Insomnia

Lately, I’ve been sleeping worse than my “normal,” which is already borderline unworkable. I am not aware of a definitive reason for this backslide but I need to find some modifiable causes so I can get back on track. Usually, my insomnia is a product of PTSD or generalized anxiety, physical pain, or SPD problems, and I think that all three of these factors are present in my current bout. The other night, the pungent skunk smell woke me up suddenly at 10:27 PM and I was up for the remainder of the night. I wasn’t anxious, I just could not get comfortable and settle my body back down. Strong smells give me headaches, so eventually I took some ibuprofen to try to lessen the throb through my temples, a pounding so heavy that my head was rising and falling perceptibly on my pillow with each heartbeat. Once the medicine eventually kicked in, I seemed too alert and out of sorts to return to sleep.

Most nights, joint and muscle pain is the principle offender keeping me awake. I have recently learned that I have a connective tissue disorder and an immunological disorder that interact in an (im)perfect storm, saddling me with eerily puffy joints and pain that radiates outward to overly tight and achy muscles. My entire body feels the way the ears feel after an extremely loud concert, when they continue to reverberate with the auditory ghosts of the band’s drum kit. My knees alternate hues between my normal pale skin and flushed pink with each cyclical pulse. My mom calls the crepitus and extreme tightness my Tin Man body, but unlike that jointly metal man, there’s no oilcan equivalent that can lubricate my adhesions. They seem to spontaneously resolve enough to restore enough mobility to move around after a few days of an intensified flare up. Needless to say, more often than not, my body is its own drum set at night, with different joints conversing in palpable throbs. It’s not only painful and debilitating, it’s a sensory assault that exceeds my attenuated nighttime threshold. Lately, it does seem that this pain has ratcheted up a few notches in its severity, which surely is contributing my increased sleep disturbances.

Later today, I have an appointment to revisit the rheumatologist, so hopefully I’ll muster up the courage to explain the nearly constant pain that has characterized the last month or two and then get a more workable solution.

When I can’t sleep, I think, or more accurately, my mind floods with thoughts. Lately, I’ve been reading at night. It seems that finding connection and unprecedented compression in Charlotte’s Web was a gateway to discovering my appreciation for other fiction books as well. It’s still the case that I prefer nonfiction books, particularly those pertaining to science or health and biographies and memoirs are my favorite, but I’ve found that some literature mimics a memoir in voice, story, and tone and I can get engrossed in those too, as long as I’m patient enough to get through the first few chapters. I recently devoured two stories told from the point of view of Japanese-American characters and really enjoyed those and found two others centering around characters with Asperger’s that consumed my attention. Even when I wasn’t reading, I found my mind constantly perseverating about the storyline or characters. I’m sure this is normal for your average bibliophile, but that’s not a word I’ve ever used to describe myself. Until now. This interest is starting to collect all the ingredients needed to prepare a fully cooked obsession. When I’m not able to read, I’m searching for my next book because my acceptance ratio is still pathetically low. Thank goodness the library allows for twenty reservations; I’m only able to get into about one in that group, but when I do, it’s a race to read fast enough to satisfy my curiosity and intrigue. When the last page had been turned, I find myself needing to console my little heart ache that those characters aren’t real and their stories don’t live on as something else I can follow. I think that’s one of the magnetic qualities about true biographies and memoirs. The people are real and in today’s world of many people accessible via social media, it’s easy to maintain a “relationship” with those individuals who spoke to me.

Like many times, writing has again served as a vehicle to drive me to that “eureka” place. I’m suddenly wondering if my draw to read and my excitement that certain books cultivate is actually contributing to the insomnia from a two-pronged approach. First and more topical, my doctor recommended I read at night when I can’t sleep as a sedative to lull me back to sleep. It seems this, like many things in my life, had had the opposite effect and waking up to read serves as a treat so my subconscious rouses me to provide a dopamine hit splattered on the pages of my latest read. Secondly, the plots and characters penetrate that “I care about you” part of my brain, adding to the stockpile of endless thoughts and emotional responses to mull over at night when my eyes shut and switch is turned on to process the conveyor belt of amassed ideas. If the book contains suspense, danger, or some other peril the character must face, I worry constantly about his or her successful resolution. When characters are in stressful situations, I’m in perpetual angst. When they experience loss, so do I. I carry the burden of their woes, at least until I oversee their mitigation of the strife and even at that point, I seem fixated on worrying about what might have been. Maybe I’ll have to limit the reading time to available breaks in the day like waiting for a doctor!

Again, like most of my problems, there’s no single culprit here and as with many things in life, nothing is purely good or bad. On the surface, reading is a healthy habit but as someone who lacks the ability to easily find balance, I may need to implement a system to moderate my exposure to and timing of books. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m hypersensitive to nearly everything—changes, emotions, ideas, the environment, medications, to name a few. The most successful approach to introduce something without gravely disturbing any semblance of equilibrium is careful, deliberate titration, followed by a pause to assess the impact, and then either continued slow-dosing or rerouting, it necessary. While my instinct and modus operandi is always to go full-throttle with things, ultimately, this is rarely met with the success that I hope for or that I can possibly achieve with more gradual assimilation.

Hail

I self-soothed myself through the hailstorm last night, which, given my heightened nighttime anxiety and PTSD, I consider a notable win. I woke suddenly as it pelleted on the roof and ricocheted off the air conditioner jutting out from the window. The pinging and clanging was jarring and so unfamiliar that I was unable to categorize the noise as a weather-related anomaly, let alone specifically identify it as hail. I tucked into a ball, hugging my knees to my chest and listened. My frantic mind feared combat, an attack from an enemy, some sort of dangerous monstrosity. My muscles tightened and the inside of my closed eyelids flashed a fury of alarming reds and oranges as if staring into the rotating siren light of an emergency response vehicle. I fought the panic by trying to conjure up peaceful images and relax my muscles with each successive exhalation, employing progressive muscle relaxation techniques I’ve been practicing every morning. The sounds only got more disruptive and bewildering and although I was able to harness my worries and prevent continued escalation, I remained engrossed in concern, perched on the precipitous of sympathetic fight-or-flight.

One issue with auditory processing attributable to SPD is a pervasive difficulty in locating the origin of a sound. I can hear everything just fine; in fact, I have an extremely keen sense of hearing, but I often am unable to identify what the noise is or even what direction it’s coming from. This greatly complicates my ability identify and classify the sound, which heightens my anxiety because it’s not clearly evident if it’s innocuous or dangerous. (When in doubt, my brain errs on the side of caution and assumes danger.)

Last night, as the erratic banging continued, I pulled out my phone to try and put on a calming video for more engaging distraction. I noticed the alert on my weather app and quickly discovered that we were amid a hailstorm. Crisis averted.

I am much too light of a sleeper to sink back into sleep while the racket continued, so I relaxed and watched my show until the torrent was over and the more gentle rain lulled me back to sleep. A year ago, this type of unprecedented and unusual calamity would have sent me into an inconsolable tailspin. Even if I had rationally deduced the cause of the noise was innocuous as hail, it would have been nearly impossible to quell the initial panic and calm myself back to sleep. The hopes for additional rest would have been abandoned with the first weakening pitter-patter. The remaining hours of night would have been spent remembering the jarring noise, the resultant uneasiness, and the range of possible (and impossible) dangerous sources that could have generated such terror.

But not last night! Last night was evidence of my improved self-control, command over my previously-unbridled anxiety, and coping tools to manage startling situations.

Gradual Germination

 I have a lot of difficulty sleeping. It’s never easy to fall asleep and staying asleep is a nightmare (pun intended), as I am plagued with terribly violent dreams from my PTSD. My doctor has also told me that people on the spectrum often have symptoms of insomnia because of the sensory problems as well as from disruptions in melatonin and one’s circadian rhythm.

Sensory processing problems, for me at least, do seem to peak at nighttime. I think this is largely because they tend to build over the course of the day, like a crescendo in a musical piece that finally breaks into the final cord (or some sort of sensory overload meltdown) at night. I end the vast majority of my days with a terrible headache. My tolerance for sensory stimuli is completely exhausted by 5:00pm. Even a tiny sound—a gust of wind at the window, breathing, my own audible heartbeat against the mattress—drives me bananas. These sounds amplify with each passing second. An uneven whir of the fan (the infamous “pulsing” as it’s known in our home) is my nemesis, its rhythm paving paths of irritation on my cortex. I hate the slightest flicker of light; my poor husband fumbles around in the dark trying to get things. Even his cellphone glow (and he has the old, pre-smartphone type with a tiny screen!) bothers me.  My skin is the worst offender. I won’t even get into that right now because my intention for this post is rapidly getting buried among my sensory complaints!

Needless to say, I employ a strategically designed, carefully rehearsed sleep routine every single night, with the goal of “optimizing sleep hygiene” for better rest. Still, it’s far from good sleep and even further from flawless, which is why I find myself up every morning between 2:40 and 3:40am with a mind that is ready to start the day. As for my body, sometimes it leads the charge and is raring to go, while other times it feels as it should at 2:40am: like cement has encased it.

The other morning, I came down to find the flower pictured in this post in its full blooming glory. The bulb was gifted to me by my mother-in-law for Christmas. While I love flowers, plants, trees, and gardening, I am quite far from having that coveted “green thumb.” Historically, it seems like all my stuff initially grows and then, suddenly, completely succumbs to some sort of dramatic death. (To be fair, that was usually in the mouth of our curious Siamese cat growing up, who seemed to have a constant hankering for my “experiments” growing beans, seeds, and even moldy bread for a Girl Scout badge!)

Anyway, I stuck the bulb in the little pot, plunged it in the provided soil cake, watered it once, and put it on the shelf behind the TV. Oh, but she grew!

Without water for 9 weeks (only the initial wetting of the soil cake), without adequate light, without the TLC my plant deserved, she blossomed. My point in sharing this seemingly boring story is to make an analogy. Even though it’s hardly debatable that I deprived my plant from the things it needed, it survived. It thrived, in fact! The plant had everything it needed inside of its cells. It grew strong roots that are wildly trying to escape their plastic cage; it grew a tall, thick, luscious stem with healthy leaves; and deep vibrant red flowers with silky petals. Had I provided more water and light, I imagine it may have been an easier journey towards maturation, and perhaps today’s growth state would have been reached sooner. However, for nine quiet weeks, my plant used its own resources to figure out how to not only survive, but to thrive and express its beauty. We are much the same way. All of us have an incredible internal strength, a resilience to grow and succeed even if the stakes are against us, even when society, science, health, etc. appear unfavorable for us to prevail. Much like the plant, while there may be an optimal environment or helpful constituents for our survival, we carry within the knowledge, the power, the awareness of our needs, and the drive to grow into strong individuals.

Sometimes situations don’t feel fair. We look to blame luck, “God,” society, etc., and frankly, I think a lot of situations in our world aren’t fair (too many to name), but my hope is that we can all be like my plant, able to persist, so that someday, when it’s least expected, there is something beautiful that we are quietly (or boldly) projecting and breathing into the spaces around us. While we toil away and face challenges and pain, we are laying each strong cell in a calculated and purposeful arrangement, ripe with fortitude and care, into a structure—a life—that has meaning and value.

 

 

Oh, and I do plan to water this plant! Just because she can survive on her own, doesn’t mean she should have to. Be someone’s light and water: loving and supporting someone is never the wrong choice.