I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Insomnia

To Sleep

arianna-addormentata

Perchance to Dream

A funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten older (and kinder to myself). I am sleeping more. Maybe it’s the dark mornings of Winter. Maybe I am a little depressed. While I do feel subdued, I don’t feel depressed. Indeed, after the death of my mother, I feel an increased urgency to live authentically, say what I want to say, and not waste time. Sleep doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Sleep feels precious and restorative. I am less and less willing to drag myself out of bed, tired. Maybe it’s peace. Maybe it’s wisdom.

I used to drag myself out of bed. To exercise. To school. To work. Frequently to exercise. Years and years of my life, I have dragged myself out of bed in the cold and the dark for punishing workouts which allowed me to feel virtuous and smug and provided an excuse for eating quantities of food. In my disciplined way, on auto-pilot, I did not listen to whether my body needed rest, I simply got up and did whatever it was I felt compelled to do at 5 am.

Now, when I wake at 4:30 or 5:00, I go to the bathroom, marvel that I ever dragged myself out of bed so early, and go back to sleep. Sometimes I have anxiety and find it difficult to go back to sleep. I breathe, I chant (in my head – my husband would be quite perplexed if I chanted out loud in the middle of the night), I do self-Reiki, and I usually go back to sleep, grateful that I am past the awful, awful, awful (did I say awful?) years-long, chronic insomnia of menopause. And when I go back to sleep at 5 am, I dream. Wild dreams. Convoluted spiritual journeys. Dives of rebirth into deep, deep water. And of course my standby, the anxiety dream. Lately, however, I’ve caught myself mid-anxiety-dream and told myself not to go there. “Don’t go there!” I command myself. And the dream changes or stops before it gets too nightmarish. I take this as a good sign. Of kindness and acceptance of myself. I am grateful.

Being sleep-deprived used to be a badge of honor. Oh, I never sleep more than 6 hours a night! Oh, I am so tired! Oh, I have so much to do! Oh, I am so important! Funny, then, I was sicker, had more headaches, and carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. In fact, “I am so tired” was an automatic mantra. I said it all the time. Now, I catch myself when those words bubble up, usually out of habit. I pause. Am I tired? Why would I say I am tired? Is it an excuse? For what? I’ve realized that it’s usually code for I don’t want to do whatever it is I am about to do. So, I pause and check in. What am I feeling? Am I truly tired? Do I need to do something different? Maybe I need to tackle an obstacle and get through it. Maybe I need to ask for help. Maybe I need a nap.

When I stopped therapy last year, I gave myself permission to treat myself to a massage once a month. This permission is hard for me. Massages feel self-indulgent. But the truth is that I am healthier and more content. The funny thing about these once-a-month massages is that they make me realize how tense I am. On the weekends when I get a massage, I find I am more likely to cut out activities and more likely to take a nap. Rest breeds the need for more rest.

Of course, there is still that voice, that habitual voice, that whispers: “You’re going to get fat. You’re going to get out of shape. You’re going to fall behind on achieving your goals. You Are Lazy. You Are Bad.” But there is a new voice that says, Be Quiet! This is me. I feel better when I rest, restore, sleep. And when I feel better, I am more compassionate to myself, more open to others, more creative, more energetic, more able to live authentically. More myself.

The science of sleep and deep rest (Restorative Yoga, Yoga Nidra, Meditation, Massage) is fascinating. The benefits of sleep are many. Sleep strengthens the immune system, allowing us to heal from pain and wounds. Sleep prevents us from over-eating, helping us to maintain a healthy weight. Sleep eliminates the stress hormones from our body-mind and clears negative emotions, supporting us to be happier and better friends/parents/lovers. Sleep is central to our cognitive well-being, assisting us to process new knowledge and store memories properly. Sleep is crucial for children and teens – growth hormones are more active in certain cycles of sleep. Insufficient sleep is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s.  That’s just the short list.

And of course there are all those magical dreams. Those dreams that only occur if you sleep enough to have REM sleep. I’ve started pausing between sleep and waking. Hanging on to my dreams. What was my dream? What does it mean? What can I learn from my dream?

Life is too short to spend it being tired. Go to sleep. Dream. Healing dreams.

Image:  Statue of Sleeping Ariadne

Forgetting to Breathe

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The Aftermath

The dreams have begun. Mainly anxiety nightmares. Like the one where the memorial service is happening for my mother and I am not ready. Confused at the presence of many people I don’t know and frantic that I haven’t written the eulogy I want to write. (I wish I had shared my blog with her.) Like the one where my new plants that seem so beautiful and alive are actually infested with microscopic bugs.  (Ugliness lurks, even when the outward appearance seems to thrive.)  Like the one where I am navigating an avalanche, struggling upstream on an iceberg. If I fail, I die. (No interpretation required.)

And then there was the one Friday night where I am sitting on a bench between my old father of my now and my vibrant mother of my youth. She is wearing one of her fantastic colorful handknit dresses and has black hair without a speck of gray. She is speaking to me, but no sound is coming from her voice. I urgently tug at my father, “Dad! Look! Mom’s alive! She’s speaking!” I am the bridge between the past and the now, between the physical and the spiritual, between my mother and my father.

It doesn’t help that it’s the holidays. The busiest time of year. Not the most joyful time of year. Bah humbug. I had promised to enjoy the holidays. That was before my mother died. Sigh. The finality of death seems, well, final. How can I possibly enjoy the holidays now?

How can I not? There is so much to live for! So I talk to myself. Fight with myself. Pretty much every waking minute is a negotiation with myself that goes something like this:

Oh my god, I have so much to do! It’s never going to get all done.

Remember, Sally, every year it gets done.

But this year is different. I’m too tired and sad.

Breathe and do what you can.

Ack! My father is coming for Christmas. Now, I’ve got to deal with my father. Is this some joke that God is playing on me?

Well, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, our most challenging family members are the most powerful spiritual teachers of our life.

What am I going to get him for Christmas?  What am I going to get everyone for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas?

Nothing! I hate Christmas!

My kids love Christmas. Pull it together. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Smile. Breathe. Go to yoga.

I don’t want to go to yoga. I’m too tired to breathe. I’m too busy to breathe.

Why do we resist doing what feels good for our souls?

Oh my god, I have so much to do! I want to go back to bed.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can.

Remember, Sally, you can choose to not be anxious and depressed. It’s not your go-to place any more. Choose life. Choose joy.

The finality of death can seem final, but life goes on. Clearly, not the same life as before. The new normal is one where my mother is no longer “declining,” but gone. The new normal is one where my father is alone and cognitively not sharp. I am his only child and feel love and sadness for what he is experiencing and anxiety about what the future holds and, frankly, some dismay and anger and selfishness. (Those evil bugs infesting my beautiful growth.) What if I don’t want to take care of him? The new normal is one where my children are growing up and leaving home. What is next for me, for my family, for this next phase of my life? The new normal is one where my mother lives in me and my dreams. Death is not final. Death changes life.

When I am sleepless from a nightmare, in the grip of anxiety, I tell myself not to shut down and close myself off. I can tackle the avalanche coming my way.

Remember to breathe.

At Least My Feet Don’t Stink Anymore

roz-chast-insomniaplex-new-yorker-cartoon

The Changes

The humidity left the air this week.  It’s gone, for the next five months, leaving my skin thin and papery, so dry it hurts.  I hate the tedium of slathering myself with lotion.  I don’t do it.  Mainly because I haven’t found a lotion that doesn’t smell and doesn’t leave my skin feeling sticky or slimy.  (Approaching acceptable is Vanicream.)  I need to find something that I like, because every Winter is worse.  I used to scorn OLD people for fleeing New York for Florida and complaining about the cold and their knees.  I can’t believe I’m one of those people now.  I hate the cold, find the concept of leaving New York approaching acceptable, and my knees just don’t bend comfortably anymore, except when in the meditative flow of a yoga class.

I had my annual gynecological appointment recently, with a new doctor because my old one didn’t take my new insurance.  Besides, after my old ob/gyn teased me for being his only patient who used a diaphragm (because I didn’t like the way I felt on the pill), I decided it was time to find a more holistic woman gynecologist.  Even after two children and 30+ years of pelvic exams, I tend to approach the stirrups with an attitude of let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.  Instead of taking the opportunity to ask questions and get what I need, I just wanted to get through the appointment.  This new doctor is a 50-something woman who is business-like but compassionate.  She took one look at me, down there, and said “Aren’t you uncomfortable?”  Ummm, not that I’m aware of.  Should I be?  “Try Replens.  Or Neem Oil.”  Ummm, okay.  I’m not sure what that is but isn’t it for old ladies?  Oh, right, I had my last period a year and a half ago.  I am officially post-menopausal.  Old.  Or at least dry.

Then came the kicker.  “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve survived menopause with just therapy and yoga?”  Ummm, yep, that’s it.  Therapy and yoga.  Oh and don’t forget my austere approach to food that has kept my weight down.  (A lot vegetables and whole grains, very little meat, sugar, fat, alcohol.)  Easy!

Not.

I spent the several years of perimenopause depressed, anxious, sleepless and sad.   Weeping in Savasana.  Breathing and chanting at 3 am (the chanting was silent in my mind because I am not that kooky but someday I hope to be) because I had woken, in a sweat, to go to the bathroom, again, and couldn’t fall back asleep.  I spent about a year taking Benadryl every night because I was so frightened of the prospect of a sleepless night.  Worrying about my job, my kids, my husband, my aging parents, my marriage, myself, my future, my kids’ future.  Even worry about the future of our planet would grab hold of me at 3 am and not let go.  Was I going to be unhappy all my life?  And angry?  Had I worked this hard just to be a disposable upper-mid-level marketing executive, unsure I even cared about what I was marketing?  Was I going to become addicted to sleep medication?  What was the meaning of life anyway?  You suffer, get old and die.

I threw off the Benadryl and threw myself into yoga and therapy, trying to confront my demons.  It has not been easy.  Now that I am on the other side of menopause, I sleep better and am no longer depressed or overly anxious.  The demons are still there, and a few of them remain unconfronted, but my attitude towards them has changed.  Now I am free to enjoy the relief of no more periods.  No more worrying about getting pregnant.  The hot flashes seem to be diminished.  (By the way, I know what causes hot flashes for me – a seriously anxious thought.  The anxiety must trigger a spike in hormones which then causes the flash.  Yoga breathing helps.)  And my feet don’t stink any more.  (One summer I took a ballet intensive and my teacher would follow me around with a towel wiping the floor because my feet sweat so much.)  I no longer have to shave my legs or under my arms.  But I do miss my beautiful full eyebrows from when I was younger and am sorry I over-plucked them when I was 16.  I threaten my daughter with the prospect of too thin eyebrows for the rest of her life if she dares to touch her beautiful full eyebrows.  And, of course, I miss my juicy plump youthful skin.

I found myself in the drugstore wandering down the “Feminine” aisle.  A hint of embarrassment came over me, a hold-over from when I was 13 and mortified that people would find out that I had my period.  Now what?  I’m mortified people will find out I don’t have my period?  Sure enough, there was half a shelf devoted to “Menopause.”  Only half a shelf?  There are at least two aisles devoted to nailcare.  Don’t we women of a certain age deserve more than half a shelf?  I was intrigued by the product that promised to cool you down during hot flashes.  It looked like a mini portable fan.  Can you imagine?  Excuse me while I blow this fan on myself.  I spy the Replens and tuck it into my basket.  Normally, I would read the label, compare the products, consider my options.  But I was in the embarrassing FEMALE aisle.  Grab and go.  I’ll study it at home.  There was another older woman in the aisle.  Was I intruding on her self-conscious embarrassment or am I the only one?

Why so much embarrassment?  No one really talks about menopause.  I have friends who still refer to it as “the changes.”  Every other television commercial is for Cialis or Viagra.  Replens should demand equal air time.  Of course there is the stereotype in popular media of the kooky older woman having hot flashes or worse, the hysterical, moody, impulsive angry woman.  But you don’t see much about ordinary powerful and beautiful older women launching their children into adulthood, reframing their marriage to be about the marriage and not the kids, and building soul-satisfying encore careers.  Now that’s what menopause is about!  Grappling with and making peace with the demons from the past while making purposeful and conscious decisions about how to handle the present and move forward into the future.  Our 40-something celebrity women (Sandra Bullock?  Michelle Obama?) could do a real service by going through “their changes” in a public, honest and growthful way.

My periods tapered just as my daughter started hers.  This seemed profoundly poetic and symbolic to me.  The adolescent passage from girlhood to young womanhood is one bookend connected with the midlife passage from fertility to post-fertility.  Both phases of life are extraordinarily challenging.  If one can navigate to the next phase with confidence, inner peace, and compassion for self and others, imagine what a creative and interesting time of life it can be!

Photo Credit:  Insomniaplex, by Roz Chast – published in The New Yorker, July 9, 2001.

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