In the previous post, I discussed basic progression of verbal and emotional abuse and how it can affect us. I also made references to another frequently applied but barely spoken of method of abuse in the abuser’s arsenal against their victim: forced sleep deprivation. If you have ever had a night a two of little to no sleep, you know the frustration of being exhausted and having difficulties thinking and functioning as well as you usually would. Our biology was not made to work efficiently in this manner. Sleep is a restorative process that not only helps clear the “junk” that builds up in our brains every day, it also allows the brain to cement hard-wiring of new, crucial connections that may have been forged during the day. When we go without sleep, we can have issues focusing and processing even the simplest of tasks, and our ability to retain important information is compromised. Why? Because we are not machines. We are living beings who require rest to remain focused, healthy, and vital.
If you were to research it, you would find much information on sleep deprivation in regard to government-sanctioned torture or basic effects on the body and our ability to function. Perhaps, you would be able to find brief references on domestic violence organization sites, and some blog posts by other survivors of abuse discussing how it was used against them. Use of forced sleep deprivation is more common in the context of intimate partner violence than many of us realize, because it is so frequently used with more overt methods of abuse. Many of us have been subjected to this without being cognizant of its usage, because we’re being distracted by verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and sometimes even spiritual abuse. It is for this reason that it is imperative that we start to include this hybrid method in our dialogue on domestic violence.
According to an article on Psychology Today, there are basic effects and dangers posed by lack of sleep that we all suffer from time to time separate from the context of abuse. (The list progresses from initial impact of losing sleep and progresses through chronic to severe and fatal):
- Fatigue, irritability, inability to focus
- Impaired ability to read, speak, and make logical choices, in addition to decreased body temperature and increased appetite
- Disorientation, hallucinations, lethargy/exhaustion, and isolation from others
- Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to serious mental and physical consequences:
- increased appetite can lead to weight gain if chronically persistent
- compromised immune system
- decreased metabolism
- memory loss (particularly dangerous with certain medications and risk of overdosing)
- increase in risky behaviors and aggression (especially putting others at risk by default – driving, operating machinery, etc) and becoming increasingly prone to accidents
- body becomes unable to repair damage, purge toxic chemicals, and strengthen cognitive abilities
- increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, heart failure, stroke, high blood pressure, and other illnesses
- depression and other mental health issues, up to and including risk of self harm and suicide
- If sleep deprivation continues long enough, it has the potential to cause “widespread physiological failure” – ending in death (think of “karoshi” stories from Japan)
- It should be duly noted that you cannot make up sleep debt once you’ve accumulated too much. Making up sleep debt can only occur in isolated instances, not when it has chronically compounded over time.
The information presented in the article referenced above focuses on the use of sleep deprivation in cases of sanctioned torture, but I highly suggest you read it. (The link can be accessed by clicking “Psychology Today” above.) While it may not be a method for exacting accurate, reliable information in the circumstances presented in the article (the article explains why), it is, however, a very effective way to cause a physiological break and force compliance in cases of intimate partner violence. In order to illustrate how this is applicable to intimate partner violence, I will be using my own experiences.
Please note that at this point, there is an active trigger warning on the following section. There will be brief descriptions of violence.
My abuser noted early on that when I have been asleep for short periods of time – generally 30 to 45 minutes, or so – and I am awakened abruptly, my brain does not like return to a fully alert state. I would be in a daze and confused, and although able to function in a basic manner, I would be pretty much incoherent. It did not take him long to turn this into a method of abuse. In the fall of 2008 after the physical abuse had already begun, I learned that the mother of his children that he always referred to as his ex – even a few years earlier when we became friends – was in fact not an ex at all. They were not even officially separated.
He had several relationships before where the women he become involved with (and later abused) did so with full knowledge of his marital status. The woman he had attempted to trap immediately before me knew the truth as well, and she initially tried to ignore it. Later, however, her conscience got the better of her, and she pretty much cut ties. One of the many reasons I believe my ex to be a psychopath is his penchant for troubleshooting and adapting behavior in context of seducing his victims. Because she was the first one that chose to walk away before the active abuse began, he adapted his approach. Lucky me, I was next in line. From the time that we met, until a few years later when he escalated to physical abuse, he always – unfailingly – referred to her as his ex.
When I found out, I was horrified, and I cut him off. He became enraged at this, and it was at that point the sexual abuse started. When he learned through trial and error that physical assaults and highly charged arguments were not enough to force me into giving him his way, he quickly adapted and introduced a new form of abuse into the relationship: forced sleep deprivation.
My ex would allow me to fall asleep and sleep for about a period of a half hour before waking me up by punching me in the back of the head with a closed fist. While I was still trying to recover from being jolted awake suddenly and the throbbing pain in the back of my head, he would ambush me by screaming and yelling at me. By the time I was able to become lucid enough to respond, he had already begun chasing me around the apartment as I tried to find the least dangerous room I could before he caught up to me and proceeded to assault me. After the initial assault would come his hissing interrogation followed by a short-lived “quiet” where he stop long enough to let me think I would be able to go back to sleep (but not long enough to let the tension to subside). For the rest of the night, we would be trapped in a cycle of assault, interrogation, silence.
When morning came, he would lay down to sleep, and I was expected to stay up. If any messes were made the night before, I was left to clean it up. When I was not working, I was to stay up and clean, do laundry, etc. If he caught me sitting on the couch asleep, he would wake me up by screaming in my face or hitting my head and interrogate me as to why I was so tired. I would be given things to do that required me being up all day, and once I was able to lay down at night, it would start again. Sleep for a half hour. Fist to the back of the head. Argument. Assault. Interrogation. Tense silence. Repeat.
Even when I had a job, he would continue to uphold this cycle for as long as he needed to so I would give in. Comply. Obey.
When we are young, many of us are able to go a few nights without sleep and recover fairly quickly. When you get old enough, it’s not longer so easy. You don’t recover from anything as quickly. Initially when my ex started using sleep deprivation, he would try for a few days, increasing the length of time as time went by. Three nights turned into five. Five nights turned into nine. Nine into fourteen, and sometimes more.
For those of you have not lost more than a night of sleep here or there, there is no way for me to fully explain how being subjected to this impacts a person. After several days of being deprived of sleep, it was extremely difficult to focus and make logical decisions. My memory would clog up, and started to lose time. This served as more fuel for his interrogations and worsening physical violence. I became unable to distinguish one day from another, and he began to accuse of anything he could dream up.
Beyond incoherent at this point, I would now be a danger to myself. All of us can remember something ridiculous we did from being too tired, like putting milk in the cupboard throwing a load of dirty clothes in the dryer. It’s easy to do these things when you are distracted. However, while I could have been putting the milk in a cupboard, I would be simultaneously putting the box of cereal on the burner of the stove after turning it on as though I were putting on a pot. I would use steak knives to cut something that didn’t really require anything at all (once I used a paring knife to trim my nails). It was not uncommon for me to be standing in front of the sink or the stove falling asleep and falling against the burner, dumping oil, or dropping small electrical appliances in the dishwater. I would fall asleep walking down the stairs.
Perhaps the worst part of it for me was losing control of my ability to function or think and act coherently. I reached a point where if I was even able to move or speak, I had no ability to object to anything, speak in clear sentences, or defend myself against the attacks. He would use this as an opportunity to get force me to admit to things that I could not remember if they were true. It became easier for me to give in just to get him to stop.
And then there was the hallucinations, nightmares, phobias, and other health issues that arose: migraines, palpitations, shortness of breath, stabbing pain in my chest, dizziness. The chronic sleep deprivation also eventually led me to become a conditioned insomniac who can only sleep for short periods of time and nets at most 2 – 4 hours (on a good night) of sleep.
In my next post, I will explain how the verbal and emotional abuse compounds with the physical abuse and sleep deprivation to create a dangerous cocktail of coerced compliance. Have any of you endured the physical effects of forced sleep deprivation? What were the most profound impacts it had on you?
To read the third and final post in the series, please click here.