Making Life-Changing Decisions with Chronic Insomnia

The direction of my life changed in the summer of 1981, and not for the better. Ive written about when my insomnia started in 1979. After two years, it controlled my life with its iron grip and kept me in a continuous headlock. Today, as I look back over my life with insomnia, it seems that about 95 percent of the decisions Ive made have turned out to be wrong for one reason or another. I consider the decision I made that summer to be one of my all-time worst, as youll read about in a moment.

I graduated with my associates degree in May of that year. Several times during the spring semester, Id stopped by the Air Force ROTC detachment to talk about going back in the service as an officer. The process of getting into ROTC was simple: I had to score at a certain percentile on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and then take a physical. I passed both. I also had to supply them with a copy of my DD Form 214 showing that Id been honorably discharged from active duty, and a current transcript.

They told me that my score was high enough to apply for pilot training. That caught me by surprise. Me, a pilot? I really couldnt see that happening. From my perspective, pilots were intellectuals who majored in math or electrical engineering or some other brain-draining curriculum. I wasnt in that league. I was an automotive major; monkeys could be trained to work on cars.

The sergeant responsible for helping me attain successful admission into their program looked at my transcript and said, Look at all of those As. And I said, Its automotive technology. Anybody can make As. Itd be different if I were a chemistry or a biology major and had lots of As. That would really mean something. Then he said, But youve excelled in your chosen field. I didnt say it, but I thought So what? Its a low-level curriculum designed for those who have difficulty learning from books. Granted, my automotive training was before on-board computers. Its my guess that automotive curricula are more difficult today with computers controlling nearly every aspect of an automobile.

So I was enrolled in Aerospace Science for the fall semester of 81. Id be a second lieutenant in only four more semesters. Wow! I couldnt wait. Id be on my way to a good 20-year retirement, as a major at least.

Back then, however, I had a phobia about writing. The service manager, Larry G., at the dealership where I worked the summer of 79 went through the universitys vocational education program, the same one that I was going to take after I completed my automotive degree. He told me that one of his courses required him to write an 80-page research paper. So I changed my major for my bachelors degree from vocational education to industrial technologyanother bad decision.

After I was admitted to ROTC, and after I was registered for the fall semester, one of my automotive instructors told me that a new K-Mart was openingin my hometown, actually. The automotive service manager, Petera graduate of the same automotive tech program as I, was looking for qualified applicants to staff his department, and if I was interested I should apply before the positions were filled. So I did. Peter hired me, and I started immediately.

Now for the life-changing event

The reason why alludes me now, other than for the medication I was taking illegally, but I changed my mind about enrolling in ROTC and dropped it before the summer was out. What a stupid, stupid choice. Ive beaten myself up over that decision ever since. I chose a $5-an-hour job as a K-Mart mechanic over Air Force ROTC and a commission as an officer. And, on top of that, once the fall semester started, I discovered that I couldnt stand industrial technology and withdrew from school three weeks into the semester, forfeiting one semester each of my GI Bill and my Illinois Veterans Scholarship.

Also, I hated my job at K-Mart and quit in August. Thats the only job Ive ever quit on the spot. I told the new service manager, Todays my last day, and Im not coming back. I loaded my tools in my father-in-laws Ford F-150 and left.

So, there I was. No longer working, no longer in college, and, worst of all, I would never become an Air Force officer.

Ive told this anecdote to say thismy insomnia played a big part in my life that summer. I couldnt think straight. As Ive written about in a previous post, Id recently discovered that my dad had a prescription for dalmane, the same drug the Veterans Administration doctor had prescribed for me two years earlier. My dad got his medicine for free because he was a coal miner in the United Mine Workers of America union. With my discovery, I would grab a few pills every time I was at my parents house. They knew I was taking them; I wasnt stealing.

I was taking the drug illegally, however, because I didnt have a prescription for it; I hadnt sought a doctors counsel for more than the 30 pills of my original prescription. Dalmane has a long half lifeas much as a hundred hours or moreso I was compounding my problem with each pill I swallowed.

But the dalmane was making my situation worse instead of better. It made me sleep, but it also made me angry. It changed my personality and behavior from a level-headed, quiet guy to a deranged monster ready to fight. I hated life and everything and everybody associated with it. With dalmane, I was a walking time bomb ready to explode at any moment. I was taking this drug at the same time I was making major life decisions. Not a good thing to do. I would go on to take dalmane illegally for another eight years.

Insomnia simply sucks the life right out of you regardless of your station in life. It doesnt care who you are or where you live or work. Its powerful in ways that the ordinary, successful sleeper cannot imagine. If Ive learned anything in the intervening years since that summer, its this: Decisions made early in life can definitely affect you later in life.

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