as he describes its ’slowing your brain to a turgid plod, making every decision something you have to breaststroke through mental soup to arrive at.’

Diamond paints a picture in relation to many readers that actually believe themselves to having insomnia. Essentially, however he argues that when you have been up for three nights on the run that is the point when one can say that they suffer the condition. This was his life back in 2002.

Having moved back up to Scotland and performing two shows for the BBC. He was unable to sleep the night before the first production of Caledonia MacBrains. He put this down to ‘performance anxiety’.

Essentially, he believe that because the first series of the show had been so ridiculed, it was actually the stress of getting the next series off to a flying start, he was also informed that only a miracle would save the production from the axe, which compounded the problem.

There were other anxieties to be considered, self-doubt being apparent. Diamond questioned was he funny enough to do that particular type of show. He did manage to get a few hours in.

The next week came and again he couldn’t sleep at all, this time. By the third week he’d got into such a state that I now wasn’t even sleeping the night before the night before the show.

Nevertheless he began working on the STV show Boiling Point at the same time. I would spend the 72 hours that covered the recordings each week completely awake. At times I was so exhausted that in the Caledonia MacBrains writing sessions all Frankie Boyle had to say was something surreal like “minotaur” and I would laugh hysterically. Actually that is still the case with Frankie.

I tried everything: warm milk with cinnamon, hot chocolate, Ovaltine, lettuce sandwiches, warm baths, gentle evening exercise, rigorous daily exercise, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, white noise generators, prayer, chanting, wave sound machines and every herbal sleep remedy with a pun on the word “night” that’s ever existed.

I went insane. I would lie weeping on the floor at 3am. I would stumble through the Southside of Glasgow at sunrise like King Lear, railing at God, with Queen’s Park as my heath.

It cost Diamond much more from a financial perspective, which included the fact that he was never able to take any work offered before lunchtime and that was to cost him thousands in revenue.

He was later prescribed sleeping tablets from a doctor of whom he describes as sympathetic. In addition he says they were ‘ the most efficient medication he’d experienced since the cigarette.

When the Xfm Scotland Breakfast Show came around, it was too good to pass up so I just added alcohol to the sleeping tablets to cope with the extra anxiety. This got me four hours sleep after which I would drive to the studio, shotgun two Red Bulls before I even started, then two more before the end of the show. I would inhabit a bizarre alternate universe for the rest of the day: too tired to do anything that required any brainpower, but too wired from the caffeine to sleep.

Bizarrely, it was the most award-winning year of my career. People would ask: “How do you come up with that crazy stuff all the time?” But by now those ludicrous flights of mental fancy were, to my exhausted mind, utterly rational. Without an amazing therapist throughout this time, the gossamer-thin membrane that tethered me to reality would have snapped.

This was not a healthy way to live for 500 days. A blood test revealed my liver to be almost as hard and shrunken as Tutankhamun’s skull. So I cut back on the two least healthy aspects of my life: alcohol and breakfast radio. And I got better.

On a positive note Diamond says that therapy has taught him everything we feel is the result of psychological triggers. Thus for Dominik he set about building some positive ones for my sleep. I set up a sleep room and a ludicrous, but effective, night-time ritual designed to trick my brain into not thinking I was trying to sleep.

All windows would be wide open to make the room as cold as possible and allow me to hear noise from the outside world. He would lie with his feet outside the duvet as hot feet were seen as a bas trigger. A portable DVD player resting on his stomach. He would watch one hour of an “exciting” DVD designed to fill his head so no outside thoughts could permeate it. (Battlestar Galactica or The Shield) then one hour of something soothing and formulaic like NCIS. If he was still awake at the end of that he would put Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited on the stereo at volume two. It is impossible to stay awake listening to Dylan’s nasal drone. Especially if you try and work out the meaning behind the lyrics of Desolation Row at the same time.

And it worked. He slept. But he could not sleep outside this room without a sleeping tablet.

When the BBC approached him to test Professor Colin Espier’s Sleep Restriction Therapy at the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre it sounded like it would be my Guantánamo Bay: He had to remove all the television, DVD and stereo equipment from my bedroom, which was now only to be used for sleep. A special watch monitored my unconscious patterns while he kept a diary of my sleeping schedule. The revelation: of the eight hours he was spending in bed every night, he was sleeping for only five.

From that point on he was only allowed to enter that bedroom for five designated hours each night. No matter how tired or awake he was. Once he was having “efficient sleep” then we’d extend the hours a bit. He never thought it would work, because he thought it would be impossible to get his brain to switch off at night without the aid of some tepid American crime series. He says, ‘part of me relished proving Professor Espie wrong: he was so laid back and confident.’

‘The first three or four days were tricky, but I was still getting a few hours’ sleep and it’s not like I was a stranger to feeling tired. After that it was amazing how quickly the need for sleep took over my body and brain once I trusted the process.

And that was the key: I surrendered control to Professor Espie, like I do with airline pilots when I fly. I learnt that insomnia is nothing to do with sleep, it’s all about control. I imagine that the vast majority of chronic insomniacs are, like me, control freaks. But you cannot control sleep. And that is what you have to learn to stop insomnia.

Am I cured? I wasn’t sure. Shortly after the course I emigrated to Canada. I now live a stress-free life on a small farm. The weather dictates whether I sow seeds, pull up fence posts or go canoeing. It is the very definition of giving up control. But last week I sat my Canadian driving test. A year ago I would not have been able to face something like that without a fistful of sleeping tablets. It was only when driving to the test centre it hit me. The night before I had slept like a baby.’

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