Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Insomnia: When Sleep is Just a Bedtime Story

I was recently involved in a discussion on insomnia and thought I'd post my story of how I was able to overcome it and how you can to, without medications and fancy products.

Disclaimer: Of course, this is my story, my experience and you shouldn't ditch your drugs without talking to your doc about it first, ok? So, don't get all huffy with me if you act like a fool, ditching your meds and quitting cold turkey, and you get sick, because I'm warning you that that could happen if you don't detox under a doc's supervision. I'm not responsible for you, you are, so take care of yourself, ok? Ok, Disclaimer over.

I had insomnia ever since I was 12, but it was controlled for the most part and didn't get worse until I was in an incident when I was about 19 or so. It's something I never talk about, so I'm not going to make an exception about it now. Suffice to say I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for years before I was diagnosed with it, or even knew what that term meant. I always assumed it was something only soldiers got from being in war and was a modern term for being "Shell Shocked".

PTSD really can affect your sleep, and I wasn't the exception to this rule. When I had become really desperate, going up to 5 days without sleep, I sought out a sleep clinic. (By the fifth day, I was so desperate that I'd just take all the sedating type over the counter medications, drinking nyquil, took benadryl in big quantities, and consumed some high proof alcohol (ick!), I could find in the house to knock myself out. That was before I started seeking professional attention for my sleep disorder, but even after I sometimes needed that in addition to the prescription sedatives/downers in order to get a full night's sleep.)

They recommended that I keep a sleep diary for a month or until my appointment. I was kind of skeptical about that and warned them that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of "sleeping" in it, but I did it anyway. What I found was that keeping the diary could really help in and of itself, because you may be able to target the source or cause of your sleeplessness just by looking at the diary.

I kept my appointment and saw a sleep disorder specialist at a clinic who referred me to a sleep lab overnight. Of course, I couldn't sleep and they really want you too, so I did what I did every night, took a butt-load of prescription sedatives, hoping they’d knock me out—yep I was that bad off.

Well, that freaked them out, because I guess I actually stopped breathing in my sleep. The lab tech said he was about to come in and give me CPR when I suddenly started breathing shallowly again. Scary. That probably happened every night and I’d never have known. Still, I told the sleep doctor, "You can't have it both ways, Doc." *sigh* I either don’t sleep or I have to knock myself out. I couldn’t sleep without sedating myself, ever, not even to nap.

Because I’d been complaining about the insomnia for years, my previous doctors, all primary care physicians, just kept prescribing more medications in stronger doses to knock me out. Well, that’d work for awhile, but when their effectiveness decreased, they’d prescribe stronger doses. This just kept going on for years. No one ever mentioned that I could fix my insomnia, naturally, chemical-free. What a concept! But, then, I wouldn’t have to go back to those doctors every 6 months or so to get my prescription increased, now would I? And they wouldn't get their kickback from the drug companies for prescribing the latest miracle drug, would they? “What a racket!” That’s what I thought when I found out differently from the sleep specialist. But, that's because I'm a cynic. A nicer person would probably be more charitable in her thoughts and give them the benefit of the doubt, "Gee, I wonder if my doctor knows that you can fix this problem without medication?"

Anyway, I was delighted, if skeptical, that I'd be able to sleep sans drugs. It was fantastic! And I was able to sleep, really sleep, and get through all the sleep stages (quality is as important as quantity when it comes to sleeping and you can’t do that when you’re depending on drugs to help you sleep. So, if any pharmaceutical company claims that with their medication you’ll go through all the stages, they’re lying).

For a couple of years, I slept like that until about 5 months ago when I started triggering real hard. (A "trigger" is something that makes your mind remember or takes you back to the incident that caused the PTSD in the first place. For some people, it could be a car backfiring reminding them of a gun going off, or an image on tv, something they read, etc. Triggers can last anywhere from a few hours to days to months, depending on the trigger, the event and the survivor/victim/whatever).

That’s where PTSD can really sabotage your efforts, so keep that in mind. However, I know I just have to go back to following the Plan they gave me to get back onto my sleep schedule. I just don't want to sleep right now, because when I do, the nightmares are so real that it’s like I’m right there going through that whole event again. I'm afraid I'll end up attacking my dh in my sleep, thinking I'm defending myself, you know? And then he gets hurt, poor guy. It was horrible enough going through it the first time around IRL, so I’d rather stay awake and be exhausted than to relive it every single night.

Of course, that has it’s own potential problems and I don’t want to get so tired that I start having waking nightmares, which really suck and can be dangerous for other people if they’re around. It’s a fear of mine that I’d mistake them for being a part of this certain event and now that I’m better equipped to deal with it, should I find myself in a similar circumstance, I could really do some damage. So, it becomes this balancing act for me. I stay up as long as I can and then I crash and sleep and do the nightmare thing, getting only a few hours of sleep, so I don’t end up accidentally acting out against any innocents during the day. I was really hoping that if I gave it time, they'd just go away, but that hasn't been the case, so far. Don't know how much longer I'll wait before I have to aggressively work on this again, but my patience is beginning to wear rather thin with it. So, that’s how PTSD can really screw you if you have to deal with it along with or as the primary cause of your insomnia.

But, that’s my choice and it feels good to know that it is a choice and when I’m brave enough & can figure out a way to deal with the nightmares, I’ll go back to following the sleep schedule again. So, yeah, I can relate to both the insomnia and the nightmares/triggers/PTSD that keeps you up and aware all night long. It sux, but there are ways to deal with both.

I had a psychologist for awhile who was really helpful with the PTSD, but I’ve still got a long way to go. However, the nightmares did calm down, change pattern and weren’t every night, like they are now, for about two years after going to therapy. So, if you go through this, I’d recommend therapy. It’s kind of weird, baring your soul to a stranger. I mean, as a general rule, I don’t do that well , soulbaring, with people I’m really close to! And, not being Catholic, it’s not like I was used to confessing to a priest or anything, but I imagine, it’s probably similar to that. The difference is you’re not confessing only your own sins but those committed against you and random acts of crapulence that occur, too. So, it's time well spent and I'd recommend trying that out if it won't interfere with your other goals.

The thing about PTSD is that, even if you don’t think it’s really bothering you or causing problems for you, at some point all that pissed-offedness, the insomnia, the ultra-vigilance 24/7, the inability to completely relax-because you know, as no one else does that the enemy is out there and you're the only one capable of defending or protecting your domain/territory/loved ones,etc.-does eventually mess with your goals, the things you want to accomplish in life. From what I've read, the sooner you seek therapy, the better the results are from it. Jmho and this is most certainly a case of do as I say and not as I do, cuz I'm not seeing anyone right now, (my insurance doesn't cover it), but I sure wish I was. Even the few months of treatment that I received helped alot.

My next blog will give you specific steps you can take to get onto a proper sleep schedule. These are the things I had to do and they really do work, but you have to be dilligent and follow them religiously every single day.

Now, here's the hardest thing. Be patient! This process can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. It took me almost an entire year, but I was sleeping better and better throughout the whole process. So, keeping in mind that it’s a process will help you to deal with the frustrations and hiccups along the way.[Geez, I've almost talked myself into getting back on my program again. Ha!]

I was the biggest skeptic, too. I mean, if all the junk I was taking wasn't knocking me out for more than a couple hours a night, then why in the world would they think doing it sans drugs was going to work? But, I just did it anyway, cuz I wanted more than anything to be chemical free for one thing and to sleep was like a fairytale come true. Insomnia was really messing up my game and I didn't like it. And, contrary to what some people think, you’re alot more effective on your job if you can get the right amount and best quality of sleep you need.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Initiation Ceremonies

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.--Helen Keller

I was watching this Travel Channel show about the Polynesian Islands, you know Tahiti, Ranguan, etc., and they were showing a girl, about 17 or 18 yrs old, getting tattooed.

The tattoo artist, or maybe he was a shaman, I forget, anyway, he took this piece of wood and tapped it on another one that looked sort of like a comb with some kind of needles for teeth. He stretches the woman's skin with one hand and taps on the comb with his other. (Guess the hand that stretches the skin is holding the comb?) The woman's laying with her head in the lap of another woman and holding her hands. Why? Cuz it hurts like a mofo!

So, this man's rattatatatting on her leg and she's squeezing the life outta the woman holding onto her and trying her hardest not to cry. Only, she can't help crying, right? because it hurts so gosh darned bad. The artist says it'll be really painful for the first one to two hours, but after that your body gets used to the pain and it doesn't hurt so badly anymore.

So, the interviewer asked the girl, why's she doing this to herself? Why would she put herself through this kind of pain. Problem is that she can't exactly answer him because her teeth are gritted together so tightly. So, the tattoo artist replies that it's a sort of initiation ceremony that shows she's ready to take her place in the village and be given her particular job to do or her duties in the family. It's also a way of keeping track of their family's history, because historically it was written in picture language through the tattoo. Interesting, eh?

That got me to thinking, as just about anything does that has to do with the subject of pain, about whether the kinds of pain we deal with in our lives has as much significance as getting that tattoo did for that young woman? A part of me would like to think it does, but then again, I tend to be hopefully romantic that way sometimes. Ha! Ok, so yeah, you're right, that's like really rare for me to have those moments, let alone admit them and this may even be a first for me. However, I don't really believe that.

The difference is that that girl had a choice of putting herself through that pain and how much pain she was willing to withstand for a relatively short amount of time. We don't get that choice which leads me back to the conclusion I've maintained from the beginning, there is no special meaning attached to the pain we have no choice but to deal with on a regular basis.

Some may think my attitude is fatalistic. Maybe it is. I find it comforting, though, to know that I'm not in pain because of a past sin, some mystical future assignment or as a prerequisite for nomination to sainthood. (Ok, if anyone tries to cannonize me after my death, I'm tellin' ya now, I'll roll over in my grave!)

As a spirit-filled, reborn Christian I was raised to believe that we share in Christ's sufferings when we're afflicted physically. This belief has been based on a couple of scriptures, most notably the one by St. Paul where he says, (paraphrasing from memory), "Brethren, Think it not strange when these fiery trials come upon you." and another passage where he talks about "partaking in the sufferings of Christ". He's talking about this in a letter he's written to encourage a church group who're under serious religious persecution on the level of what the Jews went through during the Holocaust. Now, there are two things that leap out at me in these two passages. One, is that we have to take into consideration WHO he's talking to and why he's written that way. Two, is the letter itself. Now, when I write a chatty letter I talk about all kinds of stuff and they're not necessarily related to each other. So, just because he goes from talking about a physical affliction he has to deal with chronically to talking about partaking Christ's afflictions, doesn't necessarily mean that he's talking about the physical. He's following a line of thought, something that he learned from his affliction about enduring trials with patience, humility and compassion.

And yes, I know, there are going to be people, like Someone I know, who will say, "But, he could've meant the physical, too." And, sure, he could've, but that's why you can't build an entire belief around a couple of verses. You've got to have confirmation, have those verses from the New Testament backed up by a couple verses from the Old Testament to prove the theory.

Which is why I'm so glad my pastor in TX preached a series on this once, because he gave me a whole new perspective on physical trials and that started my inquiry into what it really means, if anything, when we suffer physically. Of course, at the time I didn't know that I would need that information for as long as I have, but grateful for it all the same. If you read through the bible wherever it talks about what God wants for his children, it's always positive, always good. He doesn't want us to suffer or be in pain. As a matter of fact, he states very clearly through the prophet Jeremiah, what his desire is, (again, paraphrasing from memory) "I know the plans I have for you, plans for good, not for evil, to give you a secure future."

In my humble opinion, this suggests to me that just like I want my daughter to have the best life she possibly can have and to be the best American citizen, a productive member of society, that she can be, He, God, wants me to have the best life has to offer, too. But, life happens and things don't always work out like you want them to. But, it's not because it's making us any more perfect or anymore equipped to be God's children. We don't have to do anything for that status, but join the family and once you're in you're in. You can't lose your salvation.

What I think these scriptures refer to is how we suffer persecution for Christ's sake and in that way are we partakers with him in his suffering. He died on the cross to take away our sins, endured whipping in order for us to be healed. Why then would he want us to partake of physical illness and afflictions to be like him? It doesn't make sense to me. It makes more sense that he would encourage us that if the Son of God had to endure persecution, then who are we to think that, as imperfect as we are, we can escape the same? That's how we are like Christ. Not because we have to deal with illness and disease. That's something else altogether.

So, if God wants the best for me, why am I in pain? I can't answer that. All I know is that He's not a Genie. He doesn't rescue me out of situations that I'm in. What I do find is that I can count on him to go through the crap with me. Just as if I was in battle. He's in the foxhole, right there by my side, and if you hear soldiers talk about their wartime experiences, knowing that they're surrounded by their brothers while they're in the thick of an onslaught, is the greatest comfort they can have. It's enought to give you a sense of security, knowing that those other soldiers, well-trained and prepared like you are, are right there at their stations, ready to give their lives for you if they have to in order to see you through. So, that's how I feel about God these days. It may be simplistic, but that's the beauty of it. God's got my six and that's enough for me. And that's not to say that I don't get frustrated or pissed off at God. I do. I rant and rave at him sometimes. But, you know what? He's a big Guy and He can take it. And, better yet, He understands and is compassionate.

So, I guess my point is that the reason that bumper sticker is so popular is because it's a truism. Shit happens. Sometimes you just end up on the short end of the stick and you deal with the cards that are dealt to you. God didn't do it to you. You didn't make it happen to you. I didn't cause my own illness (hate it when people say stuff like that). It's not because you're paying for some sin you did in a past life. It's not because you're working out your salvation or are becoming saintly or more christlike. It's just that enough random circumstances collided at just the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) moment to create a unique situation that you now have to deal with.

What matters is, how's my attitude? What's my character like? Am I responding to this trial by becoming bitter and taking on an attitude of entitlement? Or am I allowing my character to be built up, solidified, secured and reinforced, because of what I'm going through? There are a couple of ways that we can deal with the sucky experiences of life and this goes for any sort of shortcoming, not just the ones we can't control like chronic pain or illness, but also our failures and mistakes. One way is by passing the buck, handing off the responsibility, going into a state of denial or by resenting the situation to the extent that I refuse to deal with it in any way. The other is to accept the reality of the situation, analyze what I can and cannot salvage from it, what I can or can't change about it, make restitution wherever possible whenever necessary, reprioritize and finally learn what I can from it.

As an initiation into developing true character, I'd have to recommend adversity, because I just can' t see much use for it otherwise, can you? Either way, I'm still trying to figure out what my new job is, what my new duties will be with this new life and I guess that part will take some more time.

And if I'm supposed to learn the history of my ancestors from going through this kind of initiation, well, I guess I can say that I've learned what it's like to face adversity and continue on in spite of the obstacles. What's that called? Tenacity? Persistence? Stubborness? Foolishness? I think I had those qualities already, though. But, one thing I've really learned is that nothing beats dealing with reality, honesty, because the converse is to live in fantasy land and denial and is a waste of life and time, stunting one's growth and limiting one's abilities. When you don't face the obstacles, the adversaries, then you'll never know your limits or what you're truly capable of. Knowing your real talents, abilities, and limits is the biggest step toward actualizing self-confidence. And there's nothing more attractive in another human being, save humor, than self-confidence, don't you think?

"The true character of a nation, organization, or an individual is revealed when it is faced with life or death choices."

(If you know who I'm quoting, please leave a message in comments so I can give them the credit. Just can't remember who said it. Thoreau? Emerson? Lincoln? MLK, Jr.? Dang! Hate it when that happens and couldn't find it online, either. Help?)