“Insomnia?” she said. “How do you define that? My problem is that I wake up several times every night. Does that qualify as insomnia?”
“That depends,” I replied, and then I rattled off the medical definition of insomnia: trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, awakening too early, or nonrestorative sleep; and distress or impairment in key areas of functioning during the day. “Do you feel impaired during the daytime?”
“I have a lousy memory,” she said. Then she launched into a litany of lost remembrances: trips taken, family gatherings, books read. The relationship of sleep and memory is a hot topic these days and she was curious: did her longstanding memory problems and frequent wake-ups mean she was suffering from insomnia? (And if she could get rid of the wake-ups, would her memory improve?)
A good diagnostician or sleep specialist would interview her further before reaching a conclusion; I am neither of these things and don’t pretend to be.
Yet my impression was that—whether or not her symptoms would meet the medical definition of insomnia—she didn’t have a lot to worry about. This woman owns a successful business with stable roots in the community where she lives, and she’s endowed with a vibrant personality, fabulous communication skills, and energy to burn.
Most insomniacs I know present a different picture and tell a different story. Asked about their daytime symptoms, and they talk about everything from fatigue and exhaustion to moodiness and brains that limp along in second gear. Memory impairment, too, is a common complaint, and it’s certainly one of mine.
Appearances can be deceiving, yet my sense was that if this woman would be given a diagnosis of insomnia, she had a rather mild case. She confirmed this a minute later when she told me what she does when she wakes up at night. “I roll over,” she said, “and I fall right back to sleep.”
I felt a sharp stab of envy: what wouldn’t any red-blooded insomniac give, when we wake up at 2 or 3 a.m., to be able to roll over and fall right back to sleep?
I kept the thought to myself, though, and made a suggestion about how she might improve her sleep. And about this, I’m a believer: no matter the shape and size of a sleep problem, there are probably ways to make it better.
But the memory issue? There’s a question scientists may be working to answer for a long, long time.
What kind of insomnia do you have, and do you experience any negative effects during the day?