Edmonton·First Person

For one year, I desperately chased sleep. Once I stopped trying, it found me

Saniya Warwaruk tried — and abandoned — pills, potions and breathing exercises in her year-long battle with insomnia. Finally, she realized her own anxiety about not sleeping was fuelling the flames.

Anxiety was the oxygen fuelling my insomnia. I had to stop fanning the flames

A montage of images show a woman in different sleeping positions.
Saniya Warwaruk’s bed became a battleground during her year-long battle with insomnia. (Illustration: CBC, Photos: Shutterstock)

This First Person article is written by Saniya Warwaruk, a dietetics student at the University of Alberta and an avid sleeper. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

"Please, just come to bed."

I can't. I can't bring myself to go inside my bedroom. I'm crying and my husband is doing his best to calm me. I don't know what to do. I can't stay out in the hallway all night, but the idea of getting in bed is equally torturous. It's a reminder of my failure to do what most other living things accomplish with seemingly no effort. 

2021 should have been the best year of my life. How many millennials fantasize about quitting their toxic corporate job and returning to school to follow their calling?

That June, I received that second chance — an acceptance letter into the University of Alberta's dietetics program. I had been dreaming about this letter since the moment I turned in my resignation the previous year.

But my reality had become a nightmare because, for the last two months, I had barely slept more than an hour a night.

It started the first week of May with a few nights of 3 a.m. wake-ups. At first, I assumed I was nervous about program admission interviews. The selection process came and went, but my sleep problems persisted and I grew more concerned.

So I turned to supplements. Then came the appointments — the blood work checking for tumours and hormones, the electrocardiogram, the sleep study. Aggravatingly, the results showed I was perfectly healthy. Yet the more I chased after sleep, the less I slept. 

Chasing sleep

When I would talk about my insomnia, a standard response was, "Have you tried …?" 

Yes. I have.

Melatonin, valerian, passionflower, eating before bed, not eating before bed, low-carb diet, acupuncture, meditation, breath work, sleep stories, white noise, psychotherapy, naturopathy, GABA, tryptophan, CBD oil, rhodiola, zopiclone, Zoloft, trazodone, olanzapine, psychiatry, chiropractic treatment and hypnotherapy. I have tried it all. 

A selection of bottles containing different types of sleep aids.
Herbs, pills, acupuncture and hypnotherapy were among the dozens of solutions Warwaruk tried to cure her sleep issues, but to no avail. (Submitted by Saniya Warwaruk)

Another response is "I get that too!"

I say this with respect, "You do not."

For one full year, I slept an average of two to three hours a night. Some nights, I fell asleep standing upright only to be shaken awake by heart palpitations. Every sunrise was a countdown to the torture that awaited me that night. 

I lost interest in anything that formerly gave me joy. Exercise became a Herculean task. My diet consisted of plain oatmeal and boiled potatoes — a real warning sign for anyone who knows my culinary prowess. 

Hitting rock bottom

At three months, insomnia is classified as "chronic" if a person has trouble sleeping for three or more nights a week. I was petrified.

I started having severe panic attacks and most of my waking moments (there were many) were filled with uncontrollable sobbing. I dwelled on the idea of suicide and fantasized about escaping the torment. My concerned husband hid my sleeping pills, which were ineffective by this point anyway, and checked in on me as best as he could while working from home.

Soon after receiving my admission letter, I broke. Battling anxiety, nauseating dizziness and a physical weakness that made walking difficult, I made the hard decision to return to my parents' home in Calgary so they could care for me. I remember haphazardly tossing my things into a duffel bag and thinking I'd hit rock bottom. I was 32 and deeply ashamed.

But there is a happy ending. And it starts with a camping trip. 

A friend convinced me to join her for a weekend in Banff National Park in August 2021.  I was perpetually miserable anyway, so I figured I might as well be miserable in a tent. I knew I wasn't going to sleep so I shifted my energy toward enjoying the sunshine, mountain air and deep belly laughs. I was almost surprised by the inexplicable lightness I felt. It was as if I didn't realize how heavy my burden truly was. 

Both nights, I slept. Deeply.

I created the monster

Two smiling woman stand in front of a lake with the mountains in the background.
When Warwaruk's friend Krista Burdeyney, right, suggested a camping trip, she figured not sleeping in a tent couldn’t be worse than not sleeping in her bed. (Ed Warwaruk)

In the back of my mind, I knew I had stumbled across something significant. 

Capital-I insomnia — long-term, chronic insomnia — is not a sleep problem. 

Most people don't need to think about sleeping. Attention, however, is the oxygen to the insomnia flames. That weekend in Banff, I finally stopped fanning the fire. 

The turning point for me was finding the work of Daniel Erichsen, a sleep coach who trained as a doctor, with an interesting perspective on chronic insomnia. He says it is a phobia, a fear of wakefulness that is reinforced by the very attempt to escape it. 

I had spent months following sleep hygiene rules, taking supplements and forming strict bedtime routines, all to no avail. I had created this monster. 

So, instead of techniques like box breathing, body scans and counting, I decided to do nothing. I handled my lizard brain like a toddler throwing a tantrum and ignored it. And with this in mind, I started to treat my insomnia with exposure therapy.

Every wakeful night became an opportunity to have fun. I would lie in bed and relive vacations, read books, even watch TV. That's right, I exposed myself to blue light that the internet would have you believe makes your eyeballs burst into flames. Instead, I started falling asleep to Seinfeld

Gradually, my fear subsided and I started sleeping more. 

Time, courage. And more time

I wish I could tell you the progress was linear and that it culminated in closing credits with a heartwarming instrumental. The truth is learning a fear is instantaneous. Unlearning one takes time, courage and more time.

Overcoming my insomnia has taken me through the lowest of lows. I have found myself broken beyond recognition, each time certain that I would never come back from this trauma. Back then, I could never fathom living a normal life again and yet here I am today. I moved back in with my husband in time for school in September and began the arduous path to normalcy.

A tattoo of a chemical structure on a forearm.
A tattoo representing the chemical structure of melatonin is on Warwaruk’s forearm, a permanent reminder of her battle with insomnia. (Submitted by Saniya Warwaruk)

During my recovery, every waking night required me to find joy and light amid an ocean of fear. I had to ignore the adrenalin pumping through my blood and remain calm.

It is in our nature to minimize suffering; we crave relief and many of us find it challenging to sit with discomfort. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, said, "When the world pushes you to your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray." 

During many nights on my knees, I would say a little prayer to myself, because, deep down, I knew that I could save myself from myself.

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Saniya Warwaruk

Freelance contributor

Saniya Warwaruk is passionate about nutrition, health and fitness. In 2022, she had the privilege of presenting her story about insomnia at TEDxUalberta. With her husband, she enjoys camping and getting lost in the mountains.