Insomnia enveloped me last night. My sleep issues are chronic, but some nights, I have a particularly rough time. I take a sleep aid and have nearly impeccable “sleep hygiene,” including a bedtime schedule that is religiously followed with precision. Even slight deviations from this strict schedule can wreak havoc on my ability to fall and stay asleep. Accordingly, I hold the adherence to this structure in such high priority that it’s rare to have any departures from the plan. That said, even when everything goes according to plan, I can still find myself tossing and turning, listening to the night around me and scrolling through thoughts in my head rather than unconscious to the world and soaking up restorative rest.

The primary anti-sleep offender used to be anxiety and PTSD, which together outpaced all of the other factors contributing to insomnia by a margin so large that the other factors didn’t even warrant consideration. Thanks to therapy, meditation strategies that I’ve rehearsed, and a lot of self-driven work on my own mind, the PTSD and anxiety are now constrained to more manageable levels at night more often. It’s undeniably still a major issue, but it’s not as pervasive nor as debilitating as it was. I find that most of the time now, I don’t find myself ruminating and running through a constant litany of worries and stresses at night. Not long ago, as soon as my head hit the pillow, my brain would start whirring through anxious thought after anxious thought, building up so much tension and fret that my fight or flight sympathetic nervous system drive would inevitably kick in and prevent me from sleeping. After all, it would be a terrible biological mutation if the body would decide to fall asleep after working itself into such a tizzy over perceived dangers! The body doesn’t know that worrying about senseless things is less of a threat to its safety than if I was faced with an aggressive lion. As the scientists say, stress is stress.

I still have tons of graphic and vivid trauma nightmares. I haven’t had the success I’m hoping for at all in this regard. However, what has improved is my ability to calm myself down, regroup, and try to restore my mental peace so I can fall back asleep. As recent as this summer, it was always the case that a traumatic or scary nightmare revolving around memories from when I was attacked would sort of turn on this biological switch that would prevent me from falling back asleep. The nightmares were so psychologically haunting and unsettling that in an effort to save myself from potentially experiencing more of that type of gruesome and frightening feelings, I’d trick myself into swallowing my sleepiness so that falling back asleep would be impossible.

By and large, I’ve built up a sturdy net that I can cast around these post-nightmare anti-sleep reactions, trap them, and drag them into an isolated heap. The nightmare still happens, but after a brief startle response upon waking, I self-sooth enough to understand it was a bad dream. This allows me to fall back asleep. It may sound like minimal improvement, but it’s actually a world of a difference because it happens every single night.

The better my anxiety is controlled, the more I see how other factors also work against my ability to get restful, continuous sleep. The two biggest offenders in this group are sensory issues and physical pain. Sensory issues predispose my body to find innocuous stimuli in the bedroom environment to be grossly exaggerated obstacles to comfort. Temperature control is ridiculously hard for my body to naturally attain, and unfortunately, I’m hypersensitive to minute variabilities in the room temperature. I need to be freezing! To make my point, I have the window open with a fan positioned in it on high during this sun-zero winter! However, the disturbance posed by the flutter the fan causes (to blankets, hair, etc.) works directly against its helpfulness. Any auditory disturbance completely rattles my brain as if it’s stabbing my amygdala with a tiny needle and then dragging the tissue around to rip grooves in my brain. The worst is if the fan has an uneven whir, some sort of lilt in its spin that makes a rhythm (though this is apparently imperceptible to the neurotypical brains around me!). The list of frequent sensory offenses is so long and detailed that I don’t have the energy or interest in enumerating it here. It’s bad enough to have to live it every day; I don’t feel like dwelling on it in my free time! The takeaway is that it’s an often unpreventable sleep antagonist.

Lately, physical pain is equally interruptive. It both prevents falling asleep and wakes me, then keeps me up. My joints, muscles, and connective tissues through my body throb and ache so percussively that I can hear the pain. It reminds me of Dick Van Dyke at the beginning of Mary Poppins playing drums all over his body. I feel like thundering drums pound and squeeze over all of joints, reverberating pain throughout my skeleton. It echoes in my ears and literally rocks my body with each throb. When I close my eyes, the inside of the lids, my “screen,” flashes bright red with each pulse beat. No amount of rubbing or squeezing the joints and muscles takes the pain to tolerable levels. I usually have to revert to taking a Tylenol to get enough relief to sleep. Even then, the pain often precludes sleep; the best I can hope for is to stay distracted with a relaxing movie and “rest” in the horizontal position because sleep is impossible.

Last night, I followed all of the steps of my carefully-designed sleep routine. I still struggled. I was too hot, I had nightmares, and my ankles and fingers hurt too much. At least I stayed calm and kept the tendency for frustration to build at bay. I reminded myself that resting is also healthy and that I would be okay. Today, I’m tired, sore, and vaguely nauseous. It would be natural to be cranky, and historically, this would be my MO. Instead, I’m going to try and make the best of the day and hope for better results tonight.

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