Sleepless in Sobriety

By Christopher Dale 08/25/14

I can't fall asleep on command any more than I can defy gravity; both demand changes impossible to execute. The difference is that failure to achieve weightlessness for eight hours won't make me tired, irritable and unproductive for the remainder of the day.


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Among the most taken for granted, unintentionally exaggerated phrases we hear on a regular basis is “I couldn’t sleep last night.” When a rumple-haired spouse or bleary-eyed colleague offers these words, they are seldom literal; the less-than-fresh party in question may not have slept very well but, with few exceptions, was not actually awake the entire night. In terms of slumber, there’s a world of difference between four hours and zero. The former makes the next day difficult, the latter nearly unbearable.

I know this because eight years ago, when I was 27 and suffering from progressive, chronic and as-yet untreated depression and anxiety, I went eight days without sleeping. That’s 200 hours, give or take, during which time powerful prescription-strength sleeping pills – despite ill-advised double or even triple doses taken out of sheer desperation – simply did not bring sleep. After twice roaming the streets of Manhattan in a state of paranoid delusion, the ordeal ended in a hospital emergency room.

Insomnia presents a variety of health risks. For example, studies have shown that people who consistently get less than six hours of sleep are five times more likely to develop type two diabetes. In the shorter term, lack of sleep brings a diminished ability for the body to ward off illness and deal with everyday stressors, such as work. Mental acuity decreases, and proneness to accidents increases.

Above all, however, insomnia is a quality of life issue. Perpetual tiredness makes life something to be endured rather than enjoyed, intimidating rather than intimate. Simple tasks seem like hard work, and hard work seems like torture. Exhaustion evaporates enthusiasm.

My eight doze-free days were, ironically, a wake-up call. Soon afterward, I began seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants. Sleep was imperfect yet improving: I’d have a few four-hour nights per week, but six or even seven (wow – seven!) became more commonplace and, equally important, the goose eggs indicative of an insomniac shutout were gone.

Drinking and Dozing

Though I cannot inextricably link my insomnia to my alcoholism, wholly compartmentalizing the two seems disingenuous. I wasn’t necessarily drinking for fear of restlessness, but many were the nights that sleep was induced or prolonged by inebriation. I was on a sick see-saw of sorts, my ascent from insomnia buoyed by descent into alcohol abuse.

Before long, I crossed a line – intangible to most but undeniable to alcoholics – past which drinking was futile rather than fun, requirement rather than recreation. Any progress made combating insomnia through the proven practice of therapy and doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals was rendered moot, drowned out by the type of destructive self-medication that only addicts know.

Treating insomnia with limitless alcohol is akin to treating cancer with limitless chemotherapy. The cancer’s spread will probably ebb but, sooner or later, the radiation becomes lethally toxic, with the only advantage gained being a choice between two poisons. My insomnia wasn’t cured, it was merely corralled. It’s easy to count sheep when the whole herd is surrounded by wolves.

I got sober at age 32. Though shorter than most alcoholic careers, my slope to the bottom was, I think, steeper than most. By the time I woke up, in a jail cell, on October 10, 2011, I had suffered a slew of cliché indignities instantly identifiable to fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Fired from a promising job and, from there, unemployable due to perpetual drunkenness. Spousal separations nearly culminating in divorce. Isolation from friends, alienation from family. And finally – mercifully as it turns out – an arrest for drunk driving. My bottom came with a less familiar set of bars.

Early recovery is tenuous because it is tool-less. For many in early recovery – especially those who, like me, came into AA an ardent atheist averse to the slightest sliver of spirituality – sound sobriety is built on a foundation of disciplined action that, at its most granular, moment-to-moment level, is executed through setting and sustaining healthy habits. I got sober due to a strict weekday regimen of work, AA meetings and exercise and, on weekends, a vigilant wife whose sight I seldom left. Quite simply, you can’t drink if you’re doing something else.

Though the primary benefit of my relentless reformation, namely sobriety, was invaluable, the secondary result was another condition – one highly preferable to alcoholism, but nearly as unsustainable – that overpowered my insomnia rather than truly addressing it: physical and mental exhaustion following days fueled by an utter desperation to stay sober.

Even if exhaustion were sustainable, the mindset enabling it is not. As a dedicated AA newcomer, I wholeheartedly possessed the willingness to dive feet first into the program and, for me, the laborious yet life-saving lifestyle it mandated. It was more than just shutting up, suiting up and showing up: early sobriety entailed a constant careful intensity, a sort of vigilant diligence carried, however heavy, through every moment of every day.

Looking back, those first fledgling months in recovery were, to date, my life’s most miraculous. Extremism gets a bad rap sometimes.

Gradually, of course, I started to settle in and, with it, to settle down. Anchored by myriad meetings, stepwork and sponsorship, Alcoholics Anonymous was restoring my sanity while hours at the gym restored a reasonable weight. My newfound dependability and optimism were paying dividends with both work and wife. The chores I once had to do to get sober became enjoyments of staying sober.

I was gliding, grooving, growing. AA Pink Clouds are fuel-efficient vehicles indeed.

So as the foreign became the familiar, the level of concentration and exertion needed to navigate life decreased. But as my days became less taxing and tiring, my nights endured more tossing and turning. Only then did I realize that the cage from which AA released me had also imprisoned my sleeplessness. The best medicine I'd ever taken now revealed an unsavory side effect.


A simple prayer said in unison at the start of most Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is the Serenity Prayer. In uttering it, participants ask whatever higher power to which they ascribe for a trifecta of blessings:

"God, grant me Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things that I can, and Wisdom to know the difference."

Insomnia, I feel, eludes each of these three seemingly all-encompassing categories.

The act of falling and staying asleep may be the most vital of our daily rituals over which we wield little authority. In fact, sleep has perhaps the poorest importance-to-control ratio of anything in our everyday lives. I can't fall asleep on command any more than I can defy gravity; both demand changes impossible to execute. The difference is that failure to achieve weightlessness for eight hours won't make me tired, irritable and unproductive for the remainder of the day.

Nor is acceptance an option (especially at 2:30 in the morning). In fact, asking someone to serenely accept sleeplessness is at best wishful thinking, at worst blindly irresponsible. That's like preaching acceptance to someone parched from thirst; sleep, like water, is a physical necessity.

At this point, it would be literarily convenient for me to espouse a few paragraphs worth of wisdom and call it an essay. But thus far, the right advice has been as elusive as rapid eye movement. I won't exaggerate: zero-hour nights have not resurfaced, and sometimes I go through periods of near-normal levels of rest.

But far too often, I endure consecutive nights yielding no more than five hours of sleep. These bouts - some brief, others prolonged - bring a snowballing sense of urgency as sleep-deprived days mount. As I become increasingly desperate, I also become increasingly anxious... and that further affects my ability to sleep. Like alcoholism, insomnia is a twisted, partly self-inflicted cycle.

And like an alcoholic binge, these episodes are often triggered by life events. As particularly important occasions - a major conference, a significant social gathering - approach, the creeping dread of insomnia goes from lurking to leering, mocking me as their eves arrive. As such, earmarked events loom as much as they beckon, leaving me at once enthusiastic and threatened. Big days are but a night's restlessness from ruination.

Still, there is hope through Alcoholics Anonymous. Though the skyrocketing, leaps-and-bounds growth of early sobriety has slowed (that's normal), it has by no means stopped. Every time I set foot in an AA meeting, read the literature or have an honest discussion with a fellow alcoholic, I find myself both relieved and educated. Insomnia, like alcoholism, can't be out-thought or outperformed. It can't be overcome by strength of will. It is impervious to blunt force.

But maybe, just maybe, it can be incrementally outgrown through wisdom gained combating another affliction that, though never eradicated, can be roundly marginalized. Maybe AA can bring me some ZZs.

For now, wish me good night... and good luck.

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues.  He is the founder and sole contributor to, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.