Lately, I have been having a hard time sleeping. I have always struggled with sleep; falling asleep and staying asleep are both difficult. Once it starts getting dark, I start getting anxious. I watch the windows and am too aware that it’s dark outside and dark = sleep (eventually). I look into the dark outside and see things that I don’t want to-faces, places, memories, images. And somehow, when it’s dark, these things seems brighter, more easily defined by my eyes and brain. I try to keep busy. I feel tired after a day of pretending to be normal, of trying to keep up the rhythm of a normal life, and taking care of everyone around me. Being tired, even exhausted, both physically and mentally aren’t the problem when it comes to sleep. I am tired, exhausted, spent (whatever term you’d like to use) by the end of the day and I desperately want to sleep. My brain is so very very tired. But each night, the same cycle repeats itself. It gets dark, it gets closer to bedtime, and I get anxious. It’s as though there’s a switch in my brain that goes from ON (because my brain is always running at full speed) to REALLY ON which is like my brain in hyperdrive. All of the thoughts and emotions I’ve suppressed all day long to ‘function’ and ‘be normal’ bubble up and I can barely stand the idea that I’ll have to tolerate one more night of twisting and turning, sweaty and panicky while everyone else in my house sleeps. I envy them. I listen to my husband breathe, I sometimes go and watch my children sleep, almost choked up with jealousy of how easy it is for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.
After much internally fighting with myself, I do fall asleep. It’s usually after a few hours of wrestling with my thoughts and fears and I finally drift off. After that, I normally wake up after about an hour. I have nightmares that I’m being choked, I can’t breathe, I can’t move, someone is touching me, I’m trapped. I startle awake and every nerve in my body is screaming that I’m in danger, that I have to escape. I’ve soaked my sheets with sweat and my heart is racing so hard, I swear others would be able to hear it if they were awake. But they aren’t and I’m alone.
I get out of bed and pace, try to shake off that old echo from childhood that there is danger in every minute of the day. If I’m very lucky, I will be able to settle myself down with the hour. If I’m just lucky, it’s a few hours. If I’m unlucky, those feelings will turn into a flashback and there will be almost no sleep left for the night. If I am lucky enough to fall back to sleep, it begins again with another nightmare, more sensations of being in danger, more likely to have a flashback. Each time, I look at the clock and calculate how much sleep I can get if I go to sleep RIGHT NOW. But I never do and time marches forward until around 4 or 5am when I can finally drift off feeling safe enough to sleep. I wake for good around 7am groggy and my thoughts like mud. It takes most of the morning to shake off the night before.
I have read every article about how to improve sleep: no screen time, limit caffeine, change the appearance of your room, meditate before bed, tea, medications, mindfulness, tapping, and journaling just to name a few. I have a weighted blanket. I have my room at a warmer temperature because being cold is a trigger for me. I have my lavender right at my bedside so I can smell it all night long. I have done nightmare re-scripting, drawing of my nightmares to externalize it, creating a ‘hero’ image of myself that can act as a protector when I’m asleep. So far, no luck. I’ve gotten into the bad habit lately of going to bed later and later but honestly, why would any sane person want to go through this night after night? It’s torture and my own brain is the tormentor. It’s not as if you can escape your own brain, your own thoughts, your own memories. And that is ultimately the kicker, the final karmic bitch slap to being a trauma survivor, is that you can do everything that is asked of you. You can take your medications, go to therapy, take good care of yourself, and try everything possible to reduce your symptoms but sometimes, most times actually, the brain is an asshole. Because in the end, I can’t change what happened to me. I can’t write it away or color it away or distract away from the fact that I had a shitty childhood and adolescence. I practice acceptance but the inside piece of me that is little is just so hurt and so scared and needs so much care and she won’t let this go. She will be heard. She doesn’t want to forget that this happened and howls with the thought that this pain will be forgotten, tucked away in a corner somewhere. I honor that piece, or at least I’m starting too because she went through some bad shit. At the same time, I could really use some sleep. My therapist tells me this is a way for survivors to stay hypervigilant or hyper alert. When I start to relax my brains says, Hell no!, and triggers me so I stay alert to any danger. When I wake up now, I am supposed to tell myself that I don’t need this protection and that we are safe. She says if I can improve 2% week to week, she will be pleased and this will be progress. She may be pleased but I’m not, I want this to go faster. If I’m honest with myself, really and truly, underneath it all, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like my guard should be down and this was a revelation to me because I hadn’t thought about it that way before but it’s true. The world seems like a dark and dangerous place to me and I have to be ready.
What does that mean? It means the foundation work has not been done. I need to go way back, back to basics, and work on feeling safe because for a survivor if there’s no sense of safety, there is no progress. I guess I skipped that part. This I know about myself, I want a shortcut, I want to get better yesterday and I hate that healing isn’t a straight line and almost never continues forward. There are regressions and side trails to this journey that can never be prepped for. It’s maddeningly frustrating for me as a control freak. But I need to work on that too.
I write this because a lot of people take sleep for granted. Only those who had experienced insomnia either short term of long term will understand the fear and anxiety that comes when you watch the clock keep going forward and realize your window for sleep is almost gone and there won’t be any chance for rest for a long time. There’s also that tiny voice that nags at you, quietly, that maybe sleep will never come again. My very first therapist said lack of sleep never killed anyone and this is one of the reasons she is not my therapist anymore. Because lack of sleep can kill people, but the reason is listed as heart attack or alcoholism or suicide. It’s an insidious thing that doesn’t get enough attention. So, if you can’t sleep and like me feel hopelessly locked in this vicious cycle, talk to someone, get some help, reach out. Just like me, even in the midst of the dark, the hopelessness, the nothingness of insomnia there is always room for progress.