sleep

A Quiet War Hubris, Humility, Regulation

For me, a dark secret, fiercely off limits to anyone, even my therapist (until very recently,) has been the silent but fraught world of sleep. Although I remember sadly little about my childhood, I do remember the welcome, early discovery of masturbation as a way to get to sleep and thinking that was its purpose. I remember hating and dreading slumber parties because I woke up hours before anyone else and agitatedly waited for the other girls to finally get up and continue the party. 

In my early teens, I remember my much older, “drug informed” boyfriend giving me some kind of little pills (valium perhaps? I don’t remember). I kept them stealthily locked away in my bedside pink jewelry box. When I was anorexic, I loved the power and control I felt from not eating for seeming eons but dreaded and feared the guaranteed anguish of gnawing hunger keeping me awake. The rumbling night seemed to go on forever.

In more recent decades, after the eating disorder was blessedly and fully resolved, I seemed to develop a different version of “anorexia,” if you will, or a parallel self-deprivation. It took me years to recognize and admit to myself what I was doing. Much as I had renounced and disavowed the need or desire for food in the past, now I was doing the same with sleep. 

Virtually identical to what I had believed about food, it was as if I were a different species. I did not need, and/or I did not deserve what “regular people” had or got to do: to sleep. Was I monstrously inferior and not entitled to rest, too busy justifying my sorry existence? Or was I superhuman and could get away with it? It was some combination of both. The result was a kind of hubris, whereby I slept four hours a night for years and proudly, if quietly, had 20 hours a day to be “productive.” For a long time, it was a well-kept secret. Only my husband knew, familiar with my long absences from the bed, and the cohort of kindred insomniac gym rats or night workers, who also frequented 24 Hour Fitness at 1:30am. Later our dad and my therapist somehow knew; I must have told them. I don’t remember. But they all knew from whatever their unpleasantly failed attempts were that the topic was not up for discussion. I was highly defensive and definitive about that! I ultimately made light of it, concealing it less. It was simply another of those quirky anomalies about me.

We have a now elderly little gray Miata, we affectionately refer to as “the Mouse.” During the final years of my father’s life, the one-hour weekly drives to our otherwise difficult visits seemed to be the redeeming feature. Something about the Mouse had a quick-acting sedative-hypnotic effect. Its hum like a lullaby, its drive rocking me like a cradle; as soon as I climbed into the passenger seat, I was out. My husband was delighted to see me sleep! And I silently, slowly had to admit it to myself. I was so, so tired. It had all been a lie about not needing the sleep. I was bone tired.

Humility

For many a survivor of trauma and/or neglect, sleep is a minefield. It may be the desperate quest to get to sleep, or the problem may be staying asleep long enough to get rest. It may be the movie-like screening of haunting nightmares. It may be a memory relived, with or without awareness, of traumas that invaded or upended the childhood bed. It may be the fear of the insomnia itself. Young parents, medical professionals with 24, 48, even 72-hour shifts, emergency responders… how do they do it?

It took me a long time to remember some of my worst experiences in bed. But I always did remember waking up alone in the dark cold of my hospital room when I had my tonsils out at age 3. In those days, I guess mothers (or a parent) did not stay by the bedside of a tiny child. Waking up alone and terrified, with a painful raw throat, no one around, and it was so dark. Where was everyone? Anyone? And they had promised there would be ice cream. Where was the ice cream? 

I remember another time, waking up alone from an afternoon nap in the little bungalow where we summered in Fleischmanns while my father waited tables in the luxury resort. I was again, about 3. And again, terrified. Where was everyone? And I remember always being so scared of the dark that when I went to the bathroom in the night, I ran like hell back to the bed, not knowing who or what might be chasing me. 

The mythical “good night’s sleep” can become a torturous quest, certainly, for the hyper-aroused nervous system of survivors of whatever the trauma. And although our world is now glutted with remedies, pharmaceutical, over-the-counter, legal and illegal, “alternative,” not to mention the wide world of apps, devices, and mindfulness practices. Many have tried them all. Many continuing in exhausted despair.

For me, the first step, as is all too often the case, was having the humility to face that this is a problem; and a problem that could be dangerous to my health. What might be the impact of at least a decade of four-hour nights? Maybe I am simply a human organism after all, an ordinary mammal, not superhuman or subhuman, bionic or undeserving.

Maybe, as they say in AA, “I am just one more Bozo on the bus.” It was time to work on this before it became too late.

Regulation

As ever with trauma, the problem is generally dysregulation. Sleep requires that the body achieve some modicum of calm to be able to enter the blissful state. Samantha Harvey’s 2020 book, The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping, although it is a rather bleak description of her own insomnia, is spectacular writing and an avid portrayal of the anguish of the elusive shut-eye. And it is not uniform in its nature. For Harvey, it was related to a dark fear of death, haunted as she was by family members’ passing. For others of us, it is rooted in attachment trauma. After all, the earliest and most vulnerable time of human life we spend mostly asleep, so the developing human brain, designed to be in resonance with another, flounders to find its rhythm if left alone or if its sleep is fractured by dissonance, conflict or confusion.

The parasympathetic or calming function of the autonomic nervous system is certainly a factor in sleep, of course. When a particular pattern of insomnia appeared as my single symptom of menopause, I learned about that. My menopause iteration was a repetitive cycle of 90 minutes of sleep interrupted like clockwork by an abrupt rude awakening, persisting stubbornly for hours. I learned from a somatic therapist that the parasympathetic nervous system connects the brain with the body at two locations: the occiput or base of the skull, and the sacrum, or base of the spine. Stimulating those two spots by lying on slightly deflated rubber balls each time I awoke put me right back to sleep. 

It was a miracle and resolved the insomnia of my menopause. I became a missionary with the little balls, keeping them by my own bedside and in my travel suitcases and ordering cases of them that I gave away to friends and clients. They took me through menopause. However, my sleep challenges returned, and I discovered them to be tied in with other trauma and psychological hurdles about doing “enough,” being enough.

Neurofeedback and psychotherapy in concert, for many of us: regulation and trauma healing, are the royal road. And I am making progress! I’m averaging about 6 hours! Happy dreams to you!

Today’s Song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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