The storm grabbed ahold of everything and turned the world sideways and then upside down outside my window. Sheets of rain whipped at the panes, and the treetops howled in the wind. But inside it was warm and I sat protected by firm white walls and a sturdy roof.
Amidst the noise, I heard a knock at the door and when I opened it, I saw a pale face emerge from the dark. It was a young woman. Her dark hair was soaking wet and she was afraid. I looked into her pleading eyes and saw something eerily familiar.
I quickly ushered her in, and removed her wet coat, placing a reassuring hand on her back. She seemed to relax once inside the safety of my house. We stood there for a moment, looking at each other pensively. She smiled, and then I woke up.
This dream came at the tail end of an excruciating experience – three weeks of insomnia.
People stop sleeping for lots of reasons; physical, chemical and hormonal imbalances, stress, a change in lifestyle or excessive use of stimulants can all buck us off the Z’s. What was beneath my insomnia was anxiety. It gripped my throat at unpredictable times and forced me to stay in high alert, worrying about everything. The longer I went without sleep, the more my mind ran ragged with awful thoughts and the tighter my throat felt. Sleep (or lack thereof) became such a fearful experience for me that I’d dread nighttime. Long before the sun would set, I’d get pangs of panic in my stomach just from knowing that in a few hours I’d have to face another night of agony.
If you’re going through a hard time right now and especially if you’re having trouble sleeping, I want to tell you that this is TEMPORARY. I didn’t believe it when my doctor and loved ones told me this, but I wish I had, because they were right.
Around week two, I started having some irrational yet very real thoughts. I feared that I’d never again be the carefree and grounded person I once was. I wondered if I was going insane. I worried that I was broken and as my insomnia carried on, I worried I was becoming a burden to my loved ones. I’ve never felt so far from everything sacred – the people I love, my dreams, my work and most of all, my confidence.
Needless to say, boy have I learned a lot in the past few months!
In case it wasn’t obvious, shit’s been going down. One of the (tough) joys of being human is learning how to make shit into all sorts of useful things like poems, and artwork, and lasting relationships, and breakthroughs, and maybe even a special tonic that heals the deepest parts of yourself over a long period of time. The good news is that I’m currently in the metaphorical kitchen trying my hand at making all of these. If you are too, I want to give you a fist bump AND a hug. It takes courage, and you are a warrior for sticking with it!
Here are some thoughts about things I’ve been learning lately:
1. Shit stinks, but it’s totally worth the stink if you can trust it’s the fertilizer growing your future (stronger, wiser and more powerful) self.
2. It will pass. Everything – every feeling, thought, fear, doubt and painful experience – will at some point pass. But we rarely have control over when it will pass. Trying to control when it will pass is when things get really messy. Which brings me to #3.
3. Control is overrated. Give in. Admit defeat. There are higher powers at work, and sometimes that’s god (or the universe, or your soul, or whatever you look to that is bigger than your ego self), and other time’s that’s your body. Let them work it out on their own time, and try to let go of it all needing to be a certain way (right now!).
4. If someone offers you a shoulder to lean on during your darkest hours/days/weeks/months, say yes please, thank you, and I love you! Trust that they wouldn’t offer it if they didn’t mean it, and let yourself be taken care of for a change. This means you have to BE VULNERABLE. In doing so, you will be taking one of the most important steps to getting back to wellness.
5. Did I mention vulnerability heals? Talk to your friends and family. Reach out to other people who have been through something similar. Be honest and let them know what you’re struggling with. I was blown away by how many close friends of mine had been through periods of sleeplessness and severe anxiety, but I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t opened up to them about my own. Just knowing they could empathize was incredibly comforting, and they had awesome advice! More on vulnerability here.
6. Something will work eventually. Keep researching and experimenting. Never give up! What has worked for me has been a combination of meditation, exercise, supplements and acupuncture.
7. You don’t have to be in mint condition in order to have fun. My boyfriend and I took our first trip together after I hadn’t slept for two weeks, and surprise – I had a ton of fun! Even though I was still very anxious and very sleep deprived, continuing with our vacation plans was the right thing to do. The trip gave me the boost of positive energy I needed and reminded me that life is still a verb even when shit’s really hard and you want to just sit down and not move for a very long time.
8. Actually, it turns out that sitting down and not moving for a short, focused amount of time is really, really good for you, especially if you’re prone to anxiety, depression or sleep difficulties. I’m currently taking a mindfulness meditation class, and it’s helping me tremendously. Here’s an article on the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, based on a study conducted at Northern Arizona University.
9. You don’t have to believe your thoughts. I’ve been learning that everyone has painful or fearful thoughts but whether or not you listen to them is the key differentiator between a person experiencing anxiety and someone who isn’t. If a thought isn’t helpful, then it can be labeled as just a thought, not THE TRUTH. I’m told this takes a lot of practice to master, but it’s worth the time and effort to come even remotely close to that. Just imagine if you could hear your thoughts and let them drift by without the struggle of analyzing them or worrying about what they’re telling you every minute of every day. Not to state the obvious, but it would feel really, really good.
10. In order to feel joy, you must be willing to feel discomfort. Resisting and avoiding discomfort or pain shuts down your ability to feel all the good stuff. Flex new muscles and sit with the icky feelings. They will transform you and then move on, because that’s what they were meant to do.
I started this post with a description of a dream I had because I think it holds important symbolism. In the dream, I am both the person running from the storm and the wise one who opens the door and provides a safe shelter. You are both of those people two. So the question is, how can you encourage your wise self to open the door and comfort your fearful self? And what would they say if they could speak to one another?
“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.” -Isak Dinesen