I'm writing a novel about a character with debilitating sleep problems (I haven't decided on a disorder yet) who consistently ends up unable to sleep before the point of absolute exhaustion. What is a feasible length of time for this to be on a consistent basis while not being completely life-threatening in the short term? (I'm accepting that it'll knock years off her life in the long term.) Also - I've found conflicting answers, do you know a good resource to use to research sleep disorders?
Hey there! Thanks for the question, and sorry for the (extreme) delay. This is currently the oldest ask in my inbox.
Sleep disorders are common, and are problematic, but it sounds like what you’re describing is some pretty gnarly insomnia.
Your character will have a number of effects to keep in mind. First, decreased performance at whatever task is at hand. Their thinking may become muddled or clouded. They’ll likely “space out”, or may even have bursts of micro-sleep during other parts of the day. (This can be fatal while driving, and exhaustion is as much or more of an impairment to drivers as alcohol is.)
They’ll also have lower reaction time, which contributes to driving injuries or deaths, and may come into play if your character is the actiony type (gunplay, for example, will be impaired, as will their tumbling / climbing abilities).
Sleep is a critical part of a character’s life and livelihood. They may be very tired during the day, make bad decisions, or fall asleep when they shouldn’t. Irritability is also a huge thing. They may gain, or lose, weight. DOverall they’re likely to have some significant issues.
The good news is that, outside of driving fatalities, insomnia is rarely fatal (with the exception of the helpfully-named Fatal Familial Insomnia, which is a genetic (familial) disease in which the victims stop sleeping (insomnia) until they die (fatal). Hooray!
Mayo Clinic has a pretty good overview of regular ol’ insomnia here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/dxc-20256961
In terms of your actual question, when it comes to duration, “months” is an extreme but accurate example. I probably averaged three to four hours a night during the weeks in high school, for most of the time; I slept in on weekends and during holidays, so it wasn’t necessarily true insomnia so much as the whole “teenagers stay up late and SHOULD be able to get up late” thing.
I hope this was useful, even a month or two later :)