Some related journalism: are antidepressants a life-sentence?

Those who have kindly read The Insomnia Diaries will know that I have a few things to say about my ‘Psychiatric Safari’ ie) the way I was shoved onto loads of tablets during that period by doctors.

Many of these drugs were inappropriate – didn’t help me sleep, and did nothing except worsen my health by giving me awful side-effects and withdrawals.

In fact, much of my past almost-three years of good health (hurray!) have been preoccupied with coming OFF said drugs, with partial success. But I have suffered – and still suffer – awful withdrawal effects when I try to ‘jump off’ those I am still taking.

This week a major academic study was published, flying in the face of current thinking that antidepressants are over-prescribed. ‘There is no pill for loneliness or grief’, goes the thinking. Indeed, it’s become a truism that doctors know how to put people on these powerful medications, but not take them off.

My main problems were with Valium like tablet (then later, Valium itself), and are currently with a drug called pregabalin. But I’ve have had dances with antidepressants – and am still on a drug called Trazodone. The only reason I’m still on these drugs is to avoid the withdrawals: I have to feel well enough to sleep, work, look after my kids, socialise, and sell and buy a home.

My pragmatic view is: one battle at a time.

Anyway, please find below a piece I wrote for the Telegraph, which went online this lunchtime – critical of this new study. However, I am still aware that many people DO benefit from longterm prescription, which is why I interviewed my old buddy, Denise Davies, about her experiences.

Interested to hear any feedback!


Very little in my newspaper surprises me these days, but a health report published this week almost made me choke on my tea. “Long-term antidepressant use is beneficial, study finds,” declared the headline.

The story was about a new study into the long-term effects of antidepressants, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. It went on to say that those who stay on antidepressants “fare better” than many long-term users who come off the drugs, raising doubts about the “drive to wean millions off medication”. Researchers found that 56 per cent of those who came off medication experienced a ‘relapse’ within a year (compared with 39 per cent who stayed on the pills, who experienced less depression and anxiety).

“What this study convincingly demonstrates is that, yes, there is a benefit for staying on long-term antidepressants,” says Professor Glyn Lewis of UCL, senior author of the report.

This was bamboozling, to say the least. I’ve been following this area closely – both professionally, as a writer, and personally, as someone who’s been struggling to come off psychiatric drugs – for several years now. Professor Lewis’ study flies in the face of pretty much every piece of research that has been published in the last half-decade.

‘Trapped for life on tablets’

In September 2019, the Royal College of Psychiatrists released a statement finally admitting that their long-held guidance that withdrawal from antidepressants were “mild and self-limiting” and lasted only a week or two, was incorrect. They admitted “substantial variation” in patients’ experience of withdrawal, with symptoms “lasting much longer and being more severe for some”.

As a result, Nice issued updated guidance for doctors, instructing them to warn patients of these problems and offer guidance for managing them.

And in January this year, a study by Professor John Read, a clinical psychologist at the University of East London, and psychology researcher Dr Ed White revealed that 80 per cent said they had “received little to no guidance” from their doctor on how to cut down on their antidepressant dose, and were forced to go online to find help.

Yet even after a short time on antidepressants, up to 50 per cent of users may suffer withdrawal when they try to stop. The problems, which also include depressed mood, anxiety, insomnia, nausea and dizziness, can be so debilitating many patients end up taking years to gradually wean themselves off the potent drugs. Others are wrongly told their mental health problems have returned so need to keep taking the pills for decades, researchers have claimed.

“I’ve seen patients so dizzy they’re unable to stand, barely able to sleep and suffering panic attacks,” says training psychiatrist Mark Horowitz, Clinical Research Fellow at North East London NHS Foundation Trust and UCL. “Worse, they get told by their doctor that it’s their depression coming back, rather than something caused by the drug.

“People can end up trapped for life on tablets. Some are driven to suicide by the withdrawal symptoms, not their original illness.”

Have we medicalised emotion?

The issue of antidepressants has become more pressing during the pandemic. According to the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, there has been a ten to 15 per cent rise in antidepressant prescriptions across the country in the past year. Another report discovered that the total number of antidepressant prescriptions drugs dispensed during 2020 had increased by four million items since 2019.

Much recent research is against ‘medicalisation’ – the turning of understandable emotional responses into illnesses that need treating with drugs. Experts have been looking at non-drug treatments for depression: talking therapies, mindfulness and ‘social prescribing’ such as volunteering or team sports.” In the words of psychotherapist James Davies, co-founder of the Campaign for Evidence-Based Psychiatry, “there is no pill for loneliness or grief”.

So has the entire direction of the psychiatric community now done a volte-face? Is a prescription for antidepressants now likely to turn out as a life sentence?

Turns out, I’m not alone in my surprise. “I’m gobsmacked,” Mark Horowitz, who is also, interestingly, at UCL. “This study is so against the grain. It seems to ignore all the work of the last couple of years, and the explosion of awareness of the trouble people have in coming off antidepressants.”

Horowitz describes the study as “misleading – it seems to indicate blindness to the problem of withdrawal effects being mistaken as relapse,” he says. Well-documented withdrawal symptoms from antidepressant medication include depressed mood (ironically), anxiety, sleep disturbance, lack of concentration, and fatigue, as well as physical effects such as headaches and dizziness.

It used to be the norm that psychiatrists saw these unpleasant symptoms as a ‘relapse’ or ‘return of the original condition’, and a reason to not take patients off their drugs. More enlightened recent thinking, however, is that they are withdrawal effects and that ‘tapering’ antidepressants should be managed slowly, over time.

Hence, the feeling among many specialists that this new research has thrown us into a time warp. “The major problem was the authors of this study mistaking withdrawal symptoms from stopping antidepressants for a relapse of their underlying condition,” says Horowitz. “It would make the number of people who relapsed in the group that stopped the drug higher than it would really have been, as well as making the drugs look like they’re doing a better job of preventing depression than they really are.”

A further issue in this study is the speed in which subjects were taken off their pills: a mere eight weeks – very fast for those who’ve been on them for more than two years, according to Horowitz. “There is some hidden good news here, in that it appears that half of people on antidepressants seem able to come off them without problems,” says Horowitz, “with the further implication that if they came off even more slowly, the outcomes would be even better.”

But what of the other 46 per cent who continue to struggle, some quite disastrously? What if withdrawal effects are so horrendous, that you give up the struggle, and resign yourself to being hooked on antidepressants for the rest of your life?

The problem with stopping

Peter Gordon, 53, is a former consultant psychiatrist based in Stirling, Scotland. He was put on the SSRI medication, Seroxat, in 1998, due to feeling “overwhelmed” by the demands of professional exams, and a young family. “Specialists told me that withdrawals [from antidepressants] were rare and coming off them was never mentioned. I was put on them and left to it.”

But when, six months later, Dr Gordon started feeling “a bit better”, he stopped taking the tablets. “There had been no discussion that stopping suddenly was a bad idea,” he says. Within 36 hours, he began to hear a constant, dull, ringing sound and he became increasingly agitated and angry. Medical colleagues told Dr Gordon the symptoms were his “original condition” returning, so he resumed taking the tablets and felt better “in a matter of hours”.

After another attempt to stop in 2004, he tried to take his life, and ended up in a psychiatric unit. “I wanted to die,” he says. “This was not a return of my ‘original condition’. I was originally prescribed the pills for anxiety; I had never suffered depression before.”

Eventually, psychiatrists were forced to treat Dr Gordon the only way he knew he would recover: by taking Seroxat again. Dr Gordon, who has now retired from psychiatry, takes a small dose of Seroxat daily and has shelved plans to withdraw again. “I’m not sure I can survive without it,” he says.

He is critical of his former profession. “There is no doubt some people benefit from medication,” he says, “But there is very little research into the long-term use of antidepressants. Most trials are eight to 12 weeks long, and patients’ experiences are too often belittled.”

Dr Gordon feels that pharmaceutical companies have too much influence over doctors’ prescriptions, and has recently been campaigning for openness about the extent of their influence. “Today’s study reveals a ‘chumocracy’ in action, determined to sustain the narrative that antidepressants are ‘safe and effective’,” he says.

So, Dr Gordon will probably be on medication for life. It’s important to mention here that most doctors are told by guidelines to prescribe for six to nine months, after a person’s ‘episode’ improves, rather than having a lifelong prescription in mind. How enlightened a doctor’s attitudes might be depends on their age, says Horowitz. “Doctors under 40 seem keen to learn about new approaches, and help their patients through withdrawal,” he says. “Those over 40 tend to be more defensive about what they have been taught for years. We saw something similar in the last few decades with discredited benzodiazepines: drugs such as Valium. Now, it’s antidepressants.”

But long-term prescribing is on the up: 900,000 people have been on antidepressants for more than three years, according to a 2019 Public Health England report.

Much of Mark Horowitz’s work surrounds helping people come off drugs: with other UCL colleagues he is working on a pilot service for “de-prescribing clinics” (there are currently three, in north-east London, Somerset and Plymouth). “This new research seems dated,” he says, “perhaps because the study protocol was decided years ago, before our understanding of withdrawal symptoms and safe tapering really evolved.

“This study is the equivalent of concluding that, because smokers get more anxious when they stop smoking, that they should keep smoking to prevent anxiety,” he says. “But in reality, the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine or antidepressants can be avoided if they are stopped more slowly. It really isn’t reason to keep taking the drugs.”

‘My pill makes me a nicer version of myself’

Denise Davies, 53, is police staff supervisor in a 999 command centre, who lives in Essex

I am so pleased to see this new survey. It seems that people who do well on antidepressants are finally being represented. I really don’t care that others think these pills are ‘bad’: they have changed my life.

I was put on Citalopram for the first time in 2018. One morning, I woke up with butterflies in my stomach for no good reason. And they weren’t the good kind. I often started to feel confused and uneasy, and I found it increasingly difficult to organise household chores. On one spa break, I burst into tears because I couldn’t find the changing rooms.

All this was weird, because I had a happy, stable home life with my wonderful husband.

Eventually I went to my GP, who offered me the antidepressant, Citalopram. Within three weeks I felt noticeably calmer. The butterflies had gone. My mood lifted, and I went back to feeling “normal” – sad and happy at appropriate times.’

I tried to come off my drugs at the start of 2020, but felt my symptoms returning due to increased workload in the pandemic. Let’s just say we had some interesting and unprecedented situations in our 999 call-centre.

Will I stay on antidepressants forever? Probably at least until I retire. My pill makes me a nicer version of myself. I’m not hurting anyone by taking this drug. It’s a tiny tablet, it lifts my mood, why not?

In the Telegraph again :)

Ten days til publication, says Levy.

Can an insomniac ever learn to sleep again?

With lockdown condemning millions more to nightly wakefulness, Miranda Levy explains how she finally managed to get her shuteye again

ByCharlotte Lytton 31 May 2021 • 5:00am

'The longer you’ve had a sleep problem, the less likely it is that a few generic tips and tricks will hold the key to unlocking better sleep'
‘The longer you’ve had a sleep problem, the less likely it is that a few generic tips and tricks will hold the key to unlocking better sleep’

Everyone knows how rough a bad night’s sleep feels – all the more so over the past year, when disturbed rest has affected half of the nation. Rates of insomnia – defined as wakefulness for significant portions of the night, for months or years at a time – have also risen sharply, from one in six pre-pandemic to one in four. It can leave sufferers feeling “like a shadow of a person”, according to Miranda Levy. The sudden end of her marriage saw her tortured by an inability to sleep for eight years, eroding her work and home life in the process: in her new book, The Insomnia Diaries, she recounts the fractured moments of rest accrued over that near-decade, and how she learnt to sleep again.

A study published last year in the journal Nature Human Behaviorrevealed that women have far greater difficulty falling asleep at night than men, with insomnia typically affecting those in the 45-54 age bracket worst. Those afflicted in the short term are typically diagnosed with acute insomnia, caused by a particular ailment or trauma, an unfamiliar bed or excess noise, while the 10 per cent of the population who suffer from the chronic kind experience sleeplessness lasting at least three days a week for more than three months. For Levy, now 52, one gave way to the other: when her husband of nine years announced he wanted a divorce, what she assumed might be a few anguished nights turned into “eight years of hell”.Advertisement

“The problem is that the longer you’ve had a sleep problem, the less likely it is that a few generic tips and tricks will hold the key to unlocking better sleep,” Dr Sophie Bostock, founder of the Sleep Scientist, writes in the foreword to The Insomnia Diaries. Regularly struggling to get to sleep, lying awake for extended periods, feeling exhausted on waking and difficulty maintaining concentration, energy levels and even relationships are all telltale signs that trouble is afoot. “Sleep science is not rocket science but the sleep system does have quite a few moving parts. The longer it’s been broken, the harder it can be to twist the pieces back into shape.”

There is no magic number for how much shuteye a person should have, but most studies pitch it around the seven-hour mark: getting fewer than six hours each night is associated with a 12 per cent increased risk of premature death, while poor sleepers see their likelihood of future anxiety and depression double. “We are only scratching the surface” of insomnia’s real impact on brain and heart health, explains Guy Leschziner, professor of neurology and sleep science at King’s College London.Advertisement

The NHS advises that those experiencing periods of insomnia practise good sleep hygiene, achieved through regular bedtimes, a restful bedroom environment and a healthy lifestyle. It also suggests visiting the GP, should problems continue.Miranda Levy has chronicled her fight to get some sleep in The Insomnia Diaries CREDIT: Rii Schroer

In Levy’s case this led to a prescription of sleeping pills which, according to the Sleep Charity, are regularly being taken by one in 10 adults. But the drugs doled out each year in their millions – usually benzodiazepines and zopiclones (or “Z-drugs”) – are not an effective longterm cure: there was no difference in the quality or duration of sleep among those taking them compared with people who didn’t, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found this month. Worse still many – Levy included – find themselves in the throes of addiction as a result.

Why are we so reliant on treating a restless night by reaching for the medicine drawer? “People are used to getting a pill, aren’t they?” Levy mulls of her former reliance on clonazepam, and valium. “I needed a quick fix: go to sleep, wake up, look after my kids and carry on working. I think a lot of people feel like they need [that].”Advertisement

The debilitating effects of sleep loss cannot be overstated: it can fuel brain fog and weight gain, trigger type 2 diabetes, harm fertility and dent libido. If pills don’t work, though, what does? The Brigham study suggested cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) should be used in lieu of long term medication, as this “aims to essentially reprogramme your brain’s association between bed and sleep,” Prof Leschziner says. “It uses a variety of techniques, including relaxation therapies, good sleep hygiene, and sleep compression (making sure you do not spend prolonged periods of time in bed while awake and using your brain’s own mechanisms of sleepiness in the face of sleep deprivation).”

CBT-i usually attempts to reframe unhelpful thoughts about sleep, such as worrying how little you’re getting, as well examining the connection between the effects of our habits on our ability to rest. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “It is quite challenging and difficult to do.” But over the course of the average four to six week treatment, “60-80 per cent respond very well to CBT-i alone” – the maximal benefit being reached at the 8-12-week point. “Many of the drugs doled out work for some people some of the time in the short term,” he adds, “but we know CBT-i is the treatment of choice”; one that, in the long term, is “more effective” than medication.Advertisement

CBT-i can be expensive to undertake, and NHS waiting lists mean an average of 6-18 weeks post-referral for a first session to take place: apps such as Sleepio (free to all through an NHS referral or on request) provide a virtual six-week programme to follow, which may at least be an interim solution. Resolving insomnia really comes down to one thing, says Prof Leschziner: understanding its root cause, be it physical or psychological. His patients share fears they’ll never sleep properly again “all the time,” which “actually fuels the insomnia” (made yet worse by the vogue for digital trackers, he points out, which encourage unnecessary micro-focus on total rest reached). Levy was struck by this message in her CBT-i treatment: “Don’t turn the insomnia into a worry that itself prevents you from sleeping. Some nights, as I lay there at 3am or 4am I’d say this aloud to myself: ‘Don’t turn the problem into a problem.’”

With CBT-i, a weighted blanket and a committed exercise regime, Levy finally began sleeping again two years ago – and has continued to do so, even in the face of a national coronasomnia crisis. “It didn’t happen overnight,” she says of her recovery, but now – after six or seven hours of rest – she wakes each morning with “a thanks to the gods of sleep”.Advertisement

Levy believes the abiding message for any insomniac distressed they may never recover is that their situation is temporary. “Be patient, give yourself some leeway, just power through it. Eat well, continue to exercise, socialise as much as you can, don’t catastrophise, try to keep perspective,” she advises.

The fear of returning to those dark, sleepless days will likely never dissipate entirely. “It certainly doesn’t preoccupy me,” Levy says. “I’m really happy I’m getting on with my day, getting on with my life, and looking ahead.”

The Insomnia Diaries by Miranda Levy (RRP £9.99). Buy now for £8.99 at or call 0844 871 1514 Topics

A naughty skip around the Telegraph Magazine paywall

My first piece to tie in with The Insomnia Diaries. Shhh – don’t tell!


‘I didn’t sleep for eight years and my life fell apart’

Miranda Levy’s insomnia left her dependent on a cocktail of sleeping pills. It also wrecked her career and left her life in tattersByMiranda Levy28 May 2021 • 5:00am

Miranda Levy suffered with debilitating insomnia for years
Miranda Levy suffered with debilitating insomnia for years, as she discusses in her new book, The Insomnia Diaries CREDIT:  Felicity McCabe

May 2018. It’s my 50th birthday but instead of celebrating, I’m sitting in my childhood bed wearing a pair of tatty eight-year-old pyjamas, staring into space. I can’t remember the last time I left the house, which is just as well because I look a fright and I’m so exhausted, I can’t speak in full sentences, but babble in a mindlessly circular way.

For the best part of a decade, I suffered from insomnia so severe and disabling, it stole my career, my looks and ultimately my sanity.

The nightmare started in July 2010 – Friday 16th, to be precise. I was 42. I worked a four-day week as editor of a parenting magazine, and always enjoyed my ‘magic Fridays’, where I had the morning to myself to shop and exercise before picking the children up from school.

On that particular day, two heavy Sainsbury’s bags in hand – still in my gym gear from my Power Plate class – I navigated the front door and was surprised to see my husband standing in the living room.

We had been together for 13 years, married for nine, but busy careers and the competitive tiredness caused by two children born 20 months apart meant things had started to fracture. He started speaking. I only heard part of what he was saying – such was my discombobulation – but the upshot was this: he wanted to call time on our marriage.

I had heard people talking about Sliding Doors moments, about rugs being pulled from under them. Now I knew what they meant. Nothing would ever be the same again. At some point, I called my best friend and burst into tears. Then I finished the day on autopilot, making a birthday cake in the shape of a football pitch for my son, who was about to turn six. I went through the usual family evening routine and took myself to bed at around 11pm.

But I didn’t fall asleep until after 2am and was awake at around 4.30am. I was devastated at what had happened – my whole life had been thrown off balance. I was also distraught about what might happen to my sleep. I’d had a bout of insomnia years earlier, which had taken me many months to overcome.Levy with her father in 2014, during her time in rehab. She moved in with him two years later CREDIT: Courtesy of Miranda Levy

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already slipping back. This time around, it would last the best part of a decade. My Insomnia Crash, as I later called it (though it was really more like a train wreck in slow motion), hurled me headlong into a cycle of dependency on sleeping pills and tranquillisers, resulting in a stint in rehab, two psychiatric hospitals and a sleep clinic.

Today, I’ve recovered and I sleep six or seven hours most nights – I even slept well in the pandemic. But I still live under a slight shadow that this might all happen again.

A growing modern-day problem

Insomnia is a growing, modern-day problem – and Covid has made things worse. The number of people experiencing it shot up from one in six pre-pandemic to one in four in the middle of it, according to research from the University of Southampton. Even those without full insomnia are affected: half of Britons say their sleep has been more disturbed than usual during the pandemic, with two in five saying they have slept fewer hours a night.

I first experienced insomnia at 16, the night before my O level maths exam; I remember feeling horrified that a person could have the lonely and disorientating experience of being awake all night. In the years after that, my sleep was a bit fragile, particularly just before starting a new job or the first night in a hotel. But mostly, I slept well – eight, nine, even 10 hours a night – until 15 years ago when I was given a taster of how disabling prolonged insomnia could be.With her two children, Christmas 2004. After some difficult years, their relationship is stronger than ever CREDIT: Courtesy of Miranda Levy

A few days before Christmas 2005, my appendix burst and the two weeks I spent on a bright, noisy NHS ward seriously interfered with my sleep. When I got home to my dark, quiet bedroom, things surprisingly did not improve. By this time, I was married, and working as a freelance journalist. We had two wonderful children, then 18 months and three years old. Life was good. But suddenly, for several months I was incapacitated by insomnia, unable to work or properly engage with my children.

This was bewildering. Sleeping pills helped, but only for a couple of hours a night. I’d spend the whole day gearing myself up to put the kids in the bath and read them a bedtime story. But my concentration was shot and the words in those storybooks could have been Mandarin. I felt guilty that I couldn’t properly ‘be there’ for my children.

Eventually, with the support of my husband and an empathic psychiatrist who prescribed a sedative antidepressant, I got back on my feet. For the next four years, my sleep was great: I slept for England.

Until that day in July 2010.

My descent back into insomnia

That night, after my husband said he wanted out, I slept for two and a half hours. The next night, 35 minutes. Then, not at all. I was terrified, praying that my sleeplessness was just an initial shock reaction. On my way to work on Monday, dazed with tiredness, I stopped at the walk-in GP service and asked the doctor for some sleeping pills, explaining I’d had bad personal news. When he wrote me a two-week prescription, I felt a rush of relief – but that night the pill didn’t work. The next night, I took two. Didn’t work either.In search of a night’s sleep: the candles, weighted blanket, books and pills  CREDIT: Still-life: Felicity McCabe

Those early weeks were a panicky blur as I tried everything I could think of to sleep – exercise, hypnotherapy, reiki. I banned myself from looking at my phone before bedtime. Someone even bought me a purple crystal, which apparently emits a ‘serene frequency’. I was desperate.

By then, my husband had moved to the spare room – a situation that was to continue for financial reasons until I eventually moved out six years later. I knew if I could just get some proper rest, it would help me cope with everything that was going on.

Friends tried to help, dishing out advice. Some suggested I put lavender oil on my pillow, others that I drink camomile tea, burn a Jo Malone candle, spray magnesium on my arm. Though well-meaning, I found the advice frustrating. Meanwhile, the nights were endless and lonely. I tossed and turned, staring at the red numbers on my alarm clock.

When morning broke, I’d feel defeated, furious, and too drained to consider how I’d survive another endless day.

‘Out of control sleeplessness’

Soon my sleeplessness felt out of control – no longer a temporary state but a ‘stand-alone’ problem. I felt sad about the end of my marriage and uncertain about the future, mixed with a large dollop of fear, but the horror of being awake 24 hours a day – and the exhaustion that accompanied it – defied description.

I’ll always be grateful for the way my ex took great care of the kids during this time, supported by their grandparents. Meanwhile, my life fell apart, piece by piece.

I was put on sick leave from work and my GP referred me to a consultant psychiatrist for more specialist advice. At that first appointment, I begged the psychiatrist to give me something that would ‘buy’ me some rest, practically hugging him round the knees. He prescribed clonazepam, a drug with tranquillising qualities, often prescribed for panic disorder.

At first this bought me a few minutes’ sleep here and there, and a pleasant fuzziness in between. But the relief didn’t last. I found myself needing more to get the same effect. The psychiatrist doubled the dose, later increasing it further. Soon I was dependent, and would ‘hide’ the pills from myself – usually in a pair of boots in the wardrobe – to deter myself from taking more than the prescribed dose.

By September I existed in a spaced-out state of utter exhaustion, probably best described as ‘numb terror’. I dreaded seeing the other mothers when the children returned to school. It was a friendly community, but it was also a hive of gossip. I hadn’t seen the gang since early July and in that time I’d gone from cheerful working mum to a fidgety ghost, who found it difficult to make eye contact.

On the first day back, I dropped the kids at the school gate, planning to dash back to the car. But – too late – I was spotted by several of the Mummy Corps. I knew I didn’t look great but they stopped chatting when they saw me. One woman actually did a double take. I gave a falsely bright smile, saying, ‘How was your summer?’ Then I hurried home, retreated to bed.

As the weeks passed by, things didn’t improve. Every morning, I thought this hell was simply unsurvivable, that I couldn’t possibly manage another hour.

That autumn, tortured with sleeplessness, I took an overdose. I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to sleep and hoped there might be some hazy benefit from emptying the blister pack. There wasn’t. The world tilted alarmingly and I was violently sick. Frightened, I called an ambulance. I don’t recall a great deal about what happened at the hospital, except that I was given an antiemetic (a medicine that treats vomiting), plugged into a saline drip and made to feel like a moronic time-waster.

The search for a solution

Over the next 16 months, I made several abortive attempts to return to work. Then, in January 2012, I was made redundant. I started spending even longer in bed, stopped answering the phone to my friends and withdrew entirely from the world. Gradually, I convinced myself that the only way to end this horror was to switch myself off, permanently. I contemplated suicide for a long time, researching methods online.

Yet the irony is that at the same time, I was still desperately scrabbling around for solutions: I saw numerous psychiatrists who gave me yet more pills – from sleeping pills to drugs used to treat psychosis – which had terrible side effects, including weight gain. My body weight doubled in the space of a few years. My hair became dry and straw-like, my skin flaky.

Staring in the mirror one day, I didn’t recognise the spectre looking back. Everything I’d worked hard for had gone: from my career to – temporarily – the love and trust of my family.

Most of my friends hung in there with me. But when my closest friend said she would ‘come and sit with me for an hour’ – I suddenly felt like an elderly person in an old people’s home. It hit me that she felt sorry for me and it was only then that I realised just how much the dynamic of our friendship had shifted; I felt utter despair.’Just four hours’ sleep was enough to restore me to a basic level of sanity’ CREDIT:  Getty Images/EyeEm

By mid 2014 – four years into my insomnia battle – I had tried roughly eight different drugs in total (none of which worked at all) and was hopelessly dependent on the clonazepam, which I’d been taking for the longest. Convinced it wasn’t helping, I decided to wean myself off it, with the help of an online reduction chart but the side effects proved too much – I felt sweaty, dizzy and sick – so I booked into a private rehab clinic. This was possibly the worst decision I was to make, as it was geared towards alcohol and recreational drug addiction, not people coming off prescription pills.

I didn’t respond well to the therapists’ ‘tough love’. On one occasion, the group leader made me stand on a chair and sing God Save the Queen to ‘bring me out of myself’. Mortified, I burst into tears. I also withdrew too fast from my drugs while there, and became agitated, incoherent, and entirely lost the plot. In the end, I was sent briefly to an NHS psychiatric unit, before later being moved to another private facility.

The long road to recovery

Things finally changed in summer 2016. My father retired from his dental practice, and we all decided I should move into his Essex home to properly recover. I felt numb as I sat in the back of a taxi, clutching a small overnight bag containing pyjamas and a toothbrush. We’d decided that the children should stay with my ex. There wasn’t a day that passed where I didn’t miss them, or that this didn’t break my heart.

I mostly spent those days in my childhood bed, watching Netflix, still not sleeping and struggling with the drug-withdrawal side effects. I remember having a stuttering inability to get my words out. I even started hitting myself in the face at one point.

It would take two and a half more years to improve but as 2019 dawned, something odd, and not-altogether-unwelcome, was starting to happen. There were a couple of hours on the occasional night that I couldn’t account for: I’d look at the clock, and it would say 2.45am. The next time I looked, it might say 4.06am. My ‘sleep hours’ slowly crept up. It wasn’t a steady increase – some nights I’d sleep three hours; the next, two hours – but the trend was generally upwards, and it filled me with incredible joy.

Just four hours’ sleep was enough to restore me to a basic level of sanity. I began exercising on a treadmill in my dad’s spare room. I even went out for short walks; before then I only ever left the house for medical appointments.

For the previous eight and a half years I felt like I’d been chained to the bottom of a pond – I could just about make out a distorted version of the world above though I couldn’t see or touch it – but slowly, gradually I started to feel better. Much better.

Placeholder image for youtube video: kS_IG6VbTXs

I still can’t put my finger on exactly why. It wasn’t simply a change of scenery, as my insomnia continued for two years after moving in with Dad. But my surroundings there were less stressful, which helped, as did eventually withdrawing from the pills and overcoming the side effects. Being able to exercise a bit, eat healthily and engage my brain by reading and watching the news, was all a virtuous cycle, and my sleep improved further.

Other things helped too: I bought a weighted blanket, designed to mimic the feeling of being held or hugged. And after my sleep had already started improving, I came across a brilliant therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi), a structured programme that helps people identify thoughts and behaviours that cause or worsen sleep problems, then replace them with ‘healthy’ thoughts and behaviours. One of the things that stuck was when a psychiatrist told me ‘you mustn’t turn the problem into the problem – in other words, don’t turn the insomnia into a worry that itself prevents you from sleeping. Some nights, as I lay there at 3am or 4am, I’d say this aloud to myself: ‘Don’t turn the problem into the problem.’ What I learnt from CBTi helped turn my three or four hours’ a night into five, or even six.

‘Like waking from a coma’

One day in March 2019, I felt well enough to go to the supermarket with my sister-in-law. As she paid for the groceries by tapping her debit card against a machine, without having to enter her PIN, I was astonished. ‘Don’t you know about contactless?’ she laughed. ‘You have missed so much. You are like Sleeping Beauty, waking up after a hundred years.’

It was true. I felt as if I’d woken up from a coma after seven years: I’d missed Brexit, Tinder and Leicester City winning the Premier League. I didn’t know who on earth Alexa was. And why were £10 notes made of plastic?

That year, I finally started doing things I was sure I’d never do again, like reading the news. I opened my emails and finally deleted the 60,000 spam messages that had accumulated. My father bought me an online course in creative writing, which I hugely enjoyed. I even took my first tentative steps back into journalism, writing an online column for this newspaper called The Insomnia Diaries, which would later lead to a book deal. Gradually my career gathered momentum.

As my life fell back into place, I began considering my lost decade. What on earth had happened to me? But everyone I asked – from sleep professionals to close friends – had a different theory. Some believed the end of my marriage triggered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or that I was depressed. My own verdict is that I was given too many drugs, too easily, and for too long, and whipped off them too quickly, which exacerbated, rather than solved, my sleep issues.

When Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown last March, I went cold, terrified my insomnia would return. I hadn’t coped well with a domestic crisis, how would I manage with a global emergency? But, miraculously, over the last year my sleep didn’t suffer. I applied the CBTi rules, I exercised, I reminded myself to relax – and it worked.

These days, I sleep from midnight to 6am. I’m often still tired but it’s enough to enjoy life – and I’m excited for the future. I’m living in my Dad’s place as the sale of my marital home goes through, then the plan is to buy a place back in north London. I’m waiting for my divorce to be rubber-stamped by the courts too. I have a new boyfriend, I’m rebuilding a stronger relationship with my kids, plus I’ve lost half of the weight I put on (by healthy eating and taking up boxing).

Yes, things could go wrong again, but I’m told I’m a different person since my Insomnia Crash; more empathetic, cheerful, plus, as a result of all I’ve been through, I don’t dwell as much on what people think about me. One therapist told me I had ‘post-traumatic growth’. I rather like the sound of that.

In the depths of my insomnia, the mere thought of going to a party filled me with horror. But when ‘unlockdown’ began, I found myself craving restaurant dinners, shopping trips and holidays. And two weeks ago, I finally celebrated my 50th (OK, my 53rd) with a garden party attended by my nearest and dearest.

We drank many toasts to the end of lockdown – and the restart of my life post Insomnia Crash. How I loved the canapés and the prosecco. And the beautiful night’s sleep that awaited me, when the laughter had died away.

The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned To Sleep Again, by Miranda Levy, is out on 10 June (Aster, £9.99); pre-order a copy at

Read expert advice on how insomniacs can learn to sleep again in the health pages of Monday’s Daily Telegraph

Have you struggled with insomnia? Share your story in the comments section below and Miranda Levy will reply to your comments later today. 

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16 days to go – and a weeny update

So, just over two weeks – and I’m thrilled to say there’s quite a lot of interest in The Insomnia Diaries.

I have a big piece in the Telegraph Magazine (out this Saturday, 29th – and a follow up in Monday’s health section of the paper). Possibly a biggie in the Daily Mail a few days later. Extracts in GLAMOUR, Reader’s Digest, and bits and pieces for other mags including Top Santé and the Jewish Chronicle.

Podcasts too – Gabby Logan, Outspoken Beauty and Andrew Pierce on the Daily Mail.

Perhaps most exciting at all – I’m speaking at the Stylist Literary Festival on 14th June, and just recorded the LoveReading one this morning. Maybe some national broadcast lined up week of publication.

I’m very grateful.

But most of all, I want to hear from people who’ve read it -so please pre-order your copy, which should arrive on June 10th. And let me know what you think!
Blog for people who like:

The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again

She’s so….. heavy

There were three main things that helped me come out of my eight-and-a-half-year Insomnia Crash.

If I had to name a ‘product’, it would be a weighted blanket. I had a fantastic winter one from @melacomfort. And the lovely people there have just sent me their newest summer model. Look how silky it is!

For the other two things that really helped… well, you’ll just have to buy the book when it’s out on 10th June (pre-order it now, to have it fresh on your doorstep – or in your ears). 🙂