Edit: name redacted at request of subject
I remember a lot of days growing up when it would just be my dad and me.
“Your mom didn’t sleep all night. She was worried about you.”
Those words always seemed to slip like a silent dagger between the ribs. I was a kid. And I had a lot of problems that no one knew about. There were no hugs or cups of hot chocolate or calming words to get me through tough nights. Just a lot of shame. And then the next day, I’d have to hear how being sick or bullied or whatever had kept my mom up all night. And it would only add to the isolation and shame.
I didn’t mean to worry her. I call it weaponized worry. Don’t do anything that will upset her. Don’t let her know her what’s going on at school. Don’t let her know you were mugged at gunpoint. Don’t let her know how bad your marriage is. Don’t let her know you’re bipolar.
So many things I had to keep secret because her worry eclipsed everything else. I probably attempted suicide ten times between the ages of 12 and 18–all of them serious attempts. When they failed and I awoke in the middle of the night with the need to vomit, I’d run to the bathroom and feel ashamed. My mother would come out of her room and ask me what I’d done to get sick.
When I told my parents about this at 17, during a very real mental breakdown, they refused to believe any of it. At that point I was used to not being believed. I had to start acting out in ways they would see because they thought it was all make believe. The attempts weren’t cries for help, but the alcohol and dating D were.
I inherited my mother’s worry. Either through genes or generational trauma. I’ve never slept well. On nights when I’d been most anxious, I could repeat a phrase in my head over and over all night. One sentence. Over and over. In the dark. For six hours at a time. Night to me was a coffin nailed shut, during which I imagined thermo nuclear warfare. And hiding in cupboards from Nazis. When I did dream, I fought off zombies in my sleep. I was eight.
Over the years, I learned to manage it. I had to dial down outside stress, and that meant no longer working as a lawyer or anything for that matter. I’m not suited to jobs that have clients or external arbitrary deadlines or bosses that yell for no reason. I can do it for a while until I crack. And then I am useless.
I had my own version of counting sheep. I’d swallow Lunesta and Seroquel and lithium and benzos and whatever was prescribed to me. I’d get in bed next to a husband long resigned to my black hole of unhappiness, and mentally list the states over and over. First alphabetically. Then reverse alphabetically. Then geographically from west to East, east to west, north to south and south to north. It worked some of the time.
Back then, I didn’t sleep because I had things to worry about. It was a figurative autoimmune inflammation triggered by foreign bodies. Things I couldn’t control. I had to eliminate them from my proverbial diet. It meant a life less ordinary. The unexpected side effect was learning how much I enjoyed life when I wasn’t keeping up with the rat race.
My credo became: live a life that will allow you to close your eyes at night and leave the world behind. That meant becoming gentler and kinder. I had to stop doing things that would result in regret and worry. Watch the movie About Time. In it, the main character can travel back in time. He can relive any day to make it better. And eventually he learns the lesson that you don’t even need to do that if you just live every day well in the first place.
I’ve eliminated all the medications except for the Seroquel. I don’t need it for psychiatric purposes. I can just go days without sleep if I don’t dose myself. And nothing else has ever worked. Well, one thing has. Laying with XXXX. I can sleep laying next to him.
I don’t know how to scale this out to all the sensitively wired kids out there. I can’t tell everyone to quit working and only pursue creative endeavors. Someone has to make the donuts. But I will say that, just as my negative cycle was reinforced as a child, the positive cycle I now operate within perpetuates itself. I’m still not a great sleeper. But I haven’t a tenth of the weight on my shoulders that eight-year old Vene did.