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Darkness and Light, Part 3

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Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.

Just An Ordinary Day

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Sometimes I think God tries to help me wake up with text messages. And by having to pee every hour after 6 a.m.

Even though I keep my phone on vibrate at night, I still wake up when I get a text. Am I that light of a sleeper that I can hear the buzz? Am I so happy to get a message that I can sense it in my sleep?

Whatever the reason, for me, the typical pattern in the morning is to wake up, check my phone, go to the bathroom, and go back to sleep. Repeat every hour until I finally get out of bed. Which is usually several hours later.

Even in this state between sleep and wakefulness, my inner critic is hard at work. Right before I look at my phone, it says no one gives a crap about you. Which kind of hurts my feelings. I guess it’s trying to be helpful by mentally preparing me for the disappointment of not seeing a message. As I have mentioned in several blog posts, not having anyone to check in with in the morning is one of the hardest parts of being single.

Yesterday, however, I woke up to several texts. (Take that, inner critic!) One of them was from a friend who asked me if I had gotten the paper. For people who keep up with the news on a daily basis, their first association would probably be to the newspaper. But since I am not one of those people, I had no idea what she was talking about.

Like my inner critic, my anxiety was also wide awake and coming up with catastrophic situations that this mysterious paper might be referring to. Did I mess something up? Was there a 9/11 type attack going on? Was there some kind of tennis emergency?

Luckily, she was referring to an editorial about a former NFL player who struggled with bipolar disorder but did not know it until much later in life. Whew! I mean, I felt bad that the guy had to suffer, and I was glad that he was making the public aware of the importance of funding for mental health issues, but I was also glad that the world wasn’t coming to an end.

Even in this half-asleep/half-awake state, it made me think about how much we take for granted that ordinariness can be a good thing. When something bad happens, we are acutely aware of how in a moment’s notice, our lives can be turned upside down. An illness. An accident. An affair.

I’m not trying to be morbid or anything. In fact, I was genuinely happy that, in that moment, my life was exactly the same as it had been when I had gone to bed. Ordinarily I would have felt bad about waking up at noon, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big of a deal. It was par for the course. Just an ordinary day.

Thank God for ordinary days.

Depression vs. Sadness

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‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

Psychological Energy Conservation, Part 2

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Despite the psychological energy conservation plan I came up with several months ago, I’m still struggling with the crash and burn problem.

I spent another weekend feeling exhausted and ended up canceling the plans I had been looking forward to. I no longer allow my inner critic to torment me by telling me that I’m just being lazy, because why would I be too lazy to go to a costume party and play tennis? Still, it’s frustrating to spend the entire weekend lying around the house watching TV.

To make matters worse, as soon as I have a little bit of energy, I try to do too much, because I feel like I’ve wasted so much time. And guess what happens? I burn out again, and the cycle repeats itself.

It helps that I have a blog where I have made public declarations about how I’m going to be more proactive about conserving my energy. And I have made some improvements. I am better at setting limits in my relationships. I try to go to bed earlier. I eat more mindfully. But there are other areas where I am still in denial. These include:

1. Hosting. I hosted a Halloween party that I obsessed about for weeks because I have a small place and I never cook and I had to do everything by myself since I’m single. Then my parents came up on Friday and we had another karaoke night, when ordinarily I would be spending the evening unwinding. For some reason, I didn’t think that trading rest for karaoke would affect my energy level.

2. Tennis. In my mind, tennis should not be tiring because it’s fun. In the summer I played 4-5 times a week, but now that I’m working, I only have the energy to play about 3 times a week, which my inner critic does not want to accept. But my body is like, too bad! That’s all I’m doing!

3. Football games. My brothers and I have season tickets, and this year they have been able to come to more games, so I really look forward to going. But it’s an all day affair that ends up affecting my entire weekend, because I don’t have much time to get anything done. Which means I’m really tired the following week. Again, this came as a surprise to me, even though it makes perfect sense.

4. Blogging. I know that blogging takes up energy, but once again, my inner critic is like, why should you be tired? You’re just sitting there typing and reading blogs. How hard can that be? You should be able to write 3 posts a week. But lately two posts a week is all I’ve been able to manage. Otherwise it starts to feel like a job rather than a hobby.

So I guess the lesson is that, while it’s important to have things to look forward to, fun things are tiring, too. Which is probably obvious to all of you, but it is somewhat of an epiphany for me. Guess I need to factor that into my energy conservation plan.

Angels and Demons

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I thought of something I can say to the part of me that tells me I’m undeserving. In fact, I say it all the time. It’s “Shut up demons! You don’t know me!”

People usually think of that little devil on our shoulder as the part of us that tells us to do something bad, like “Go kill that person!” Plus some less extreme things, like “Call that ball out! You’ll win the game!” From a mental health perspective, the devil tells clients to do things like “Get black out drunk instead of staying in to study. And then miss your therapy session so you don’t have to talk about it.”

Sometimes that little devil will disguise itself as the angel and will try to make us believe that we are doing something good when we are actually hurting ourselves. Things like “There are people starving in the world, and here you are eating all of this food that someone else needs more than you. You really shouldn’t be eating at all.” Those are the most insidious messages of all.

When I was depressed I went around yelling at my demons all the time. They were constantly telling me that I should kill myself for stupid reasons. But I didn’t want to die. I knew it wasn’t coming from me. So I would literally go around the house telling the demons to shut up. Which I found hilarious.

My psychiatrist, on the other hand, did not appreciate my sense of humor. When I told him I had started yelling at my demons, he did that stereotypical psychiatrist thing where he just looked down and wrote something on his legal pad. Probably something like “She’s f@%ing crazy!” But whatever. It worked. All that warrior training paid off.

I was really tired on Sunday and Monday. I had been obsessing about my Halloween party for weeks because I have an anxiety disorder. I am in the midst of the busiest part of the semester and rarely have an hour to myself, unless someone doesn’t show up. I’m playing on two tennis teams and am captaining one of them. And the weekend before I drove 4 hours to watch my beloved UVA team blow another lead to lose the game, which was both tiring and depressing.

So for once, when I needed to sleep all day on Sunday and a good part of the day on Monday, I did so without beating myself up about it. Without trying to will myself to be productive. Without telling myself how pathetic I am for being so tired, when the average human being wouldn’t be. Instead, I tried to take care of myself. I would ask myself things like, “What do you need right now? Are you hungry? Do you need to go back to sleep? Would it help to take Advil? How can I make you feel better?”

Sometimes the little angel on our shoulder tells us not to do bad things. But more often, in my case at least, it encourages me to be more loving to myself. So I’m going to counteract messages about being undeserving with love. And by yelling at my demons.

Self-Care, Part 2

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I had one of those days yesterday where it was hard to get out of bed. I was tired because I played 6 matches last week, and I stayed up until midnight writing a blog post the night before. I had a bunch of errands that I needed to do but nothing to look forward to as a reward for doing them. Eventually I did will myself to get up, and I took care of everything that I needed to do, but it took a lot of coaxing.

This was only a fraction of how bad it feels when I’m depressed. That’s why it’s so scary to think about going back there again. I know I’ve survived it and would probably survive it again, but it’s painful while it’s happening, trying to will yourself to get through every minute of every day.

Daylight savings time ends on October 25. I am nervous, because I can feel it already–the effects of the shorter days, the colder weather. Until a few hours ago, I hadn’t seen the sun in several days, which was contributing to my bad mood. In about a week we will be in the midst of the busiest time of the semester, which is always overwhelming, no matter how hard I try to manage my schedule.

I am trying especially hard this time to make self-care a priority. I’m trying not to let the drill sergeant yell at me unless absolutely necessary. I’m trying to say no to tennis when my body needs a rest. Trying to resist the urge to start writing a post at midnight. Trying to be realistic about what I can do and not compare myself to my colleagues, my family, or my friends.

I am making an effort to practice mindfulness, like I tell my clients to do. I’m making myself eat lunch away from my desk. I make sure I am registering every bite I take, rather than shoving the food into my mouth as quickly as possible. When I feel antsy and want to do several things at once, I take a deep breath, make myself stay in the present moment.

It’s really hard to make self-care a priority. Not only am I fighting my inner demons, but I’m also up against a culture that uses slogans like “I haven’t got time for the pain” and tells me to take drugs so that I can go to work when I’m sick. (I’ve always hated that commercial. I think it was for Dayquil.) And for all our preaching about self-care, mental health professionals aren’t much better at it in my experience, because we’re prone to putting other people’s needs before our own.

But I’m really committed to it this time. Consider this my public declaration to make myself accountable. If you see me publish a post at 1 a.m., remind me that I’m supposed to be in bed. If I’m being too hard on myself, feel free to call me on it. Remind me that I’m supposed to be kind to myself.

I’ll probably be annoyed with you, but that’s OK. You’ll never know, and it will be good for me.

Why Blogging is Better than Dating

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Last year I told you how blogging is my new boyfriend, second only in my heart to tennis. And after a year of bloggng, I’m proud to say that our relationship keeps getting stronger. I think that’s why I’m in no hurry to find someone. Because blogging is a much more suitable parter in many ways. For example:

1. Blogging is a much better listener. I talk a lot. I want to share every thought that I have about what book I’m reading, what new insight I have from my latest therapy session, what happened in my last tennis match. In my relationships I usually started conversations with, I have a bunch of stuff to tell you! Usually stuff that they didn’t find all that interesting. Go figure. But in my blog I can talk as much I want, whenever I want, and in whatever level of detail I want.

2. I sleep better at night. I know a lot of people say that one of the hardest parts of being single is sleeping alone, but I have to disagree. I sleep much better by myself. My blog doesn’t care about my night owlness and that I don’t get out of bed until the afternoon sometimes. It doesn’t get annoyed because I toss and turn a lot. It never pulls the covers off of me in the middle of the night. And most importantly, blogs don’t snore or sweat or fart.

3. My blog doesn’t care that I’m obsessive. I have to admit, I even annoy myself sometimes with my obsessiveness. So I understand why I get on other people’s nerves. But my blog doesn’t care. I can check my stats a hundred times a day and my blog doesn’t say it needs a break from me. I can talk about the same things over and over again, and my blog won’t be like, you’ve already said that. If I decide to wake up in the middle of the night and send out a bunch of friend requests or look for people to follow, my blog doesn’t tell me I’m crazy.

4. My blog is always there for me. There have been periods over the last year that have been lonely and painful. I don’t think I could have made it without my blog. It has given me an outlet and an audience that I’ve never allowed myself to have. It validates my feelings. It hears my confessions. It helps me to let go, but in my own time. And when I’ve shared some of my lowest moments, it connects me to other people and reminds me that I am not alone. That I am never alone.

So thank you, blog, for helping me develop a better relationship with myself, and with all of you.