This is the 13th installment in the blog series Chronicle of Sleepless Nights
A new sleeping pill
Feeling desperate and sleep deprived once again, I went back to see Dr. K to ask him for help. Once again, his kind nurse greeted Michael and me, and was sympathetic to my sad story. I had been taking Ambien at night, which gave me a few hours of sleep. Then I took two Valium pills, which had helped until recently. Now I had stopped taking Valium because it was not putting me back to sleep, and was getting only three to four hours of sleep a night. The lack of sleep was causing me great anxiety and distress.
When Dr. K came into the room, he greeted Michael and me and asked how we were doing. He reassured me that he could help me. He then suggested I try a new drug to replace the Valium for the early morning hours after the Ambien wore off. The new drug, Temazepan (15 mg), was to help me sleep until I could be seen by Dr. D, the sleep doctor. Dr. K was glad I had an appointment with Dr. D in February. Later I learned that Temazepan is a benzodiazepine that affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced in people with sleep problems. That sure sounded like me. Someone with an unbalanced brain. Was that my problem?
Dr. K also suggested I take 5 mg of melatonin one hour before I was ready to go to sleep. I had tried melatonin at different times in the past, and it had never seemed to do anything to help me sleep. But I was willing to try it again, in conjunction with all these sleeping pills.
I was so relieved to have a new drug to take after my three to four hours of sleep with Ambien. That first night, I woke up and took my allotted amount of Temazepan. I went back to sleep until 6:45 AM and awoke feeling rested and relaxed. And then I dozed off for a little while longer. It was a miracle, and I was relieved and happy. That sleep was the best thing in the world, and it was all that I longed for.
I was ready for another good night. However, the next night I woke up 2 hours after taking my nightly Ambien. I waited a while and then took the Temazepan. I woke up off and on until 6:15, when I was up for good. Instead of feeling relaxed and rested, I felt distraught.
My weight had been steadily dropping and my metabolism seemed to be in overdrive. I felt that I ate all the time, and was always hungry. I was also having frequent bouts of diarrhea. It seemed all the food was leaving my body almost as quickly as I could eat it. I looked with disbelief at my skinny body, where clothes were hanging on me. How ironic that for much of my life I had tried to control what I would eat so that I could lose or maintain a healthy weight. Now I was afraid to get on the scale and see that I had dropped another pound. I had not weighed this little since junior high school. Sometimes my heart felt like it was racing and my chest hurt. What was happening to my body? I knew something was very wrong, but I did not know how to figure it out or fix it.
Back in late December I had taken a micronutrient test recommended by my chiropractor, Dr. C, to see if I had any vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant deficiencies. The test involved sending a blood sample to a lab on the West Coast. The report finally arrived, and I set up an appointment to meet with Dr. C to review the results.
Dr. C read my report and announced that I was low or deficient in things like fructose sensitivity (related to type 2 diabetes), vitamin E, serine, chromium, and more. This was disturbing, and made me feel even more anxious about the state of my health and body. Dr. C recommended and sold several supplements. They included NAC (N-acetyl Cysteine), serine, a multivitamin, Mitocore, OptiMag Neuro,chromium picolinate, and vitamin E. Also recommended was a powdered magnesium drink called Calm. Ready to try anything that might help me, and having invested a few hundred dollars in these pills, I took them home and started taking them daily.
There were more supplements on the list to buy. My daughter Rebecca took me to our food coop to buy the rest. I started taking the new pills and soon began to have terrible heartburn. I realized that it must have been caused by one or more of the new supplements. In addition, I started having itchy skin, and attributed that to vitamin E, which I had suspected I might be allergic to in the past. Pretty soon, feeling discouraged once again, I stopped all the supplements except for the powdered magnesium drink, Calm, which I took at bedtime. One of the pills I stopped taking was OptiMag Neuro, a form of magnesium that is supposed to help the brain. Two years later, after an analysis of my DNA, I learned that I need to take this supplement. I now take it daily and it seems to help with my sleep. So Dr. C. was on the right track there, but at the time, I could not tell what might be helping and what might be causing me discomfort.
More dark days
My sleep problems seemed to be unending. At night, I would think about all the people sleeping while I was lying awake. I would marvel at their ability to get into bed and drift off to sleep. I envied them. I visualized all the sleeping people in my family and neighborhood. Even pets. Each night when I said goodnight to Michael, I knew he was falling asleep easily, and there was nothing he could do to help me sleep. He even took naps the next day, whereas I was unable to nap.
While lying awake at night, I tried many ways to help myself relax and fall asleep, as I described back in blog post 2. I tried listening to soothing music (CDs created by my brother David) and sounds (jungle sounds, ocean waves), and podcasts such as “Sleep with Me” that was designed to drone on to bore me to sleep. None of them worked. I listened to audio books that promised to hypnotize me to sleep. I stayed awake. I practiced breathing and sometimes lay down on my floor to try to relax in the yoga pose of shivassana. Somehow, I made it to morning.
Trying to maintain my professional life
This was the last year of my academic appointment as Professor of Educational Psychology. I was going in to the office just one day a week, on a 20 percent appointment. I was working with four doctoral students, three of whom were my advisees. Every Wednesday I tried to make it to campus to meet with each student in my office and attend faculty meetings. My advisees were L, A, and N. I also met from time to time with E, my former research assistant whose doctoral committee I was on.
I adored these four students, referring to them as my professional daughters. I had once had them to my house for a cooking class with my sister. I often took them out for a nice lunch or dinner. In January, I took them out to a lovely restaurant downtown for a belated holiday brunch. I felt so shaky that day I could hardly eat and drink, but I tried hard to put on a good front and be cheerful and optimistic. I was proud of myself for acting normal, but collapsed on the couch when I got home. Exhausted, but once again unable to sleep.
All of my students were religious church-going Christians, which is interesting given that I am Jewish. We had conversations about religion, and some had come to my house for a Passover Seder. Two of them told me they were praying for me, which touched my heart. Every week when we met, each of the four would ask how I was feeling, their faces full of concern. I would fill them in and knew they felt bad for me.
My student N could not restrain her natural ebullience when she sent me emails. She would often begin with the line: “Hi Joan, I hope you are doing great!” One day I could not take it anymore. I wrote back “Someday I hope to be doing great. But now I would be happy to feel OK.”
One day I broke down and cried in my office. L had asked how I was doing and as I started to tell her, the horror of it overwhelmed me and I began to cry. Seeing me cry, L began to cry as well. We could both see how much I had changed, from the cheerful, optimistic, pillar of strength to a sad, tired, fragile, and anxious person. This was not the way I wanted to finish my last year at the university. I think that neither L nor I could believe the sad state I was in.
What is wrong with me?
I kept going to Chris for acupuncture, hoping it would help balance my energies and help me get well. Each time he felt my pulse he would say it was tight, like a bow string. That was not good. He asked if I could picture myself sleeping well again. I thought about it and sadly replied that I could not. It made me tearful to acknowledge this realization. Chris told me that I had to believe I would sleep well again. It would be hard, but I vowed to try.
Later that day, in an attempt to relax and ease my anxiety, I lay down on a yoga mat, with pillow and blanket, and listened to my Yoga Nidra meditation CD. Michael and I had taken a class on Yoga Nidra at Esalen Institute a few years earlier. It was a weekend workshop taught by a charming young woman named Kelly Boys. I had purchased a CD of her guiding this mediation, and found it soothing to listen to her soft voice as I followed the relaxation practice.
Now as I concentrated on her words, I tried to picture myself healthy and sleeping normally again. However, I heard a little voice inside me saying, “There is something wrong with me.” I knew my Yin and Yang were out of balance, my cortisol was not being produced in the right amounts at the right times, my neurotransmitters (particularly serotonin) were low, and some of my vitamins and minerals were low. But what was at the source of all of these problems? Was an organ malfunctioning? Did I have a tumor? I had seen so many doctors and practitioners already. And the herbs, supplements and acupuncture had not solved the problem. Could it be solved? Could I be healed?
As spring approached, I realized I was in no condition to go on the hiking trip we had planned in Scotland, the 96-mile West Highland Way. When I told Michael, he did not quite believe it, and was very disappointed. He tried to convince me that I could do the hike. But I insisted we cancel the trip. I was too afraid of dealing with my insomnia and unknown health issues in another country. In addition, I had not been keeping up with my usual workouts and strength training and feared I would not be strong enough to complete the rigorous hikes of up to 22 miles a day in the highlands of Scotland. I wrote to the owner of the hiking company and cancelled the trip. He was not particularly compassionate and refused to refund our deposit.
Michael and I had been enjoying summer hiking trips in Europe for 10 years and we both felt sad that we would not be able to go hiking there this summer. I could not imagine myself strong, healthy and climbing mountains again. However, a year later we would actually hike the West Highland Way with a different guide, and I would feel strong and triumphant. And I would sleep well each night. But during the winter of 2016. I was afraid to even dream of doing that hike or any other. And so the days passed. Each day I would struggle to function on little sleep. Depression hovered. I was feeling hopeless. I wondered if this would be my life for the next several years. Or forever?
Next post: Bathtub talks with God