Insomnia: When You Don’t Choose to Sleep Alone

I was a nervous kid now grown into a nervous woman. I can trace my sleep issues with the same precision of chronology that I can trace my school transitions and degrees, my romantic relationships, my fads with both friends and fashion. Like most people who live with anxiety, I carry it with me, sometimes compliantly swaddled in what I can only picture as some sort of neurological approximation of the baby bjorn and other times hung from my neck like the emotional carcasse of an albatross.

My life is not one steeped in anxiety-provoking contexts. I lived in a safe neighborhood as as child, only to move to another safe area in adulthood. I have never gone hungry. I have a good job. I have lived my entire life feeling loved my multiple people. I am lucky. I am blessed. But anxiety does not only beckon to those whose lives arguably–or one might say ‘objectively’– warrant it. Anxiety is a genetic inheritance manifested by even the most mundane of stressors, a fact which often adds embarrassment and secrecy to those who cope with it.

Just take for example the triggers of my anxiety episodes (which are crowned by the primary symptom of insomnia):

  1. First anxiety issue ever: My father was late picking me up from dance class. I can still recall standing on the porch in the pick-up queue as car after car drove by until I was the only one left. Turns out my Dad was only 20 minutes late because a school meeting went long, but to an 11-year-old, it felt like days and I was certain I’d been either a) abandoned or b) that my father had died in a car accident. Queue an entire summer of begging to sleep in my parents’ bed and my grandmother explaining to family and friends alike that I was probably just nervous about starting 5th grade next year.

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2. Unsolved Mysteries. Remember that show? I feel it is responsible for triggering an entire generation of anxiously-inclined children. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, my friends and I regularly watched this show (which only came on in the evenings, when it was, like, dark out already). Highlights of the show include a variety of ‘mysterious’ disappearances, murders, and the like all punctuated by Robert Stack’s trench coat. One of the stories that really played to my anxiety wheelhouse featured a father who left his home to help a stranger whose car supposedly broke down on their road, only to never be seen again. I was convinced my father, ever the Good Samaritan, would meet a similar fate. Cue months of me compulsively checking our house’s door and window locks. More like years.

Well, in fact–I still compulsively check locks before our family heads to bed. Thanks Unsolved Mysteries for that life lesson, at least.

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3. Sleepover at my cousin’s house. Couldn’t sleep the whole damn night. Ended up reading Little House on the Prairie for the entire evening. Why was I so nervous? No clue. I blame my serotonin (not that I knew about brain chemistry when I was 12).

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Strangely, my anxiety subsided as I hit my high school years–I can only imagine this was due to the typical pubertal occupation with romantic relationships and a constant feeling of exhaustion due to my school’s wretchedly early start time. I wasn’t sleeping enough to notice if I wasn’t sleeping, I suppose.

4. College. One big fun ride of anxiety related to keeping my scholarship, making friends, using relatively public bathrooms for everything, and trying to make sure I could get into grad school. Lots of sleepless nights spent hunkered in my bed, ear plugs shoved in, begging for sleep to overcome me so I wouldn’t have to hear the ambient rhythms of my suite-mates’ terrible analyses of Survivor. I finally started working with the excellent Dr. Esperon and used medication to manage my symptoms, to great effect and relief. I kept up the therapy for the rest of my time as an undergraduate.

5. Graduate School. Oh, and I got married. And we bought a house. And we had kids. Strangely, no real issues during this time. Why? Again, much like high school, I have no clue. I’m just thankful for those years of joyful asymptomatology.

6. Which brings us to the present day. As a grown woman, my anxiety seems to arrive about once a year, bringing with it approximately 2-4 weeks of insomnia-related symptoms. I use medication and behavioral strategies to manage the symptoms (don’t have your own strategy yet? DM me on Twitter and I’ll give you the full details), but it is a struggle to face my life’s ride-along asshole of a neurochemical mistake every night until I get the symptoms back under control. Oh, and at some point in my adulthood I made the mistake of reading a National Geographic article which detailed a rare (I’ll emphasize again–really, really RARE) genetic disease that results in its victims never being able to sleep again, so sometimes that thought goes through my head when these issues creep up, like one of those mutated ticker-tape headlines on Fox news.

Most recently, the joyful holiday time found me once again alone on the couch in my house while my family peacefully slumbered, trying to fight away my anxiety’s grip on my heart and mind, which is exactly why I’m writing this post.

For me, one of the scariest things about anxiety-induced insomnia (or just insomnia in general) is just how utterly lonely it is for those coping with it.

My husband and my children all offer to stay up with me or to have me wake them up when I can’t sleep (which I will absolutely not do–both because I know they need their sleep and because the added pressure to fall asleep now that they are awake with me would just make things worse), but in all honestly there is nothing they can do. This problem is mine and mine alone. For a woman who–however independent in many parts of my life–has always had a strong social network to help me through my joys and sorrows, it’s this loneliness that embeds itself deep into the emotion centers of my brain.

There’s nothing like insomnia to make you feel alone and helpless.

But don’t worry–I’ll not end this post on that distressing note. Rather, I’d encourage all of us struggling with this issue to remember that we are not alone. As I sit awake on my sofa reading under the pretense that sleep will come soon, there are other men, women, and children also awake in their homes feeling that same burden of aloneness, and that pressing and self-preserving fear of missing out on a restorative act we all crave.

In other words, although we may feel alone, we must remind ourselves that we are not.

Sometimes reading books about those who coped with insomnia while I myself deal with insomnia is oddly (or perhaps not oddly) comforting. P.D. James’ autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest, and Fr. Schmemann’s journals are two favorites of mine. Kat Kinsman has an excellent new book out called Hi, Anxiety, that also helps to exemplify and normalize this pervasive set of symptoms.

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So, the next time you can’t sleep,  remember that you are not alone. And if that doesn’t help, I just might be on Twitter trying to remind myself of the same thing, so why don’t you look me up there 😉

The #1 Parenting Mistake We All Make (But Don’t Have To!)!

As a parent and a behavioral psychologist, I often find myself applying my training in my daily life. Naturally, though, I also regularly find myself forgetting my training as well in my moment-to-moment interactions with my three children.

Our children are all teenagers now, which presents a stage of parenting unique from when they were younger in many ways. In other ways, though, there are universal parenting strategies that can extend from infancy, into toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence. I just tend, in the maelstrom of hormonal flux that is my family, to forget these universal truths.

To terribly paraphrase Ms. J. Austen, I can definitely say that it is a truth often universally ignored that “It gets worse before it gets better.”

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This is a very common parenting mistake we all make, often out of concern that our actions are making our child’s behavior worse, when really it is simply a principle of human behavior.  What I’m describing, in technical terms, is an Extinction Burst.

Extinction Bursts by definition are an increase in a previously reinforced behavior after reinforcement of that behavior has ceased (or become extinguished).  What this means in everyday parenting life is that, when you realize that you’ve been mistakenly rewarding inappropriate behavior in your child (e.g., giving more attention to your child after they do poorly on a test or giving your child a sweet treat to calm them out of a tantrum), and you decide to stop providing that reinforcement, your child is going to naturally escalate their inappropriate behavior in the hopes of getting that reward to come back, before eventually decreasing the behavior.

It looks something like this:

Extinction Burst

When you remove the reward of giving your child cookies after a tantrum, your child’s tantrumming behavior is likely to significantly increase in frequency or intensity (or both) because of the past history of being reinforced with cookies for tantrummimg. It’s going to take them a little bit of time to realize that:

Oh, hang on. No matter how big my tantrum is, my parents aren’t going to give me cookies.

And that’s when you start to see the tantrumming behavior decrease substantially.

Often times, though, this burst of inappropriate behavior makes parents (including myself) think that we are doing something wrong–that our attempt to shape our child’s behavior into more appropriate responses is going awry.  And then we do something that only makes things worse.  We go back to giving the same reinforcement we just stopped a few hours or days ago, and this time we give the reward when our child is acting even worse than before!

As a result, not only have we failed to end the inappropriate behavior in our child, we’ve also managed to reward even worse behavior!

But falling prey to extinction bursts need not be our parenting destiny!  We just need to pull ourselves together and, in the face of our child acting worse after we’ve removed that reward, repeat calmly:

It gets worse before it gets better.  It gets worse before it gets better.

So, you’ve noticed that you tend to give your child a lot of attention, through heartfelt discussions about respect and communication that take way too long when he or she offers snarky remarks when requested to do chores (ahem, guilty as charged!), and you’ve decided to ignore the snarky comments (i.e., put them on extinction).  Get ready, then, for even more of an onslaught of eye rolls and dramatic huffing.  Stay your course, dear maternal and paternal leaders.  I promise, in a few days time, they will do their chores without the attitude. And when they do, that’s when you can have heartfelt discussions about how their actions are helping the family significantly!

Or perhaps you’ve realized that, whereas your children earning excellent grades are offered praise and encouragement, your child who refuses to study for Spanish quizzes seems to be eating up a lot of the dinner table conversation with comments the likes of “I’m not going to study for my Spanish test–a C+ is a perfectly good grade” to which you respond with rejoinders about future job opportunities, wasted potential, and appointments to sit down and work together on that academic attitude. Don’t be surprised when you decide extinguish this reward and, after calmly listening to that comment about a C- on that last quiz, your child proceeds to wax poetic about the wasted hours spent in academic training that could be superimposed with MineCraft exploration.  Trust yourself here. Keep it up, breathe deep.  Eventually, you’ll start to hear more about the A- and or B+ on that last quiz, and smiles will be had all around (and you can put that antacid back in the medicine cabinet).

Let it be a mantra for all of us struggling to raise good future citizens of the world:

It gets worse before it gets better.

And if you can hang out and trust yourself while it gets worse, you and your family will absolutely enjoy ‘the better’ together!