Night is a scary time. For someone experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, or paralyzing self-doubt, lying awake in bed can feel like a deer standing in an open clearing during hunting season. Nothing stands between you and the army of fear, worry, self-hatred and desperation that’s set up camp in your head. No distractions or defenses. That army has a clear shot at your most vulnerable places.
Worse still, the noise of that army opening fire keeps you awake for hours. You wake the next morning after only a few fitful hours of sleep, feeling, quite fittingly, like you’ve just done battle. Without the protective armor of sleep, the world is full of sharp edges that cut right into your soul. You are overly anxious, even to the point of paranoia; you are quick to cry or lose your temper; you stagger under the crushing weight of even the simplest tasks.
The very first time I went to see a counselor, I was weepy, anxious, and nursing a chronic sinus infection. After I finished babbling through my introduction, I expected him to dive in to the ample fodder I’d given him: my family history, my panic attacks, my crippling self-doubt. Instead, he placed his fingertips together carefully, the universal sign of wisdom, and looked at me.
“How much have you been sleeping?” he asked. I launched into another babbling description of my sleepless nights, tossing and turning and listening to the onslaught of anxiety and degradation that played on repeat in my head.
He tapped those fingertips together. “Well, let’s start there,” he said. “Because if you can’t sleep, the rest of your healing doesn’t stand a chance.”
I didn’t end up staying with this counselor very long. His style turned out not to be the right fit. But I will be forever grateful to him for teaching me two things.
First: the incomparable value of sleep. Because we need sleep for a life of joy. We need the physical and emotional restoration to face a new day with energy and strength. We need the calm presence of mind to face life’s road bumps. And we need to start our days with clarity and positivity. Because when you wake up feeling exhausted and drained, you are already three steps behind, and you’ll spend the rest of the day trying to catch up.
Second, and even more importantly, he taught me to make a plan for the nighttime. If we are dealing with an army of anxiety and self-doubt, we have to be prepared with a counterattack. (Hint: Lying in bed waiting for those thoughts to go away is not a counterattack.)
Part of that counterattack starts earlier in the day. Sunshine and engaging exercise strengthen my physical body’s inclination to sleep, which can help to overpower my mind. Knocking off a nagging thorn on my to-do list helps too. Although it’s difficult to summon the energy to tackle looming “to-dos,” telling myself that I will no longer lie awake at night thinking “I need to file those insurance papers” does wonders to my motivation.
But the crux of the counterattack happens at night, after I turn out the light and the army goes into full-scale battle mode. I breathe deeply and sink into an image that comforts me. I imagine my thoughts as a raging ocean, and I am standing in the middle, getting bludgeoned by the pounding waves. Just like I do at the beach, I slip underneath the waves of thought, to the calm, often-forgotten space on the ocean floor. I look up at the thoughts raging above me and remind myself that I am separate from them.
If I were a spiritual guru, I would tell you that this image would solve all your sleep problems. But let’s be real: it doesn’t. Some nights, it does wonders. Some nights, the thoughts rage on and nearly drown me. On those nights, if I’ve been tossing and turning for at least a half-hour, I get up and write down whatever thoughts are keeping me awake. Not on the computer, though it do its best to tempt me. (The computer is the worst place to go when I cannot sleep. Repeat. The computer is the worst place to go when I cannot sleep.) Instead, I go old-fashioned, scribbling down the stream-of-consciousness babble that is churning through my mind.
I lie down again. If I’m still awake after another half-hour, I take sleep medicine. I’ve thought a lot about using the medicine and tried to be intentional about the way I’ve incorporated it into my life. I recognize that it plays very different roles for everyone. But some nights, left to my own thoughts, I could easily be up for most of the night. And my very personal, very non-professional belief is – like my former counselor said – if I don’t have sleep, my healing doesn’t stand a chance.
I am always tweaking and adjusting my counterattack. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on changing the pattern of my working and blogging so that I don’t end the night at the computer. The bright lights and information overload stir up thoughts that zing around my head when I turn off the light. A friend also recently suggested Sleepytime tea (she said it’s gross but it works. Fair enough).
But whatever my plan, I take comfort knowing I have a counterattack to defend myself from the army of anxiety and self-doubt. Sleep is a precious tool on my journey of healing that I cannot afford to lose to this army.