How I Sleep (Or Don’t): Powerless/In the Dark

Today’s post is for the December edition of the Disability Blog Carnival. This month’s host is Dave Hingsburger at Rolling Around in My Head.

The carnival is scheduled to go up on December 21 (the longest night of the year, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere). The Disability Blog Carnival always makes for interesting reading, so do check it out.

Dave’s topic, and attached metaphors, are beautiful and inspiring. Here is a tidbit:

The theme is ‘dark nights of the soul and what gets you through them’ … I’d like stories and posts about how you’ve survived those times when it was ‘darkest before the dawn’.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first part of this series,[1] about how I was sleeping a year ago, when Gadget was sick, then dying, then gone. Most of it was written, but not published, in February, when it was all still very fresh. The time it describes is definitely one of the “long, dark nights of the soul.”

I have sleep disturbances and insomnia from multiple illnesses; sleep issues have been part of my life since 1995. However, there are definite “up” periods and “down” periods. Insomnia-wise, some times are worse than others. The last two years have been a long stretch of “worse.”

Until I started writing today’s blog, I didn’t realize why my sleep has been particularly bad the last couple of years, and especially very recently.

Maybe people who aren’t as forgetful and confused about dates and times as I am would have figured it out — even seen it coming — but the cause seems to have been the “slumbering giant” in my consciousness.

Two years ago today, December 12,[2] 2008, The Northeast Ice Storm hit. The weight of the iced trees snapped power- and phone-lines like dental floss. Even cell-phone towers came down.

powerline_ice

I never saw the damage, I just lived its effects.

Due to my disabilities,[3] I was stranded in my house (in my bed, actually), unable to evacuate, for a week.

A week without power: no lights, no phone, no water, no internet, no plumbing, no heat.

A friend with the same disabilities as I have, was even more severely affected by the storm, ending up in the hospital — an experience from which she has yet to recover.

After it was all over, my friend described the beautiful and surreal landscape she saw through the ambulance windows. She also emailed me a picture of herself holding up a newspaper from her hospital bed. The huge headline reads, “Powerless in the Hilltowns.” That pretty much summed it up.

Ice storm trees - photo by Judy Stalus

An example of the dazzling landscape many described. Even now, though I see the beauty, I'm disconnected from the magic of such images; they evoke anxiety, not enjoyment.

[Photograph by Judy Stalus. Used with permission.]

Those were longer, darker nights than I’d ever known. I wrote out my will by flashlight in case I didn’t survive.

What got me through, in addition to my PCAs, my partner, Betsy, and my (now former) best friend with whom Betsy stayed, was “capital-G”-Gadget — my service dog and love of my life — and a lot of “lower-case-G” gadgets:

  • My book on tape machine
  • My iPod
  • My flashlights
  • My TTY[4]

Wearing my warmest clothes, covered in all of the blankets in the house, I kept them all within reach.

Little things became hugely important, such as batteries.

I turned a flashlight on as soon as it got dark. I left it on until it was light, regardless of whether I was awake or asleep. In addition to the flashlight that was on, I kept a second one, with fresh batteries, at hand. When the first one grew dim, I’d turn on the second, then replace the spent batteries of the first.

When my talking-book machine’s or TTY’s batteries lost their charge, I panicked. I’d lie there, obsessing over when Betsy would be able to come and take it away to recharge it, and if I’d get it back before dark fell again.

During the day, I limited how much “juice” I used with anything that ran on batteries. I was very careful never to expend the charge on more than one device at a time. At night, I doled out the time with my book machine or iPod, forcing myself to take breaks to make them last longer.

Although, due to sound sensitivity from Lyme disease, I have not usually been able to tolerate music in the last few years, there was one song I relied on during those too-quiet nights.

I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, except Betsy: the Beatles’ song “Let It Be,” helped me get through. I listened to it at increasing volume, the ear buds vibrating, over and over. When the iPod died, sometimes I’d just hum it and cry.

Why does relying on “Let It Be” feel like such a dirty little secret? Partly because I’m Jewish, and the song, if you don’t know much about Paul McCartney, seems to have a very Christian tone.[5] Partly because finding sustenance in a song, especially a pop song — especially a Beatles song — seemed such a cliché. (But — “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright” — isn’t it?)

Honestly, in the middle of that seemingly endless night, being Jewish, having no connection to “Mother Mary” — none of that mattered. It’s pretty much a Buddhist concept, letting it be, though it seems like all religions have some form of “turning it over.” When you’re powerless, there’s really nothing else you can do but turn it over, let it be.

Unfortunately, life didn’t get better after the emergency ended. It got worse, severely and quickly.

Norman_Picture

My dear friend, mentor, and colleague, activist Norman Meldrum (with Beatrix Underfoote). Norm died January 6, 2009.

Within three weeks of the storm, as I struggled with the PTSD it had caused, one of my best friends died, my best (and only nondisabled) friend ended our friendship in a nasty way, and my therapist terminated with me (largely because she refused to get a TTY).

A few months later, Gadget, my service dog, was diagnosed with cancer. Then I lost more friends — some to death, some to abandonment — then Gadget, until it felt like I was pared down to a numb nothingness.

I think the piling up of too much loss and trauma in a short period explains why my sleep has been particularly bad for two years.

It’s not just the chemical injury, chronic fatigue syndrome, and tick-borne infections interfering with my body and brain’s sleep cycles — though that certainly is enough. At a deeper level, it’s also that part of me is afraid to go to sleep because the literal and figurative darkness and stillness of night and sleep are too reminiscent of the outage.

Indeed, I can’t tolerate total darkness, or true quiet, now. At night, the sound of the air filters blowing and freezer humming, the shine of the LED lights of my clock, and the glow of my sleeping laptop give me comfort.

If there’s an outage, even during daylight — even during the summer — I panic. I never know how long it will last. I now keep lots of batteries, along with glow-in-the-dark flashlights, mylar blankets, and hand- and foot-warmers, next to my bed. For a long time after the storm, I kept a flashlight in my bed.

Lately, my sleep debt accrues with every day.

It started in November, with the anniversary of Gadget’s death. Grief hit me hard, kept me awake, dragged me to sleep during groggy afternoons, then broke me open again when I should have been sleeping.

However, even as the grief recedes, I continue not to sleep. In fact, as much as I long for sleep, I keep fighting to stay awake. It took me a long time to become aware that I was doing this. After all, if I’m desperate for sleep, why would I want to stay awake until dawn?

Norm, Gadg, and me

A happier time: Gadget and I meet Norm in Maine for the reading of my work he organized.

I now realize that it’s because some part of me recognizes these short days as the same natural patterns that occurred during the power outage. That wisp of panic urges, “Keep the lights on. Don’t stop working at the computer. Write; make sure people know you once existed. Live through the night.”

When gray light starts seeping through the curtains, I feel my body relax and begin to give way to sleep.

Of course it’s not a good coping mechanism. Sleep deprivation drives up my pain in a very predictable manner, which interferes with all other forms of functioning: speech, movement, thought.

Lack of sleep weakens my immune system, which is under the massive burden of fighting multiple infections, in addition to being upregulated for two decades, overreacting to foods and chemicals. Not sleeping also brings a host of little irritations: grouchiness, (worse-than-usual) cognitive problems, emotional brittleness, a continual buzzing in my head, and dry, itchy eyes, and on and on.

Nevertheless, there are times when I make peace with the insomnia, when I can look into the teeth of a long night of wakefulness with equanimity, even eagerness.

  • When I’m feeling antisocial or my moods are being affected by “the bugs,” and I think it’s best for all involved if our interaction is kept to a minimum. (This works even better if I can manage to sleep when others are awake, too.)
  • When I’ve gotten sleep during the day, and I know I won’t be able to fall asleep anyway, so why bother trying?
  • When I can write, which has been such a rarity for so long that I will give up almost anything to have that part of me back. (Especially since some of my best or most successful pieces were written between 2:00 and 5:00 AM.)
  • When I know I’ll have to wake up early anyway, so there doesn’t seem much point after a while in catching those one or two hours of shut-eye.
  • When Barnum has both an appetite and an attention span, so I opt to train instead of sleep.
  • When I’m hungry, which keeps me awake, so I distract myself until someone can make me a meal.
  • When I have to pee, which keeps me awake, so I distract myself until I can get to the bathroom.
  • When I’m in too much pain, which keeps me awake, so I just lie still and wait for the painkillers to work.
  • When I’m writing a blog that helps me make sense of it all.

Peace.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (snoring away)

Footnotes:
[1.] Originally I planned to write two posts about sleep, but working on this post took me in an unexpected direction, creating a third piece. Since I seem to have a lot to say about what underlies sleep — or lack of sleep — in my life I’ve decided to turn “How I Sleep (or Don’t)” into an ongoing series. Look for other new series, as well. (I’ll also pick up the thread on some I’ve dropped, such as Barnum’s training logs — lots of developments!). Back to post.

[2.] I started writing this post a few days ago. I actually do know today is not the twelfth. Back to post.

[3.] CFIDS and Lyme made me too sick to be moved, but the real barrier was MCS, which meant that no shelters — neither the homes of friends nor disaster shelters, such as fire stations, were accessible to me. In fact, partway through the crisis, I located a friend who lived nearby who also has MCS and CFIDS, who was hypothermic and desperate, alone in her home. She stayed in my bedroom with me until her power was restored. Back to post.

[4.] Even though there was no phone service for most of that time, I used the TTY to communicate when it was too dim for Betsy or my PCAs to see my lips, gestures, communication board, or signs. Back to post.

[5.] During the time of the outage, I didn’t know that the “Mother Mary” in the song refers to McCartney’s mother, Mary, who died when he was a boy. Back to post.

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4 Responses to “How I Sleep (Or Don’t): Powerless/In the Dark”


  1. 1 bettina December 16, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I cannot imagine what the outage did to you and I cannot imagine living with the challenges you face. I do, however, identify very much so with your paragraph that reads:
    However, even as the grief recedes, I continue not to sleep. In fact, as much as I long for sleep, I keep fighting to stay awake. It took me a long time to become aware that I was doing this. After all, if I’m desperate for sleep, why would I want to stay awake until dawn?
    Sleep and I have not been friends since Niko was diagnosed. I thought we could make up after he died, but most nights we still avoid each other much longer than we should.

    Missing out on sleep can make every aspect of your life more difficult. With your life already difficult, it must make some days near impossible. I know you are a fighter though, and if nothing else, you sharing your stories will help others feel less alone during their long nights.

  2. 2 Kim December 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Sharon, Ever since I’ve started reading your blog in these last couple days it’s broken my heart with what you’ve gone through. I won’t claim to know what it feels like to be in your shoes, but I did want to say that I relate so much to this post on sleep. Especially the part about staying up until light and telling yourself to “live through the night.” I did this for years when I was at my sickest. It’s a special kind of torture, but at the same time it was one of the only ways I felt like I was in control. Something about sleeping at night was so much scarier than resting during the day.

    I’m grateful to be sleeping through the night now. It was a big step for me. But my best friend still suffers from an “undiagnosable” illness (I’m not sure if it’s Lyme. She’s been through so much with her doctors and she doesn’t want to be tested for it.) and struggles with these same sleep issues. It kills me to see her suffer with it and know that nothing I do helps. She’s a huge driving force in me being back in school and studying a health profession. I just think if I can do one thing to help her at some point, maybe the whole $30k a year in loans will be worth it.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler December 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Hi Kim,

    Thank you so much for commenting! I totally know what you mean about trying to have control over the few things you can control.

    I’m so glad you are sleeping through the night now! How miraculous that seems!

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I sometimes think it’s more painful to see a loved one go through a severe illness than to go through it oneself, because there’s a feeling of helplessness that’s so awful with seeing someone you love suffer. The person who is sick doesn’t really have control of the illness or their body, either, but they have more control over how they cope with it, what treatments they try, etc. And a sense of knowing what’s happening in one’s own body and how one feels, which is generally a mystery to those around us.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler December 29, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Bettina,

    Thank you so much for commenting, and for your insights, as usual.

    I definitely relate. My sleep was deeply affected by Gadget’s illness, and the various phases of his illness, and then by his death and my grieving process. I’ve written about sleep and dreams so much here.

    He used to be in all my dreams, because even in my subconscious he was an extension/part of me. Then, after he died, my dreams were nightmares of him dying or being dead. And since then, he has not visited me in my dreams. I think it’s part of this blankness and numbness I still have of coping with so much loss. There are lots of big holes where I think memories and feelings and dreams should be. Maybe eventually.

    I think your site, Remembering Niko, is so valuable for other people whose dogs have died, especially the Grief and Healing page, because it discusses these grief-related lifestyle issues: http://rememberingniko.wordpress.com/saying-goodbye/grief-and-healing/

    Love,
    S and the spirit of Gadget


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