Session 1: Week 1
My favorite time of day is late night. I love the still quietness. There’re no text nudges, no phone shrills, no email pings, no “Mom!” I’m contended by the night sounds: faucet gurgling, fridge humming, clock ticking, dogs sighing, birds nestling, creatures crawling . . . , a united symphony that lulls my taxed thoughts while everyone else in my home sleeps soundly.
As a child, I slept fairly fitfully—from exhaustion due to parent-instigated late nights, the expended energy of physically growing, and the anomalous energy of working to survive ritualistic abuse. As an adult, escaped from the prison of my cacodemonic captor, those particular exhaustion-makers had shluffed off and sleep became sketchy, at best. For over four decades, I didn’t sleep deeply but tolled in twilight sleep. In earlier adulthood, I could juggle stressors with spinning plates; but now, lack of sleep for so many years has taken a detrimental toll physically, mentally, and emotionally.
In the midst of a particularly stressful time in the not-so-distant past, I was standing in the grocery store, drunk with mental fatigue. I could not—hard as I kneaded my mind—remember where I lived (and I’m not yet old enough to be in predementia). The first image that appeared in my mind was a home I’d lived in years earlier, and knew that was not my current residence. Pushing my mind to think, think, think, the image of a more recent home sprang to mind. But that wasn’t where I lived any longer either. Fear began to creep in. When I leave the store with these bags filled with family provisions, where will I take them? Where is home? Think!! Moments later the image of my present home returned safely to me. Not only did I need to be released from the circumstantial chains of that stressful time, I desperately needed stages 3 and 4 of sleep on a nightly basis. And I desperately needed the annihilation of nightmares that had held me hostage since early childhood. If I were to share snippets of the egregiousness horrors my psyche conjures in twilight sleep, the content would bury Stephen King’s fairy tales beneath the table.
Once I began taking a doctor-prescribed sleep aid, I was enraptured by the coma of dead sleep. Oh what The Tiny Tablet can do! Oh how it can radically raise the quality of one’s nights and days. Sleep and mental health are married hand-in-glove. The Tiny Tablet puts me in a comatonic sleep for nearly six blessed hours, too deep for the nightmare beasts to corner me. Still, every morning in the early hours, every day, before my alarm clock calls, I’m either fighting my way out of high definition, full-feature horror films in which I’m a recurring character, or insanely absurd full-feature dreams. Either way, there’s a chuck of time in which my body needs to be at rest when, in fact, it’s employed against my will in highly exerting and exhausting mental and emotional activity masked as sleep. And occasionally, my blessed comatonic sleep, afforded by The Tiny Tablet, is not shield enough against the power of the beasts, and I’m roused from that dead sleep and hauled into battle.
This week has been gouged here and there from warring my way out of dream-state horrors. At times, fighting my way out inadvertently wakes my husband, who wakes me if I’m still caged in twilight sleep. And he’ll hold me and whisper, “Sorry hon.” He’s wished for nearly thirty years of marriage that he could “do something” to make the emotionally dark and dangerous nights all better for me (and thereby for him, no doubt). But he can’t. And neither can I, apparently.
My family practitioner’s PA, bless her heart, suggested a sleep study since there were no “underlying medical causes” prohibiting me from getting the restful sleep that bodies need. Sigh. “Okay.” I knew what would be found, but out of curiosity I obliged. At the follow-up appointment with the sleep study doctor, he echoed my thoughts: I’m skipping sleep stages 3 and 4, deep Delta, and wrangling in REM from dusk to dawn. I’d been riding that rodeo for over forty years, and the exhaustion had taken a big toll, feeding my suicidal “clinical depression” and keeping my irritability fattened.
“When we switch into REM sleep, our breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, our eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises . . . . When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales – dreams.
“People lose some of the ability to regulate their body temperature during REM, so abnormally hot or cold temperatures in the environment can disrupt this stage of sleep. If our REM sleep is disrupted one night, our bodies don’t follow the normal sleep cycle progression the next time we doze off. Instead, we often slip directly into REM sleep and go through extended periods of REM until we “catch up” on this stage of sleep.”¹
With no underlying medical causes on which to hang his hat, Dr. Sleep asked me if there was excessive stress in my life. I chuckled. Oh, if you only knew the extent. I gave him a brief overview and he gave me his prescription: “I recommend you see a counselor.” Right. I laughed inside at the irony of this futile exercise. I simply nodded, smiled, thanked him, and gathered my things to go back out into the world with nothing more, and nothing less, than I had carried into his office.
I and my RX trustee, Dr. Psych, PhD, whom I “check in with” every three months or so, had prescribed The Tiny Tablet quite some months before the sleep study. And although it offered me those redeeming five to six hours of dead sleep, there was still the matter of those high definition, full-feature films of delirium and/or horror that employed and exhausted me in those other two sleep hours my body, mind, and emotions need to gain rest. Putting our heads together again, Dr. Psych prescribed (in combination with The Tiny Tablet) the Don’t Dream drug, proven to help military war veterans, and non-military war veterans (like myself, survivors of long term abuse) to bandage the “nightmare disorder: parasomnia.”² Who knew there’s a clinical term for chronic nightmares?! I’ve learned so much about my reality that I no longer feel so alone.
The Don’t Dream drug did, indeed, do its job, anesthetizing or masking my heightened dream life; but, sigh . . . , there were lingering effects throughout the next day that impeded my ability to think clearly to do my job, which requires not only a clear head but critical thinking. “Nope,” I told Dr. Psych, “I can’t take that drug ’cause I need to work.” To pay you and all the other professionals I’ve collected as my village.
What to do? He rubbed his chin as I watched his scientific mind at work, Rolodexing all we had tried to date and what, if anything, was left in the magic bag that might cure me. It was at this juncture that he shared, in essence, what I had feared was coming: a prognosis equal to: I’m sorry, we’ve done all we can do; make yourself as comfortable as possible to live our your remaining time. Then, two heartbeats later and still rubbing his chin, he asked, “Have you ever tried EMDR therapy?” It was that hopeful question that resuscitated my spirit, and he who then referred me to his colleague, the well-experienced-in-EMDR Nathaniel H. Barley.
Wisteria Cove, North Atlantic
¹”Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep,” NIH Neurological Institute, https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep (3/14/17).
²”Nightmare Disorder,” Mayo Clinic Staff, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nightmare-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20032202 (3/14/17).