While watching Michael Jackson’s This is It on Netflix recently, I was transported back to that June 2009 day in the dentist’s chair, when my dentist stopped to turn up the radio, and everyone gathered around, shocked to hear of Michael Jackson’s death. I was later horrified to learn of the circumstances leading up to his sudden end, and how, in desperation for sleep, Jackson had died of an overdose of the very medications he had relied on for sleep. I was also horrified because I could relate. I was far too familiar with the desperation for sleep, with the increasing doses of sleeping pills that no longer worked, with the destruction of life—or at least, quality of life—and the wild goose chases searching for effective treatments, which took me nowhere but further down the path of severe insomnia.
If I’d been given the choice back in those days between regaining my ability to sleep or winning the lottery, I’d have taken sleep in a heartbeat! Perhaps if I’d had Michael Jackson’s kind of wealth, I too would have had my own personal cardiologist administering nightly anesthesia, in a desperate attempt at sleep—a desperate attempt to keep functioning every day, to avoid the never-ending daily torture of sleep deprivation—and the many losses that came with it. I like to think that I wouldn’t have gone that far, but who knows? What I did know for certain at the time was that I could deeply empathize with what he must have been going through to lead him to such desperate measures.
I had the same reaction to the news of Heath Ledger’s death, only one year before. Like MJ, he simply and desperately wanted sleep. Again, I understood how he might have felt. Sleep really shouldn’t be too much to ask. Should it?
Two household names whose lives were snuffed out only a year apart. Fame and fortune aside, something deep inside me knew I wasn’t so different. It was a turning point for me. I realized for the first time that if I kept listening to my doctors’ advice and going along with the increased dosages of sleep meds, I just might not wake up one day. It shook me to the core.
I started asking for help getting off the sleep meds, as they had lost their effectiveness, and I had lost my ability to sleep. But everywhere I turned, the medical advice was: “Well, you have to sleep”, “Let’s increase your dose; let’s add another medication.” I was even told that I was just someone who would need to take meds for sleep for the rest of my life. This was not what I wanted to hear, and I knew instinctively that it would be a mistake to keep upping doses and relying on meds.
I’m happy to hear from my clients these days that there seems to be more prescribing caution in the medical profession now. Perhaps there have been too many Michael Jacksons and Heath Ledgers. But at the time, I couldn’t find any support from doctors to help me taper off the prescriptions. In fairness, they really didn’t have many other tools in their arsenals. Ultimately, it was thanks to MJ and Heath Ledger that I knew there was only one way for me to go—cessation—and I had to go it alone.
I eventually got off all meds the hard way: on my own. My sleep wasn’t perfect, but to be honest, it wasn’t as bad as it was when I was dependent on sleep meds. And then I discovered this thing called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). My initial thought was that applying standard Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the problem of insomnia would be useless. And I’m even more certain of that now. However, what I didn’t know then is that CBT-I is a very different kind of CBT. It involves learning how the sleep regulation systems work, how they can become disrupted, and most importantly, the concrete strategies to help repair and strengthen those sleep regulations systems—and break the vicious cycle of chronic insomnia. It turns out, our bodies can re-learn to do what they do naturally: sleep.
I learned that CBT-I is the only treatment that addresses the causes of chronic insomnia – which is why all those wild goose chases are … well, wild goose chases. It’s considered the gold standard in treatment for chronic insomnia—recommended as first-line treatment by The Canadian Sleep Society, The American College of Physicians, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, The US National Institutes of Health, and The British Association for Psychopharmacology, to name just a few. In fact, research finds CBT-I to be as effective as sleep medications within a few weeks – and even more so in the long term. And yet, at the time, I couldn’t find any therapists offering this treatment.
Skeptical and curious, and as a therapist myself, I enrolled in my first CBT-I certificate course for therapists. My jaw literally dropped many times during the program. I suddenly understood exactly how my short-term insomnia had turned into a chronic long-term problem. It wasn’t just about anxiety, although who doesn’t feel anxious when they’re no longer able to sleep properly? And it wasn’t just because the meds had lost effectiveness, although that certainly added to the problem—a lot.
In short, my sleep regulation systems had become disrupted. Fortunately, with CBT-I they could be fixed. I was shocked. Why didn’t I know this? How had I been a therapist for so many years and never heard of this? Why, still, do so few therapists and doctors seem to know about this??? I felt like I’d stumbled across the fallen Statue of Liberty in the movie Planet of the Apes. And I continued to be amazed when I started using these strategies on my own, and my sleep started coming back! I didn’t have the help of a CBT-I trained therapist to support me on this path, so it took a bit of trial and error. But my chronic insomnia finally came to an end. I’ve since had hundreds of hours of training in CBT-I. For obvious reasons, it’s my passion in life: helping people reclaim their lives from insomnia is what gives my own life meaning now.
This is my 10-year anniversary of having last touched a sleeping pill. I can’t help but be bitter about so many lost years. I can’t help but be angry at the personal losses and financial costs and physical impact of my 20+ years of sleep deprivation. It was all so unnecessary. I’m baffled that such an effective treatment is such a well-kept secret. But that too seems to be slowly changing, fortunately. Still, the fact is, so many people are struggling needlessly with chronic insomnia. Twenty percent of the population lives with chronic long-term insomnia, and 50% deal with short-term insomnia. There are so few therapists and doctors specializing in this common and life-destroying issue.
Hard not to think of my own experiences from time to time, but for the most part, my grief over the lost years is tempered by my relief and gratitude, because eventually I did in fact win the lottery. The sleep lottery. The quality of life lottery. For so long it seemed an impossibility. I also feel like I won the meaningful work lottery, because how many people can say they get to transform lives for a living?
Unfortunately, there are many more insomnia sufferers than trained CBT-I therapists, which means I have a long waitlist. For this reason, I spent much of 2021 creating an online course to make these strategies more widely available. The course covers much of the same concepts and format as my one-on-one therapy sessions, but it’s self-paced and offers opportunities for clients to independently review key techniques, strategies, and information based on CBT-I. My goal in offering this course is to change lives, because knowledge really is power—especially when it comes to good sleep. If only I had known 30 years ago that a drug-free solution to insomnia existed, my life would have been very different. If only Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger had known that a better life—with better sleep—really is possible. Sadly, they will never have the opportunity to wake up from a good sleep. Rest in peace MJ and HL.