Sleepless nights, tired days; teens battle insomnia

May 25, 2006, midnight | By Shoshi Gurian-Sherman | 13 years, 7 months ago

When senior Crystal Avalos was rushed to the hospital for downing almost three bottles of cough syrup, she wasn't trying to get high. She just wanted to get some sleep.

Avalos's sleepless nights are caused by a rare disorder called chronic insomnia. According to research by the National Center for Sleep Disorders, 15 percent of Americans suffer from chronic insomnia - the inability to sleep or stay asleep during the night for more than a month.

For teenagers with insomnia, the inability to sleep can keep them from joining the world of the living.

First diagnosis

Helene Emsellem, Medical Director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders, states that insomnia's symptoms, including lack of concentration, productivity and motor skills, can disrupt everyday life. And physician Michael Breus writes in a WebMD article that adolescent insomnia has been related to depression, ADD, ADHD, anxiety disorders and stress. A living example of this, Avalos has both insomnia and bipolar disorder.

Avalos has been living with insomnia for nine years, though she was not diagnosed until sixth grade. Her mother took her to a doctor after weeks of waking up during the night to find her daughter watching television instead of sleeping. Avalos says she spent two nights under surveillance at a hospital, where she was attached to electrodes that monitored her while she slept.

After complaining endlessly about her fatigue, junior Emily Maddox was taken to the family doctor in eighth grade. "I was always complaining about being tired; it was my number one complaint," she says. Maddox was diagnosed with insomnia and a anxiety disorder.

Maddox eventually checked into a sleep clinic, where she participated in a series of sleep studies over the summer. Doctors attached her to electrode machines for one night of sleep and one day of naps. She describes it as the worst night of sleep of her life - and for nothing. The results came back normal. "I was really disappointed and frustrated because I wanted an explanation for my sleeping problems," Maddox recalls.

A sleepless world

The first time Maddox saw the movie "Fight Club," she felt an affinity toward Edward Norton's character, an incurable insomniac. "When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep...and you're never really awake," he says in the film. Maddox says she can relate to this sense of limbo. "You're going through all the motions but while being dead inside," she says. "It's like you're separated from living."

While some insomniacs slip into a zombie-like state, others reluctantly accept their insomnia as part of their daily routine. For Avalos, the inability to fall asleep is more irritating than anything else. "I used to lay in bed trying to fall asleep, but all I'd wind up doing is staring at the ceiling fan," she says.

Avalos decided if she was going to be up all night she might as well do something productive. Now she listens to music, plays video games, draws or reads - anything that takes her mind off not falling asleep.

Coping mechanisms

Over the years, Maddox has resorted to sleep aids. She has tried CDs and dry books-on-tape that she hoped would bore her to sleep, but neither worked.

When her insomnia was first diagnosed, Avalos' doctor prescribed sleeping pills to treat her condition. Since she was already on medications for her bipolar disorder, she was not thrilled about taking more pills. Avalos, who is usually very energetic, was disturbed by the side effects: sluggishness and drowsiness during the day. Eventually, she decided that the side effects outweighed the benefits, so she stopped taking the medications.

Like Avalos, Maddox experienced perpetual grogginess when she was prescribed sleeping pills. She was given Trazidone, which did help her fall asleep. However, she was unable to function properly during her waking hours. After about nine months, Maddox also stopped taking the medication.

Living without sleep

According to Emsellem, sleeping pills are a short-term fix and are often improperly prescribed for teens. Emsellem says that most teens with problems sleeping actually have something called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, which, like insomnia, is characterized by difficulty falling asleep and waking up. The syndrome develops when a teen's biological clock falls out of sync with sleeping and waking times. Prescribing sleeping pills to a teen with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome is "a recipe for disaster," says Emsellem.

Finding out exactly what causes her sleeping problems is no longer a top priority for Maddox. Her sleeping patterns have begun to normalize on their own. "I still have times where I wake up really early and can't fall back asleep, but at this point, I'm sleeping okay," she says.

As for Avalos, she has gotten used to extending her leisure time to the early morning. She is satisfied with the fact that she doesn't fall asleep in class – most of the time.

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Shoshi Gurian-Sherman. Shoshi Gurian-Sherman is a CAP junior and a junior staffer for Silver Chips. This is her first time working on a newspaper although she has always liked reading the Washington Post and loved her 10th grade Journalism class. She most enjoys writing feature stories and ... More »

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