Sleep used to be a given. I neither struggled to fall asleep, nor did I struggle to stay asleep. Sleep was like eating and seamlessly mingled together with the other, natural, pieces of my day. And then the fevers grew higher and hotter and when they finally broke I was left in a pool of sweat. The vomiting became so frequent, I feared choking in my sleep. The illness, the trauma, the anxiety, and the depression fought sleep and won in the end. This, previously, natural rhythm of my life just stopped. I failed to sleep for three solid years. I, valiantly, attempted to fall asleep, desperately trying to form good habits. I turned out the lights at the same time every night. I used breathing techniques and mediation tapes, drank teas, and swallowed melatonin. Nothing worked. Sleep was gone and I couldn’t get it back.
Those years, without any sleep, were so rough they left lasting scars. One of the scars is the extreme anxiety that comes when I toss and turn for any amount of time. I replay those former days filled with agitation and a relentless need and want to just fall asleep. I barely functioned, certainly didn’t heal, and was teetering on the edge of survival. I was in a bucket without a bottom and one day I just couldn’t tread water any longer. Finally, with red, swollen, blood-shot eyes, and a body so frail and weak it could shatter into pieces with a single fall, I asked my doctor for help.
I think sleep deprivation is one of the hardest struggles to admit. Sleep seems so simple. I am tired, so I sleep. And when this so-called easy, last moment of the day doesn’t come, it feels like a big, fat failure. And on top of the failure, it is painful and affects the entire body and mind. The shame that accompanies it is almost too unbearable to admit. The usual components and causes of sleep deprivation are depression and anxiety. Words that carry so much weight and are so stigmatized, we run from them at all costs. Some choose to believe these ailments don’t exist. Some choose to believe they are conditions of our mind and our own making. And some choose to believe they are modern, first world problems. The trouble with each of these theories is they further exacerbate the stigma and alienation and shame of sleep deprivation and depression.
I speak from experience. These feelings are not a choice. For three years, I yelled, negotiated, and bargained with my head, urging it to just get it together and sleep. Positive thoughts were lost on my tired brain and heart and the more desperate and tired I became, the less I functioned.
Judgement is cruel. It makes us feel like we are doing something wrong and contributing negatively to our own lives. When in reality, most of us, are doing the best we can. I don’t deny there are a number of factors that are instrumental when it comes to the complex world of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Just as there are a slew of different causes, there are also a slew of different treatments. Judging how we treat these painful feelings is what makes it so hard to walk into the doctor’s office and ask for help.
When I finally gained the courage and found the brave vulnerability to share my feelings and express I knew I didn’t feel quite right, I was met with compassion and understanding. I assure you, very few doctors judge such courage. In fact, they applaud it. And if one doctor does judge this brave act of admission as a personal failure or downfall, then move on to the next doctor. A doctor’s job is to do no harm and to only help and heal. Right away, my doctor prescribed me a sleeping pill that is used to treat deep physiological depression. It was a tough pill to swallow. As it made its way down my throat, I knew I was admitting a weakness, but, at the same time, I knew taking this pill and asking for help wasn’t weak, it was very, very brave.
Last night, I didn’t sleep the entire night. I still carry a bit of trauma from these years of sleepless nights. I suffered the consequences of lying wide awake even though I was desperate for sleep, all day today. I was grouchy and irritable and tired. I still get a little bit scared that I still suffer from these deeply depressed wounds and can be a bit hard on myself. But, then I remember, my awareness and my admission are two effective tools to help heal these wounds. I try to breathe and remember, I found the bottom of the bucket and am no longer treading water. Sometimes, I fall a little bit too deep into the bucket’s swirling waters, but I know, now, how to climb out. I know it’s okay to ask for help. I know I am not weak. I know I am just dealing with feelings that can crush and end lives. And instead of allowing these feelings to hide behind a curtain, I choose to reveal them and pull away that curtain.
Today, as hard as it was, showed me I am not longer afraid. I may not sleep one night and that can feel scary and worrisome, but I also know, I know how to ask, I know how to treat the lack of sleep, I know I will be okay, and, most importantly, I know all will be well. Days like today, remind me of how terrified I was of my own darkness and inadequacies. But in the end, I didn’t need to feel shame, nor did I need to feel inadequate. I tread the water, I found the bottom of the bucket, and I climbed out. It isn’t easy work, but its brave work and we all have a little bit of brave living behind the curtain.