For the first 23 years of my life, I slept like a 鈥渘ormal鈥 person. I never worried about drinking caffeine at night or turning off screens a few hours before bedtime. Regardless of how active I had been throughout the day or how stressed I was feeling, I would simply decide that it was time to sleep, cuddle up in bed, close my eyes and fall asleep. It was that easy.

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Everything changed three years ago. One night in early February, I got into bed as usual, turned on my latest Netflix binge (as had become my ritual) and waited for sleep. It never came. The next morning, I joked with my friends and coworkers about my sleepless night, but the situation became a lot less funny when it happened the next night鈥 and then twice more that week.

Within a month, it felt like my lack of sleep had taken over my life. I was exhausted and miserable all the time, and I craved naps (it鈥檚 worth noting that I barely napped, even as a little girl). Everyone around me had a suggestion about how I could take back my sleep, and I tried all of them 鈥 but no matter how early in the evening I stopped eating or how I adjusted my sleep posture, it wasn鈥檛 getting better. I couldn鈥檛 understand why a basic pattern of my life had taken such a drastic turn.

A year later, I was desperate for help, so I consulted my general practitioner. By this time, the whole concept of sleep had become so heavy with stress and anxiety that I needed a professional to give me a clearer solution. Reluctant to prescribe sleep medication, my doctor suggested that I try melatonin. Full of hope, I picked up a bottle at the drugstore and took it right before bed. An hour later, my body was covered in a rash 鈥 I鈥檇 had a terrible allergic reaction to the natural remedy. I decided that laying awake in bed itchy was worse than simply laying awake in bed. That was the last of the melatonin.

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Ultimately, my search for a solution led me to over-the-counter sleep meds (Unisom). I鈥檝e never been one to take medicine unless absolutely necessary, so I was reluctant to go down this road. But my constant fatigue was getting scary, and I knew I needed rest. The OTC sleep aid gave me my first solid night of shut-eye in over two years, and I have rarely been happier than I was that next morning. I fell into a pattern. I would take a Unisom one night, then attempt to fall asleep naturally the next night, which would end in such failure that I would be right back to the medication on the third night.

It occurred to me a few weeks ago that settling into this pattern for the better part of the year had totally zapped my body鈥檚 ability to regulate its own sleep. I realized that I had become so reliant on the medication that I probably wouldn鈥檛 be able to resume a 鈥渘ormal鈥 sleep pattern even if my body wanted to. I reached out to board-certified sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus, who confirmed that while over-the-counter sleep aids do have their place, they are not meant for use on a nightly basis.

Dr. Breus emphasizes the importance of consistency when coming off OTC aids and trying to reestablish a natural sleep cycle, so I decided to go cold turkey and simultaneously force myself into a more regular bedtime routine. I stopped drinking wine and eating chocolate after 9pm. I made a point of turning off the TV and switching to reading about an hour before I was ready to go to sleep. Instead of taking my medicine, I started brewing myself an herbal sleep tea to drink while I wound down for the evening.

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At first, the transition was terrible. For the first week, I was like a zombie 鈥 staring at my ceiling for five or six hours after bedtime, then stealing an hour or so of rest before I had to get up. I was ready to give up on this experiment, and then one night鈥 I slept. It was only for a few hours (much less than the oft-recommended eight) 鈥 but it happened. It felt like I had won a war.

It鈥檚 been almost a month since I decided to kick my sleep aids to the curb, and at this point, the results are still a mixed bag. I鈥檓 up to about six hours a night, but it鈥檚 still not considered a good night鈥檚 sleep. I still do a fair amount of tossing and turning, and sleep remains a generally anxiety-ridden topic in my household.

My goal is to teach my body how to regulate its own sleep again. I鈥檓 an active, otherwise healthy 26-year-old woman, and based on all expert evidence, there鈥檚 no fundamental reason for my challenges with falling (and staying) asleep. In time, I hope to reestablish some normalcy with my sleep pattern 鈥 but if the problem persists, I鈥檒l be taking Dr. Breus鈥 advice and making an appointment with a sleep specialist.

What do you do when you can鈥檛 sleep? Tweet us @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)