How clinical anxiety and depression created a 14 month sleeping disorder

One writer shares his story of how he lost the ability to sleep to share the importance of taking care of mental health.

This article contains sensitive content that may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

When I was twenty-five, I was hitting my fourteenth month of severe sleep deprivation. 

During this period of time, every day was a nightmare. Not only did I have sleep deprivation, I also had high anxiety, debilitating depression, and a lot of physical pain ranging from body aches, nonstop migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome.

But my mental health crisis didn’t start from my twenties. Instead, my story starts from when my family first immigrated to Canada. 

Life on the move

At age nine, our family left Jakarta for Coquitlam, a small rural town in Vancouver. We arrived in Canada with hopes for a better life and instead found racism. I struggled to make friends and additionally struggled with the conflict of my three identities: Indonesian, Chinese, and Canadian. Who was I? I didn’t quite fit into the mold anywhere and was bullied at school for my poor English.

Photo submitted

Both my parents struggled to find work as potential employers disregarded decades of work experience because they weren’t Canadian. When I was 12, my mom decided to go back to Jakarta since she had a hard time adjusting to life in Canada. 

My dad struggled to find work for years and money was slowly running out. This put a financial burden on us and I learned the importance of a rainy day fund at a young age. The pressure weighed down on my dad and our entire family. 

I was a sensitive kid and I started worrying, unknowingly developing anxiety and depression at a young age, to the point that it affected my academics. 

Thankfully, I eventually adjusted. At 14, I was the happiest I’d ever been, with a good number of friends. But not for long. My mom didn’t want me to be without a mother figure and brought me back to Jakarta to be with her. 

Once again, I started from scratch and left my happiness behind. The depression came back again, without my knowing, and stronger. 

I lasted in Jakarta for a year. I couldn’t stand living in Indonesia as I felt Canadian and out of place. So I went back, restarting my life for the third time. But this time, I had little interest in life and no motivation. 

An independent life

A year after returning to Canada, my dad went back to Indonesia to support my mom and left me behind, alone. By then, my two siblings had moved out of the province to pursue their career. This meant that I lived with three different families from 16 until 21. 

While every other kid celebrated their high school graduation and prom, I was at home focusing on what I should do next in my career to be financially stable, because I had to make it. I had to not rely on my family. 

I skipped high school graduation because I didn’t feel the need to go if my family wasn’t going to be there to witness it. 

After high school, I got into a 1 year program at a trade school because my grades weren’t good enough to go to SFU or UBC. As an Asian, I saw myself as a failure because every other Asian kid went to university. 

Instead of attending university, I worked hard at my trade school while also working part-time at a food court serving Japanese food. The kitchen was a war zone; I worked on a large open flat grill that was always above 35°C, making minimum wage, and a maximum two dollar tip on a good day. And I had to do it all: cook, serve, clean, and work the register with a smile. 

After graduating my program and once again skipping the ceremony, I kept up my work ethic and forged a way out of working in the food court by looking at my interests. In high school, as I failed math and science, art was the only thing that interested me. It made me feel alive and gave me a medium to escape the negativity in my life and to turn it into something beautiful. And growing up, I always liked and noticed the beauty and aesthetics of everything in our world, whether it was a cool sweater, an abstract piece of furniture, or a really striking building.

I meshed my interests of all forms of art into design and built a design portfolio, eventually becoming a Product Designer focusing on websites and apps. Along the way, I met some amazingly supportive people from 19 and onwards who led to my present opportunities with big brands. By age 22, I was finally able to have a place to call my own and ready to live on my own.

But at age 24, a series of stressful events hit me, affecting me financially, mentally, and socially.

Breaking point: losing sleep

My childhood trauma of “having a rainy day fund”, “abandonment”, and “never going back to Jakarta” had my anxiety running through the roof. I learned to deal with stressors by toughing it out and never talking about difficulties, as is common in the Asian community. But these methods didn’t work. 

The stress caught up to me. I was hyperventilating in my bed for hours and felt a burning sensation in my brain. I woke up with my teeth clenched and cold sweat. And after one particularly rough day, everything changed. 

I lost the ability to sleep.

When I tried to sleep, I would be conscious the whole time while on my bed, getting poor sleep, if any. I was on the edge of consciousness rather than asleep, looking at my phone counting the hours until I heard birds chirping.

Photo Credit: Kristin Vogt from Pexels

I tried everything to get my sleep back: drugs, natural remedies, exercise, meditation, and acupuncture. I reached out to doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and a life coach. At first, doctors thought I was bipolar due to my complaints of lack of sleep. I was prescribed three different antipsychotics and also went through three different antidepressants. The drugs did not make my sleep better and the side effects of these drugs just made my depression even more intense.

It wasn’t until my sleep specialist discovered I had developed a sleeping disorder called Paradoxical Insomnia, a fairly new disorder discovered in 2008, that I started on a path to recovery. 

After reducing all my main stressors and seeking some spiritual, mental, and physical healing, I finally was able to get most of my sleep back after 14 months. 

The importance of speaking out

Fourteen months is a long time to not have sleep. Even I got close to breaking point, going so far to attempt suicide before my 25th birthday. Thankfully, I was stopped midway, seconds before jumping from a 50 story building. Now I make sure to treat myself especially well on my birthdays as they have taken on a new meaning for me.

Photo submitted

Had I not gone through clinical depression, anxiety, and insomnia, I would have had no idea how much of an impact these conditions can change someone’s life. And this is why I share my story and push for change.

I want to change the narrative and the definition of “masculinity” because it’s okay for men to be emotional and express their problems with no stigma attached. 

And I want to help break the stigma around mental health in the Asian community. Often the Asian community considers people with mental health issues as defects or social outcasts, rather than taking it seriously and having discussions. 

And I want people like me who’ve gone through hell, adversity, and self doubt to become triumphant and not victims.

Because we’re not weak; we’re the strong ones. 


Featured image from Health Matters.

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