This is not J. but a bus driver in Mumbai. Photo by Pedro Elias via
It is often said that along sex and pooping, sleep is one of the greatest pleasures in life. But what if, suddenly, one day sleep goes from being awesome to a nightmare that you can't wake up from?
J.—who didn't want to give me his full name—suffers from hypnophobia, namely the fear of falling asleep. The mere thought of sleep makes him panic, which sort of complicated our interview because every time he thought about his phobia, he had to try and fight off having an anxiety attack.
VICE: Hi J., can you explain what hypnophobia is?
J.: Hypnophobia is to be afraid to sleep. It's one of the most specific, sensitive, and difficult to understand phobias as it occurs in very few cases, but seriously affects the physical and psychological health of those affected.
How is it affecting you?
It is affecting every area of my life. I try to avoid sleeping by all means because I’m afraid of dying—by way of a heart attack or a fatal accident. The next day, I feel totally powerless and hopeless. This heinous physical and psychological fatigue is really taking a toll on me. Any small detail of your daily life is affected, things that a normal person would not be able to understand.
What was it that triggered it in your case?
It all began with a vermian injury [a brain injury that causes loss of balance and dizziness]. One night in August 2010, while having dinner and watching television, I suddenly lost consciousness for a few seconds. I fell off the couch. Immediately after I came to, alone and unaided, I went to the hospital.
The treatment I received was very bad and the doctors thought my problem was a "mania" or something "invented." The psychiatrist and the doctor diagnosed me with "hypochondria and a psychosomatic problem." This was the starting point of my hypnophobia.
What did you do next?
I went to a lot of public and private hospitals and countless doctors who made me take countless tests. I got all kinds of diagnoses: some were saying that I had cancer, others brain tumours, ear problems—you name it I've had it.
As it was expected, all these conflicting diagnoses created this fear in me that something could happen to me at any time. Keep in mind that this difficult process took almost two years, in which I suffered permanent dizziness, vertigo, and severe headaches, besides the sleep problems. Gradually, my fears were increased. I began to be afraid of sleeping and thought that I suffered from a serious illness.
None of these guys is J. either. Photo by Bruno Bayley
You say that your phobia is based on the fear of not waking up; the fear of death. What are your beliefs about death?
I am an atheist. I do not believe in gods. I think that when we die it's all over and that thought terrifies me. I guess no one prepared me for this: my family or professionals, nobody.
You've said that you do everything you can in order to not fall asleep. What do you usually do?
When I prepare to sleep I suffer a gradual increase of anxiety. My body triggers episodes of panic and choking, to prevent me from falling asleep. It's hard to explain, you have to feel it: My pulse quickens, I tremble, I don’t know what to do. You feel powerless. The situation, your subconscious dominates you.
Besides that, I sometimes consciously get out of bed and go out desperately seeking help. I've gone to mental health centers, where instead of helping me, what they did was aggravate my condition with pills and drugs. I have thought about ending it all, but let’s say I am a strong person. I have an inner strength that keeps me from doing that.
When you do fall asleep, do you rest well?
When I sleep, it is because I fall asleep. Still, my mind plays tricks on me, reacting as a self-defense mechanism to keep my consciousness from relaxing and disconnecting from reality to have a restful sleep. I guess the brain disconnects because it knows that if you do not sleep, you die.
How many hours do you usually sleep for?
Between three and five hours, depending on the day and the intensity of panic.
Now that you've been diagnosed, do you follow any treatment? Do you take any drugs?
There isn't a pharmacological treatment. You have to follow a specific and concrete psychotherapeutic treatment.
There is a very small number of centers that treat this kind of illness, which are very expensive and therefore inaccessible to most people with my problem. I just try to go out, distract myself—I walk or think about other things to minimize the effects of hypnophobia.
How do you feel when you wake up and realize nothing bad has happened to you?
I wake up very tired, exhausted. I don’t want to do anything and obviously I’m sleepy. You can never overcome phobias, you can monitor them and live with them as best as possible, but you must keep in mind that they cannot be cured and whoever says otherwise is lying.
How does hypnophobia affect your social life?
I have no social life. My relationships with humans are limited, and as for my family... no comment. Nobody understands what I am going through and they tend to identify it with madness. It's also impossible for me to perform well at work. This has aggravated my isolation, distrust, and appearance of new pathologies and mental health problems.
How do you feel when people think that you are "crazy"?
Well, they are crazier than me because they have no empathy.
Is there something you would like people to know about hypnophobia?
Support is essential, but we live in a hypocritical society in which people with physical and psychological disabilities are abandoned and abused by our capitalist society. You are treated like a freak and you don’t have the right to bother others with your problems.
These phobias should be investigated—the number of people affected by them are much higher than we think. And at the moment, the only solution is in private clinics that working people can't afford.
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