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.

Web

I have chronic nightmares. Sometimes they are so realistic and frightening that my brain won’t let my tired body go back to sleep afterward for fear of being transported back into the horror. Usually, they include pieces of my trauma or at least feelings or phrases that I had or heard during the attack. It’s surprisingly hard to get someone’s evil words out of your head even when they treat you utterly inhumanely and you don’t respect their opinion. Not every nightmare necessarily includes my attacker, even if it does include reminders of the attack, and even still, not every nightmare relates to that. My therapist says that this type of gross sleep disturbance, even long-term, is normal in these situations.

The other night, my sleep brain had me in the familiar supine position with the feeling of a suffocating body cracking down on my ribs. I couldn’t see his face, but I had the knife blade and choking sensation. Thankfully this time, unlike in real life, I was being tortured over something that now seems comical: that I had never read Charlotte’s Web and didn’t know the story. I woke suddenly in my usual gasping-for-air panic, relieved that it was unrealistic enough to know it was just a bad dream and that I wasn’t going to live through another torturing just for failing to read an iconic children’s classic.

Still, I decided perhaps this was a subliminal message that I should read the book; after all, I’d give anything to make the real memory go away, and since I can’t seem to do that, I can try to resolve the petty issues in some of the less-severe nightmares.

As unpopular of a sentiment this likely is, I generally do not enjoy reading literature. I’d venture to guess that 49 times out of 50, I gravitate towards a nonfiction book over fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or any type of creative literature. I seem to really struggle to imagine things that are not portrayed extremely realistically; even then, if the context of the book is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in at least some tangential fashion, it’s frustratingly challenging for me to relate to or get into. Luckily, perhaps due to my strange empathetic skill, I do seem to possess a strong innate ability to see similarities in many superficially different topics. Many struggles have the same universalities.

For the record, there certainly have been many great literary works I’ve enjoyed, but the ease, speed, and appreciation with which I enthusiastically devour nonfiction pieces far and beyond outshadows this number. I think it has something to do with the fact that I am essentially unable to picture anything I’ve never seen. I can listen to the most detailed description of something and absorb all of the words and their essence, but be completely blind to conjuring up a mental image of that description. Consequently, it’s hard to develop relationships with the characters or storyline. I imagine that my substantially challenged ability to read facial expressions and understand people also gets in the way of bonding with or at least following the thoughts, emotions, and decisions of characters. When discussing my evaluation results with the neuropsychologist, he said this can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum; it’s not a complete lack of creativity, but more of a difficulty imagining a different reality. You’d think then that I’d be fine watching movies since the ambiguity is removed or the guesswork is taken out of imagining how things look, but I mostly only enjoy documentaries, food TV, or shows where you get to know the characters so well over time that their mannerisms, expressions, motives, and language, become more understandable. In any fantastical book or even fictional storyline, I find myself completely lost. I’m unable to follow the plot or keep track of the characters in most cases because I’m missing crucial pieces of information.

I don’t know if this is the reason that I’ve never read or seen Charlotte’s Web. Since the library had it on the shelf and it looked short enough to squeeze in between various obligatory readings, I figured it was worth a shot.

I liked it. I was astonished at how much. As I suspect most people do, I cried when Charlotte died. In retrospect, perhaps this is the reason my parents didn’t encourage me to read this book when I was younger. Although it’s presented as a children’s book, it not only deals with many adult themes, but it also is emotionally mature. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes a good piece of literature: it has a lasting impact on a person and it can be universally understood across the ages or types of people (even if it’s fictional!). I was overly sensitive and emotional as a child-which, apparently is a quality that I have not shaken-and after physically throwing my body on the floor and flailing my limbs in a fitful tear-filled meltdown after the dog dies in John Reynolds Gardiner’s Stone Fox, I’m guessing my parents steered me toward more soundly upbeat stories. I guess I wasn’t ready for the pain and sorrow of reality…

Charlotte’s Web deals so beautifully with the themes of friendship, sacrifice, the circle of life, ingenuity, love, loyalty, and growing up. Despite the significant need to suspend disbelief and buy into the conversations and relationships between the animals themselves and Fern, I found it surprisingly easy to relate to the different characters and imagine it enough that I could follow the storyline (it helped that it was basic enough because it’s intended for children!). I wonder if the fact that I seem to understand animals better than people in real life played to my advantage as well!

While I found many powerful quotes in the book, particularly pertaining to friendship (and one depressingly relatable one from Wilber about unhappiness and loneliness) my favorite of all was delivered by Fern’s pediatrician, Dr. Dorian, after her mother asks him if he had heard that the spider was spinning words in her web.

He replied: “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

How true on so many levels. For me, it was a reminder to appreciate the small things—the magic in the mundane—and to not always be chasing something bigger and better. Sometimes, the very best things are the things we easily take for granted and it isn’t until there’s a blatantly clear sign of something miraculous that we pause enough to consider that the simple act itself—the thing that’s been there all along—is something wonderfully special as well.

(Nature is amazing.)