Through these ups and downs, however, I've grown. I learned about a lot of specific tools to use for a better night's sleep, of course. But I think more importantly, this experience shined a light on the areas of my mindfulness process I hadn't spent much time exploring before now. And for that I am grateful.
One big lesson from this has been that I'm not alone. When I reluctantly bring up my sleep issues with friends, I quickly discover that many people are (or have been) in the same boat.
We tend to try and avoid the negative in both real and digital life—we post social media updates about the good news, the smiles, the pretty sunsets, the people we love. That's mostly the case. Not always, but mostly. Even when we're hanging with a friend and they ask "how are ya?", most of the time we stick to the basics.
It's only with those certain friends, in those private moments, or when we really feel like laying it all out there on Facebook, that we flip over the pancake and expose our burnt edges.
Sleep problems seem to be one of those burnt edges. Not just the periodic bad night's sleep because of too much caffeine. I'm talking about the insomnia, the apnea, the bad backs, the snoring partner struggles.
So I thought that rather than "vaguebook" about it, this was an opportunity for me to discuss it openly—to flip over the pancake and expose my own burnt edges. I'm going to talk about the mindfulness struggles it unearthed and the remedies I've come to learn from them, that way when you're having a silently-shitty-sleepy-time, you'll remember you're not totally alone.
This struggle isn't new to me—It's often difficult for me to shut off my mind when I get into bed. I relive conversations from the previous day, run through my list for tomorrow, and imagine all sorts of future scenarios for the days/weeks/months/years to come. Because of this, my bed is often a place where I'm terribly UNmindful. The quiet darkness of night turns off the external distractions and leaves my mind alone to spiral inward.
I tried various techniques: expensive pillows, eye masks, a sleep fan, meditation, avoiding social media before bed, reading boring literature, melatonin, chamomile, ambien. They all work... kinda-sorta. Even the ambien has a spotty track record. The mind is a powerful muscle, enough to overcome the best that western and eastern medicine has to offer.
About three months ago all hell broke loose: I threw out my back and caught a head cold at the same time. The sinus congestion worsened my snoring and I had to sleep flat on my back which exacerbated it even more. It was the perfect storm of physical sleep disruption.
And then I was told something frightening: I was choking and gasping for air in my sleep.
A test confirmed I indeed had sleep apnea, likely for years. All this time and I never knew I was suffocating myself every night and not getting enough rest as a result. Now my sleep issues were two-fold: there was my crazy mind making it difficult for me to fall asleep and my crazy body making it difficult for me to stay asleep.
I'm still exploring my options and looking for ways to cure my sleep apnea to finally get a real night's sleep. We got rid of the white noise fan that was drying out the air and purchased a humidifier. My thoughtful mother got us a sleep machine to replce the noise we're used to and a leg pillow to make side sleeping easier. I'm looking into a CPAP and possibly even tonsil surgery as broader solutions.
These bedtime struggles unleashed a slew unmindful emotions—frustration, fear, worry, anger, doubt, regret. A lot of "why me's" and "fuck this's" ensued. My bed was the enemy, sleep was the war, and each night was a new battle.
I know the basic tools of mindfulness—I've written about a lot of them here (you might have noticed). But I've also written about my difficulties in sticking to my own advice.
With sleep apnea on my mind at every night, I often start to worry about how a restless sleep might effect the next day or about the long-term effects of oxygen deprivation on my body. I worry about future rather than mindfully focus on the present, that particular moment, that night, the only thing I actually have control over.
Every struggle, every battle, every moment where feel like I'm miles away from the present, is another opportunity to practice mindfulness. It's a chance to acknowledge it, instead of getting frustrated by it. It's a reminder to BREATHE.
Sleep for me is still fraught with difficulties, in fact, this week has been a bad one. But I know that each failure, in all aspects of life, is a lesson on how to succeed the next time. So for me, every night is a lesson in mindfulness, it's another practice round, and the more I practice the better it will get.
I'll keep learning with every night's sleep, keep turning toward mindfulness instead of frustration, and then I know, one of these nights, it'll finally sink it.