FERGUSON: Learning to cope

May 3, 2013 

I’ve written about health issues that I’ve had in the past several times, and I always seem to get a lot of feedback on those columns. Often, that’s because people have either had the same or a similar problem to the one I describe or they know someone who has. People just tend to bond over shared misery, I guess.

Now I have another chance to bond with the afflicted, and this time my nemesis is insomnia. It isn’t really a new problem. I first started having trouble staying asleep for more than a few hours at a time when I developed a thyroid problem in my late 20s. My doctor prescribed me something at the time that helped a lot and I’ve continued to take it ever since.

It has worked pretty well all these years, but over the last six months or so I noticed my sleep cycle was getting shorter again. I can’t seem to sleep for more than four hours or so without waking up, and I don’t get up feeling very refreshed in the morning.

I took the issue to my family doctor, and I got to play the always-entertaining role of lab rat once again. That’s what I call it when a doctor has you “try out” medications that might either make you better, do nothing for you or make you worse.

The fun part is that medications affect everyone differently, so there’s no way of knowing for sure if a particular drug will help you unless you try it out. It’s like when the lead actor on the medical drama “House” would tell a patient that a treatment they were going to try on them would either make them better or kill them, and at least then they’d have the correct diagnosis.

Fortunately in real life these “diagnostic treatments” don’t usually kill you. Usually.

In this case I tried out three different sleep aids. They either didn’t work at all or only made me sleep just a bit longer, and they all had the side effect of making me very drowsy the next day. Ultimately I was no better off. So I decided to go see a sleep medicine specialist. I was hopeful that a doctor who specialized in the science of sleep could get this problem nailed down and put me on the road to an effective treatment.

After listening to my history, Dr. Sleep Expert said we needed to do a sleep study to rule out things like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, but his initial diagnosis was that (and hopefully this won’t sound too technical) I am just one of those people who doesn’t sleep very well. He said I am probably what is known as hyper-aroused. (No, that’s not as exciting as it sounds.)

People who are hyper-aroused are constantly in a low-level version of the “fight or flight” psychological state. They have higher than normal stress hormones acting on them at all times and that does not lend itself to falling and staying asleep.

He also told me that I am getting older, and people normally have trouble sleeping as long as they used to as they age. So the combination of hyper-arousal and advancing age means I probably just need to get used to spending less time asleep. That’s not the answer I was hoping for, but I appreciated the honesty. I’d rather get a straight answer in this situation, even if it’s not what I want to hear.

As Shimon Peres, president of Israel, once said, “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact -- not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”

I think as I get older I see there are a lot of things that initially seem like problems that need to be solved but are really just facts I need to learn to cope with.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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