a story about anxiety, and sleeping better

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so, i’m going to let you in on a little secret: my name is sarah, and i’m a bit of a shitty sleeper. even though i need a LOT of sleep to function (we’re talking like 8 or 9 hours), my sleep in our fair city is disrupted at best, and positively terrible at worst. when i’m home at my parents’ house, i sleep like a baby. no waking up to pee, no sirens shaking me out of my dreams. i can easily spend 10 hours tangled in my sheets, with not a care in the world. now, part of that’s how damn quiet it is in the woods of western massachusetts, and i’m sure an even bigger part of it is the fact that i feel undeniably comfortable and safe in my parents’ home – feelings i’d have to admit i still don’t 100% feel here in new york, even though i’ve called the city home for six years now.

new york has also re-awakened in me an anxiety problem that’s bogged me down in the past. lest you think i’m a total crazy, rest assured: it’s nothing too bad – but because life here moves fast, and my life is a busy one, i inevitably spend nights tossing and turning, my mind like a broken record player, skipping from moment to moment, to-do to must-do. if i’m stressed even just a little bit, i won’t sleep well, or even worse, i’ll barely sleep at all. i find sunday nights particularly tough – something about the impending week ahead takes my anxiety up a notch.

i’m also a terrible sleeper when i travel – so much that my doctor kindly prescribed me ambien, something i take only in the worst of situations – i do much better in my own surroundings, or at least, in places i feel comfortable. see, i have a thing about sheets.

let’s back up. since i was a child, i’ve had sort of an issue with sensory stimulation. ask my parents about dressing me as a little girl, and they’ll tell you i refused to wear anything with buttons, anything too scratchy, anything that came too close to my neck (god forbid you try to put me in a turtleneck). i liked things that were soft, stretchy, and easy to pull on and off. i hated loud sounds (the vacuum cleaner was not my friend), too. and forget trying to get me to eat something with a strange texture (seafood was out). a weird child, right? apparently, this is a real thing. and yes, my doctor parents have “diagnosed” me with it.

as i grew up, i somewhat “grew out of it” – though what that really means is that i learned to adapt. to dress in things i could tolerate, to sleep in my own bed most of the time, to be careful what bedding i brought to camp each summer (shopping for a sleeping bag was NOT my cup of tea, and my grandma’s old army blankets were OUT), and to try new things, food-wise.

story time:

my family loves to tease me about a trip we took to france with my best friend K the summer before our freshman year of high school. during our 2 week of travel, we spent a few nights in a historic hotel built into the rock face of a small, picturesque village in the south of france. the hotel freaked me out. beyond freaked me out. everything was dark and scratchy. the building seemed to shift at night. there were spiders crawling on the walls. the bedding felt damp, dirty. it was quaint, and romantic, and beautiful – but all i could see was how the place was going to eat me alive.

i slept on bath towels for the entirety of our stay. i couldn’t bring myself to let my legs touch the sheets.

because my parents are saints and K loves me despite my quirks, everyone just let me do my thing (albeit with a bit of light teasing).

fast forward to the summer after i graduated college. i’d planned a 2 week eurotrip with my friend alex, who was studying abroad in paris. he was going to take the train down to barcelona; i was set to fly there and meet him. we had an entire itinerary planned out.

on my flight over, i sat in front of 2 tiny children who were totally out of control. they kicked my back the entire way to heathrow. i arrived in london bleary-eyed and ate a shitty airport croissant before hopping on a ryanair flight to barcelona. by the time i arrived in spain, i’d slept not a wink in 24 hours. i was totally crazed, beyond exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to pass out.

we spent the night in an adorable little hostel with the typical set up: our room included a series of bunk beds; alex and i grabbed a pair of bottoms. when night fell, alex promptly fell asleep. i climbed into bed and prayed that sleep would come.

but it didn’t. instead i listened to the man above me smack lips with the woman he’d met not an hour earlier. i listened to the streets of barca whirl by me. and i listened to the whirring of my overtired brain, as it scaled through all the reasons i wouldn’t be able to sleep. the sheets felt like paper against my skin. i felt bugs crawling up and down my legs (not real ones, of course – they were in my head). i listened to alex snoring slightly, his chest rising and falling with each breath. i counted sheep. i counted the tiles on the ceiling. i watched as the bunk above me sagged slightly with the weight of the couple above.

but i did not sleep. around 1am barcelona time, i took my international phone out of my pocket and went out into the street and called my mother.

she answered on the second ring.

“sarah? what’s wrong? what time is it there?”

“IT’S 1AM AND I CAN’T SLEEP AND EVERYONE ELSE IS SLEEPING AND I’VE TRIED EVERYTHING AND I’M SO TIRED AND ALL I WANT TO DO IS SLEEP BUT I CAN’T. ALEX IS SLEEPING, THE ENTIRE HOSTEL IS SLEEPING AND I’M AWAKE.”

i lasted about 10 seconds before bursting into tears. i was the crazy american girl sobbing into her cellphone on a random bench, legs curled beneath her under a streetlight that cast washed out yellow light onto the cobblestoned street.

my poor mother, my wonderful mother – she sat on the phone with me for an hour, as i breathed in and out into the phone while she coached me into relaxation.

“deep breath. in, and out. in, and out. in, and out.”

and then i went back inside.

sometime around 4am, i fell into a fitful sleep. i hadn’t slept in over a day.

the next morning, i awoke totally flipped out. i’d had my first ever panic attack, and my entire body was on edge. i felt like i had hives, like i was vibrating negative energy out onto the streets of barcelona. my body was a live wire. i felt certain i’d collapse or explode at any moment.

i made it three days before i booked a flight home to massachusetts. alex and i didn’t speak for two weeks.

i abandoned him on our journey, on a trip we’d been planning for months, because my anxiety (created by my inability to sleep) got the best of me. when i told alex over lunch that i needed to go home, that my mind was out of whack, he put his head down. and told me he understood. and then promptly told me he needed the afternoon to himself. i didn’t blame him, i couldn’t. i only blamed myself.

since then, i’ve been extremely careful about how i travel. i bring my own sheets, because i know if i sleep in bedding i know, i won’t feel spiders crawling up and down my legs. i know that if i bring my eye pillow, i’ll have a little bit of home with me. i know that if i book nice hotels, i’ll have less of a chance of finding a hair in the bed that’ll set my anxiety off like a firecracker.

did i mention that i LOVE to travel? that i wish, more than anything, that i could be that down ass chick who shacks up in a hostel on the beaches of bali without a care in the world? that i could pack everything i needed for a  2 week trip into a backpack and just head out into the sunshine with no worries at all?

my “sleep issues” – or whatever you want to call them – have held me back more than i’d like to admit. there’s places i haven’t been, trips i haven’t enjoyed, because i’ve been too goddamn anxious and tired to enjoy them.

it’s sad, isn’t it?

so you can imagine that even when i’m home, in my own bed, i still don’t sleep all that well. ever since my panic attack on the streets of barcelona, i’ve become a more anxious person. a person whose blood electrifies her veins just a bit more than the average human. that night was like flipping a switch. i’d never really had anxiety. i’d never had a panic attack. and all of a sudden, i was a person who did, who had.

now, if anything is out of whack, i won’t sleep well. i’ll spend the night ruminating over the things i could have done, should have done, wish i’d done.

which is why i’ve developed a serious system for sleeping. a series of 5 things i do, each and every night, to prepare myself for a good night’s sleep (or, as good of a night of sleep as i’m capable of). i’ll be sharing those here tomorrow, with the hopes that they’ll help some other bad sleepers get some shut eye.

if you’ve made it this far in my miniature novel, kudos to you. now, go get some sleep.

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