Sleep is one of the most incredible things in the world. There is nothing like a warm bed on a cold night or a pile of comfortable pillows to make into a nest giving you a snug and safe feeling. I love the feeling of slowly falling off to sleep and experiencing the snuggling comfort of a bed.And that is usually where the happy thoughts end. Sleep and I have an adversarial relationship.
My daughter read Matthew Walker’s book on sleep and learned a lot from it. She would pass on the information to me in bite-sized pieces. I tried to read the book once and had a hard time getting past the beginning of the book, or as I call it, the scary part.
The beginning of the book talks about all the reasons we need to be sleeping an adequate amount every night and what not sleeping does to our bodies. That was the terrifying part. I have not, in my memory, slept through the night in a very, very long time. Instead, I wake up throughout the night and struggle to go back to sleep.
At one point in my life, my doctor decided I should do a sleep study to see if the problem that woke me through the night was sleep apnea. Because I have had breathing difficulties my whole life, this did not seem too far from the realm of possibility. So I suffered through the night attached to many, many cables and lines, only to have the worst night of sleep imaginable. Seeing me the following day, my husband said I looked worse than he had ever seen me. And that is saying a lot considering he stood by me through the birth of our children.
It turns out that what was waking me up in the night and what woke me up repeatedly through the study was full-blown panic attacks. I want to say that I was surprised by the results, but I wasn’t; learning about the panic attacks definitely made more sense than anything else I had imagined. Some of the other results were that I move around a lot in my sleep, something I already knew and that I wake up usually at the end of or the middle of a panic attack. Waking up in the middle of a panic attack, especially in the morning, is not conducive to going back to sleep.
I have established some routines for going back to sleep. These routines have evolved. I used to have a pillow speaker under my pillow to listen to relaxing books that I played on a CD player; this evolved into books I played on an MP3 player, bringing us to where we are today. My trusty iPod and earbuds stand ready and willing to lull me back to sleep. I now sleep with one earbud in and my iPod under my pillow. I have received the talk about not having your electronics near your bed when you sleep, but I have not found a way to make that happen. The stories or meditations I listen to have eased me back to sleep have kept me company for the hours that I am awake in the middle of the night.
I wake up at three a.m. almost every night. Most nights, I can go back to sleep; some nights, I lie there listening to a soothing book that I have heard so many times that I have memorized, or I listen to peaceful sounds, like thunderstorms. But, it is always just about three a.m. when I wake up. There is a reason for that. My husband says that my brain is trying to keep watch over my body, waking me when I was most in danger. During the six months before my father died, three a.m. was most dangerous for me. It was the time he would get up to get ready for work—a time when the rest of the house would be asleep, and I was most vulnerable. Too many awful things happened at that time.
This brings us to today and my inability to sleep past three a.m.. I once read that worrying about not going to sleep actually triggers your fight or flight and releases adrenaline to your system to help defend you from what you are worried about, which is, as it seems, counterproductive. To protect against that, I just gave up. If I am awake, I just let myself be awake and listen to a story. I usually fall asleep whenever I fall asleep, generally when my husband gets up at five, and I can sleep for a couple of hours. However, I am always exhausted by the afternoon. Add to lack of sleep the other health issues I have with Hashimoto’s disease, and I am always tired.
The anxiety attacks that wake me in the morning are the worst. Sometimes when I reach for the medications I need to take in the morning when I wake up, my hands are trembling so badly that I have to try twice to grab the bottles. Not only do my hands tremble, but my entire body also has the shakes. I feel the trembling deep in my chest and stomach. It is scary. It is like waiting for the earthquake to settle before you can even think about moving from your safe spot. And in honesty, sometimes I don’t move from my safe spot.
There are times when I stay in bed hiding under my blankets, waiting for the world not to seem so scary. So I hide in the bed and do what I call my morning routine. First, I turn on my meditation app and do the morning guided meditation. The meditation works to calm me and center my thoughts, which are all over the place due to the anxiety. I follow this with reading spiritual writings. And all this is topped off by doing the mini crossword in the New York Times. (The full-size one terrifies me.) If that isn’t enough to calm me, I stay in bed and play my two favorite game apps. By this time, my not getting out of bed has been noticed and commented on by my husband.
He will then try to lure me out of my cave with offers of playing Yahtzee while we eat breakfast, or he brings his cup of coffee in, sits on the bed, and starts to talk to me. He always has something to talk about. My husband is a deep thinker. Eventually, I will get out of bed and get dressed enough to face the day. I am dressed for a zoom conference if I don’t have to go anywhere. I have my trusty pajama bottoms on and my favorite sweater.
When the children were young, things were easier. They were only easier in the sense that I had no choice about getting up. I had to get up and take care of them and their needs. Their needs always trumped whatever I was going through. For them, I could shut down and lock away whatever anxiety I was experiencing to take care of them.
Sleep is many things. It is restorative, comforting, and peaceful. For me, it is often a minefield I walk on a nightly basis. I want to sleep, but I try not to dwell on it too much, I think I might scare it off, and it will never come back. I have come up with many tricks to get my body and mind to accept that I am safe and that it does not need to be on constant watch to stay safe anymore. Some of the tricks work, and some simply ease the time until I fall asleep at the end of my nightly watch.