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What it’s like when you just can’t sleep



Struggling on: Stephen Whoriskey says walking his dog has been his escape

Struggling on: Stephen Whoriskey says walking his dog has been his escape

Tough battle: Emmette Dillon says at times nothing worked for him in dealing with insomnia

Tough battle: Emmette Dillon says at times nothing worked for him in dealing with insomnia

Tom Bradby

Tom Bradby

Struggling on: Stephen Whoriskey says walking his dog has been his escape

ITV’s Tom Bradby has had to take time off work because of insomnia. Two fellow sufferers from Northern Ireland tell Leona O’Neill about the impact of being awake all night on their health — and how they cope.

We all know the impact a bad night’s sleep can have on our day. Restless nights lead to exhausted and irritable days.

For most of us, it’s a temporary upset and our body clocks click back into snooze mode within a day or two.

But for millions of others, insomnia is a night blight that creeps into every aspect of their lives.

ITV News anchorman Tom Bradby recently took five weeks off work due to crippling sleeplessness that left him unable to present News at Ten. Friends of the 51-year-old have said the journalist is recuperating at home due to a bad bout of insomnia.

Insomnia can occur in isolation or be a symptom of other conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression.

Here two Northern Irish people tell Leona O’Neill of their experience of the condition.

‘It sent me down a bad path again and it really scared me’

Londonderry youth support worker Stephen Whoriskey (34) says anxiety and depression led him to suffer from insomnia. The father-of-four and stepfather of two says during bad bouts of sleeplessness he fears the severe depression - during a previous episode of which he almost took his life - will come back full force.

"I started suffering from anxiety and depression about six years ago," he says. "I was living in Newcastle in England, went through a bad break-up and tried to take my own life.

"Thankfully someone got to me in time. The trouble sleeping started around then. But it was more restless sleep and waking up at night, not insomnia. Then two years ago the insomnia started. It began with restlessness and being up four times a night. But then after about four days it settled in to not sleeping any more than an hour or two every single night.

"I went through six months of not sleeping for more than two hours a night. My wife and friends said they couldn't understand how I was surviving on so little sleep. It was having a really negative effect on my mental health and because of the dark place I had gone before, I didn't want to go there again, and I sought help from a GP.

"I was put on antidepressants but the doctor told me the lack of sleep wasn't going to kill me. I felt it was made light of. If I hadn't have gone and asked for help, it could well have gotten to that point again, it could have sent me mad, it could have killed me.

"I was struggling because I was tired throughout the day, I was short with my wife, I was short with my kids and I was feeling really bad about how my attitude had changed.

"I had gotten to a good place mentally and the insomnia had sent me down a bad path again and it really scared me."

Stephen says that he takes often finds himself walking the dog at 4am to combat the sleeplessness.

"I can go through two or three months were I can sleep and then it's back into the same routine of not sleeping," he says. "At my lowest ebb, after months of little sleep I really thought that my depression was going to come back to full effect. I could feel myself falling down a hole.

"Your body needs to rest, it needs that downtime to recover and I wasn't getting that. Even now I am awake at 4am. And at that time of the morning I get up and walk my dog. I don't walk my dog during the day at all, it's always in the early hours of the morning. That dog has been my escape for the last three years. I couldn't be without him."

Stephen says that after 'trying everything' to get a good night's sleep he found meditation could sometimes alleviate the problem for him.

"Whenever I first was diagnosed with anxiety and depression my doctor gave me Diazepam to help me sleep at night," he says. "Taking tablets made me feel awful. I was already taking antidepressants which left me feeling empty most days. I try to stay away from medication.

"I have done martial arts for 24 years and I do also find that meditation helps me. It's all about the breathing techniques and trying to clear my head and concentrating on my breath. Some nights that does help me, other nights nothing works."

And he has this advice for others battling crippling insomnia.

"If you go to a doctor and they tell you insomnia won't kill you, don't believe them," he says. "Lack of sleep is a very dangerous thing. Because it puts you in a low mood and if you're suffering from depression or anxiety which a lot of people do, lack of sleep gives you more time to dwell on the things that make you feel down."

For more information and help with insomnia, log on to www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia/

‘If you are mentally fatigued it affects everything’

Emmette Dillon is a 30-year-old from Londonderry. He says there were times when he was surviving on two hours a sleep a day and shift work only exacerbated his condition.

"I work in healthcare and have worked night shifts since I was around 19 years old," he says. "And in this profession your sleeping pattern tends to be all out of kilter. Especially if you are working maybe several night shifts in a row.

"There can be a temptation to just get up when you are off. People say work shift patterns really do not help because you have to force yourself to sleep. But I think it's more that if you are a problematic sleeper, then you are just that. Contributing factors like anxiety and depression - which I have lived with for a long time - really exacerbated it for me. You are trying to sleep but you can't because of your mind, and when you wake up in the middle of the night your brain is active and thoughts re-emerge you can't get back to sleep again."

Emmette says that his condition got worse after he suffered a brain injury when he was assaulted in Belfast in 2017.

"Last year I had a traumatic brain injury," he says. "I was assaulted in Belfast and had four bleeds on my brain. I also sustained concussion which meant every time I lay down I felt sick so I had to try to sleep sitting up.

"I was getting maybe two hours sleep a night. And I'm not someone who can sleep during the day because once I see light, I'm awake. That was the worst time. But even now there are nights when I still will be awake at 4am. I just stay in bed and hope that I do fall asleep again, but it is frustrating.

"I went to the doctor and he prescribed Benzodiazepine, which is a medication that is supposed to have a sedative effect and help you relax. The medication is highly addictive and that's why when you go to the doctor with insomnia they will give you only three days of tablets. Because of my neurological history for me they didn't work at all. The only things that have really helped me in terms of sleeping were exercise and meditation music and apps at night as well as not using my phone for maybe half an hour before going to bed."

Emmette says that when his insomnia was at its worst nothing worked for him.

"It was more mentally distracting," he says. "I was trying anything to help. I would go out for a walk. Some people say that reading at night can help insomnia, but I found that could be counter-productive. Reading something you're interested in means your mind is still processing information. And if your brain is processing information it's not going to slow down and get sleepy.

"My doctor advocated a healthy bedtime routine, winding down, going for a walk, getting some fresh air and trying a relaxing bath."

Emmette has this advice for other insomniacs, awake like him in the early hours.

"I think people who sleep badly have to be mindful of things that are going on during the day that will affect their sleep, like stress, and try and eliminate that," he says. "And even keep an eye on their diet, particularly caffeine.

"I think people should keep a sleep diary, to record how bad things really are. When you go to your GP, he or she only has around 10 minutes to speak to you and you need to have everything written down. If it is getting to a point where it is affecting your mood and relationships then you should speak to your doctor about it.

"Insomnia is a huge issue, made worse by the excessive use of electronic devices and social media use in the evening and binge watching things like box sets.

"I think if you are mentally fatigued you look bad, your eating pattern goes crazy and it affects everything. But one thing that might work for one person might not work for another.

"For me, going for a walk during the day somewhere nice, in nature can help. I found meditation apps, which can play the sounds of rain, are really helpful in helping me fall asleep. And reflection - looking at what is going on and what stressors there are and eliminating them - also works for me."

He adds: "There are countless studies about the risk factors with regards broken sleep and low mood. A lot of parents of young children will tell you, it can drive people into a really unstable mental state. People need to take it seriously and seek help."

Struggling to sleep ... seven helpful tips to help you get a better night’s rest

Beware of electronic devices. Sleep experts believe the blue light from screens sends a signal to our brains that it's still daylight, triggering a surge of energy and blocking the melatonin that makes us sleepy. Instead, make sure to create a charging station in another room to power devices overnight rather than your bedroom. And turn off all screens an hour before bed. Forget reading that thriller on your tablet - try an old-fashioned printed book instead.

Instead of relying on your mobile phone to wake you up in the morning, go back to using a real alarm clock.

Make a point of relaxing before going to bed. Have a warm bath, listen to music or practise meditation or yoga. Some people find using bath salts helps to relax muscles.

Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime as the energy your body needs to digest the meal will keep you awake. Opt for a small, low protein, high carbohydrate bedtime snack, such as juice and biscuits. Studies indicate that foods with large amounts of the amino acid L-tryptophan can also aid good sleep - try warm or hot milk, eggs, cottage cheese, chicken, turkey and cashews.

Soft, soothing music can prove conducive to sleep. Some people listen to music specifically composed to induce sleep or the sounds of waves rhythmically breaking, or the steady pattern of a heartbeat.

Establishing a routine is a good idea. That means weekend lie-ins are out, even if you are desperate to catch up on rest. Try getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends and holidays.

Sleep on your back, which is the best position for relaxing, and allows all your internal organs to rest properly. If you must sleep on your side, do it on your right side. Sleeping on the left side causes your lungs, stomach and liver to press against your heart.

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