We’re hardwired to help out.
[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
I am 11-years-old and I’ve just seen the movie “The Exorcist” for the first and only time. I watched it huddled on the couch in the basement at my father’s house, surrounded by my three step-brothers who laughed when Linda Blair’s head spun on her shoulders.
Then my brothers claimed it should be in the comedy section of Blockbuster. I didn’t want to seem afraid so I sat through the film, clutching my knees and feigning amusement.
At my father’s house, I sleep in a trundle bed with my sister, which is cramped, yet safe. But I am home at my mother’s house now, trying to fall asleep; I’m all alone which usually I much prefer. I hate sharing a room at my father’s house which is really just a bed with sheets that smell like other people’s sheets no matter how many times we sleep in them, pushed up against a wall in his office. Only now I’m alone and terrified. There is no one lying beside me—protecting me from demons that might overtake me in the night or assuring me the demons aren’t real.
After hours of lying in my own cold sweat, imagining the devil has been hiding in the ceiling every night since I watched “The Exorcist”, I climb into my mother’s bed. (Soon, I leave a sleeping bag on the floor so I can creep in quietly instead of waking her each night.) For a while, I am content to sleep, or lie awake, there. But months pass and I am still petrified. Sleeping on my parent’s floor is becoming more and more of an embarrassment as I grow older. Finally, my mother reminds me that I can control my own thoughts. Even though I am certain I cannot, I promise to stay in my own room. My stepfather nails a necklace bearing a cross to the wall in my room and says it will protect me, but I secretly doubt anything can. At 12, I have no religion, yet somehow how the devil seems the easiest thing to believe in.
Middle school is filled with more horror. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to be a nice girl or a mean girl anymore. I notice the other girls’ clothes and when I try to mimic their look, I feel huge all over. My friends are still 80 pounds and adorable; I can’t avoid that my breasts are growing more rapidly than everyone else’s. My stomach is in knots each morning during the walk to school. Most days I’m so tired, I put my head down on my desk and pull my sweatshirt hood over my head instead of trying to learn pre-algebra. I stare in the mirror before leaving the school bathroom, wondering if it’s only the lighting that’s making my face look red and blotchy. I gaze at the floor or fidget when I walk down the hall. Suddenly, walking down the hall of my middle school is scarier than “The Exorcist”—scarier than anything. I have new demons to keep me awake, and they do.
In high school, I talk on the phone until everyone else goes to sleep and there’s no one left to talk to but the voices in my head. There are two voices and they are always at odds. The first provides an avalanche of worry while the second pleads with her to stop. My mind is a boxing ring and I am caught in the middle, rooting for the second voice, but she is smaller, weaker, and rarely wins. After hours of lying awake, frustrated and panicked, I kick my bedroom walls with all my might and scream into my pillow. I cover the clock with a T-shirt so I can’t see the time but end up tearing it off and throwing it on the floor only to discover that school starts in four hours, then three, two. I kick the wall harder and wail until my mother screams at me from her bedroom below. Sometimes she is compassionate, coming into my room to rub my back. I understand why her patience is wearing thin.
Over the next few years, I try over-the-counter drugs, which don’t make me the slightest bit groggy. A doctor suggests a sleeping pill. It knocks me out but leaves me with a raging headache each morning and so I quickly give it up. I don’t yet understand the role anxiety plays in my torment, or if I do, I’m too scared to tell anyone that I might be a tiny bit crazy. I’ve decided that there is no cure for my sleeplessness; it is just a part of me and the patterns of my young life begin to aggravate the beast instead of tame it.
I drink black coffee all day and guzzle alcohol each weekend. Drinking is my only safe place, so I live there as often as I can. My friends and I drink in parking lots, graveyards, playgrounds, and at parties. We pass around vodka bottles and when I go home, I pass out in my bed and sleep for most of the following day. I decide I am a person who doesn’t care about things—grades, sports I used to play, how little I sleep. In college, I dig myself deeper and deeper into this world. Alcohol is my most important relationship and I let it envelop me. I party hard until at age 24, I become pregnant and am forced to give it up.
When I have my first child, a daughter, I expect to lose sleep. I tell myself I’ve been primed for this for years. But being a parent is not like I thought it would be; I am more anxious than I have ever been. I am constantly worried about whether or not my daughter is breathing. I check on her twenty times a night and can’t sleep even when my baby does. The weight of caring for this tiny, five-pound being is crushing and there is no time to drift off for an afternoon nap. There is no catching up, just clawing deeper and deeper. In place of chugging vodka in alleys, or cheap beer at parties, I drink three glasses of wine at night, maybe more, to take the edge off and sometimes, I drift off to sleep for a few hours as a result. When I wake, nervousness pulls at me hard, like my child’s persistent tug at the hem of my shirt. When I give birth to a son, five years later, the story is the same, except this child is like me. He never sleeps and together we are a desperate, sinking ship, clutching each other through the nights and hoping to bob to the surface by morning.
By my son’s second birthday, his nights begin to calm. Mine do not. I’ve collected so much knowledge about sleep patterns at this point in my life and am now attacking it from all angles. I’m drinking green juice and eating leafy greens. I’ve switched to decaf coffee. I rub hormone cream on my wrists and the back of my neck thinking perhaps my cycle is contributing to my sleeplessness. But instead of sleeping, I break out in hives. I exercise daily and strive to have only one nightly drink because I’ve learned that alcohol is actually a terrible sleep aid. I can no longer blame postpartum hormones, poor diet, or anything at all. Still, rest doesn’t come, except in short spurts after hours of begging.
While I was kicking the walls, staring at the ceiling, or drinking myself to sleep, twenty years have gone by. My ability to fall asleep is now worse than ever before, and I am also at my most needed. I am a mother every day, no matter how tired I am.
One night, I stare at the bedroom fan for hours. My husband snores softly next to me, and the dog growls a dreamy growl. Eventually, I move downstairs to the couch, like I almost always do. I hear the birds and I want to open the window and throw rocks at them. I realize that I’ve always hated the sound of birds chirping because without meaning to, I’ve heard their morning song throughout my life. For fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, I doze off, then startle when I hear my 7-year-old make her way down the stairs. There is no time to sob into my pillow, so I get up and start our day. Standing in the kitchen, unsure of what to do first, I am overcome with grief at all I have lost. I go to a mirror and peer into it. I see myself: puffy, bloodshot eyes with deep and dark circles around them. They look just like my father’s eyes, who also never slept. All these years, I have been walking around like half of a person. I am 32 years old and I don’t want this half-life anymore.
Read more: Are you a bedtime procrastinator?
Three days later, I have a meeting with a psychiatrist who makes detailed notes about my history with insomnia. When I tell my story out loud, it sounds even more real than I ever believed. I don’t feel shame, I just want help. An hour later I’m holding a prescription pill bottle in my hand with my name on it. It’s hours from bedtime but I am already flooded with relief. Later, I settle into bed, take half a tablet of a medication for anxiety, and place the bottle down next to the mountain of herbal remedies on the night stand. That night, I don’t move down to the couch. I sleep next to my husband for eight hours for the first time since I can remember.
The next morning, I hear the birds chirping, but I don’t imagine throwing rocks at them. I open my eyes to my daughter standing there, smiling. I reach out my arms and pull her into bed with me. We are nose to nose, wide awake, and I smile back.
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The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.
Artwork by KAREN HONG