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A dark spiral skewers sleep


The breeze blows through the wind chimes, tugging the strings that connect the shards of metal and multicoloured glass to and fro and shattering the silence that I’ve been staring in the face since 2am.

My phone shakes, begging to be picked up and have its alarm switched off by a hesitant hand.

To some, a melodious, chiming alarm clock is the wake-up call to carpe diem … to leap up and turn over a new leaf with its endless possibilities. But to me, the sound is a painful reminder that here I am having to face yet another day.

You see, my issue is not so much the alarm clock and its ringing at 5am. By the time the alarm goes off, I’ve been awake for a few hours already. The issue is that I have struggled for years with a depression so suffocating that it wakes me with a jolt in the very early hours of the morning, when I start to feel its heavy iron grip close around my throat.

When the wind chimes start, any desire to seize a new day has been throttled out of me. This happens without fail.

My inability to sleep has become my trademark and anyone who knows me well will tell you that if the survival of humankind depended on someone sleeping through the night, I would be the last one picked for the battle.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

When I was a child, I went to bed at the same time every night, just after Generations on SABC 1, and I pretty much slept as if I were heavily medicated — no fuss and minimal movement. My mother described me as the “best sleeper” out of all four her children.

The mornings were similar. I would sit upright immediately at the sound of my mother calling my name to wake up and get ready for school.

This routine continued like clockwork until high school, when depression started lurking in the passages of my mind. After much therapy and sleep analysis, I came to learn that it was the loss of my father in grade 9 that first contributed to the altering of my brain functioning and affected my sleep. Trauma does that.

Other events during my teenage years made me feel more depressed and, with time, I became a very light sleeper. But this shifted gear once I went to university.

I got the opportunity to study in the United States, which is a dream come true in every sense, especially for a black girl from Alexandra township. But, whereas everyone focuses on the fairytale, little is said about the psychological toll that moving to another continent without any family can take on an 18-year-old.

My first semester at varsity was filled with so many obstacles that I found myself gradually falling into a dark spiral of depression. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me. I went from not sleeping much to sleeping 18 hours a day, struggling to get to classes and through my reading and assignments. I remember my roommate always tiptoeing into the room just in case I was asleep and putting on her shoes outside the door so her footsteps wouldn’t wake me.

I spent my second semester in a psychiatric hospital outside Boston where I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression. This is where I started to understand why my relationship with sleep had gone wrong.

Depression is a mood disorder that affects the body’s functioning. Major warning signs of depression are either oversleeping or struggling to sleep or to stay sleeping. In many cases, a combination of all three keep the individual in a state of constant fatigue and grogginess.

I’ve been put on a variety of sleep medications and muscle relaxants, from Trazodone to Lorazepam, without prolonged success. I am at a point now where I’m constantly trying new homeopathic remedies to get even an hour more of sleep. I haven’t had much luck with essential oils, warm milk, different sleep routines, stretching or reading before bed. What has been working so far, to some extent, is listening to brown noise — a lower frequency of white noise — through my earphones the whole night.

Mostly I’m back to very light sleep, what I refer to as surface sleep, with all manner of thoughts running through my mind over and over again. And, although I have high-functioning depression, the lack of sleep stains everything I do.

I spend hours in bed every night, the duvet tucked tightly around my body like a life jacket, drifting on the sea of sleep but constantly bumping into the buoys of wakefulness.

Mashadi Kekana works for the M&G’s online team

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