I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind

A small sampling of all the things I've tried, over the years, to help me sleep.
A small sampling of all the things I’ve tried, over the years, to help me sleep.

“You know I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain
You know it’s three weeks, I’m going insane
You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
For a little peace of mind”

From The Beatles, “I’m So Tired.” The songwriting credit says Lennon/McCartney, but you know it was mostly John. John was a man who knew a little something about insomnia. Though his was probably due to heroin withdrawals.

My insomnia, on the other hand, is due to ordinary, average anxiety. About stupid stuff. Stupid stuff that’s normally two inches tall but sprouts to giant size when I’m horizontal and the clock is ticking. Ridiculous, mundane stuff that, when I’m rested, doesn’t even faze me. Like: Did I give the dogs their flea stuff? Are there wet clothes in the washing machine? Is Bini’s soccer uniform still in the hamper? Did we pay the credit card bill? Have we checked the credit card bill for credit card fraud? Why can’t I sleep? What if Bini wakes up with a nightmare? What am I going to do with two kids that can’t sleep? Should we adopt another kid?

To people with real health concerns, like migraines or Chron’s Disease or a herniated disc, insomnia must sound like a ridiculous problem. “Can’t sleep, you say? Well, I can’t walk upright without searing pain.” The answer to my problem is simple: Calm down.

I’ve tried everything, so don’t EVEN suggest a warm bath. I see your warm bath, and I raise you warm milk with vanilla, melatonin, valerian root, chamomile tea, Cortisol Manager, Ambien, Lunesta, Deep Sleep, Super Slumber Helper, Alteril — even edible pot. That was a bad idea. What do you get when you combine an anxious person with a drug that can make you paranoid? A very late, terrifying night.

So now, I’m on Lorazepam, which is a benzodiazepine for anxiety, and Seroquel, which is an antipsychotic. Yes. I’m taking a drug (albeit a tiny dose) that is given to people with schizophrenia.  Desperate times.

My insomnia comes and goes. It first started when I had a horrible job that I hated, about a dozen years ago. I wound up in Urgent Care at UCSF after a three-day no-sleep bender. The on-call doctor was very kind. I told her that I’d tried melatonin, I’d tried Tylenol PM. “That’s for amateurs,” she replied, and wrote me a prescription for Ambien.

I was so relieved to be able to sleep again that I took it, off and on, for years. Mostly off. But then, about a year ago, Ambien started to make me itch uncontrollably. I didn’t have any of the high-profile side-effects of Ambien, like sleep-driving or sleep-murder. No, my side effect was that the day after taking it, I’d want to claw my face off. Sort of like a meth addict.

Sleep study
This is me, all probed-up and ready to be studied.

I went to have a sleep study. That’s when you sleep overnight in an office building with probes all over your body and a sleep attendant watches you. All night long. Yeah, no pressure there. Of course, I had to take an Ambien — two actually — because it was difficult to sleep with probes all over my body, a CPAP in my mouth, and a sleep attendant asking me if I was OK every 20 minutes.

The sleep study showed, said the doctor who met with me, that I had restless leg syndrome. “That must not be a surprise to you,” he said. “You must have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs.”

“I think I would know if I had an uncontrollable urge to move my legs,” I said, and made an appointment somewhere else.

My new sleep doctor, Dr. William DePaso, did not think that I had restless legs. He thought that I was going to sleep before I was sleepy. And because of that, I was lying awake and working myself into a lather, which is not an ideal state for rest.

Dr. DePaso also told me that I needed to get up at the same time. Every day. Even on weekends.  And to vary my bedtime depending on how sleepy I was on a given night.

“Not all of us need 8 hours of sleep,” he told me. “It’s a nice round number that they throw out in magazine articles, and it makes sleep docs crazy.” Everyone’s needs are a little different, and most people need between 6 and 9 hours of sleep per night, he said.

Another rule? “No alcohol within four hours of bedtime,” Dr. DePaso said.  “We all break that rule once in awhile, but alcohol destroys sleep. The ‘nightcap myth’ is terrible.”

And for the most part, these three rules have made it possible for me to calm down and sleep OK in the last year. I had my backup prescription of Lorazepam, for those nights when my mind was going like a hamster wheel. But until August of this year, I slept OK. Then, everything went to shit.

I don’t know why, but when we were in Boston for my cousin’s wedding, I couldn’t sleep. I tried taking up to three Lorazepam — hell, I even drank Children’s Benadryl one night — and I still was a zombie. In retrospect, it could have been the jet lag. It could have been that we said no to our first referral for a little boy. Whatever it was, it’s stuck around. Over the last two months, my insomnia has been persistent, and terrible.

I went back to Dr. DePaso. He gave me the sleepytime cocktail and told me it was temporary. It doesn’t feel temporary. It feels like every night, I have to take something to get to sleep, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that I can’t just fall asleep, like I’ve done on thousands of other nights. What’s different? Why now?

Dr. DePaso warned me once about “turning my insomnia into a project.” I understand where he’s coming from, but if you’re not sleeping, night after night, it’s all you think about. It’s incredibly frustrating and very lonely. Lying there night after night, with my body resolutely refusing to do what comes naturally to 99 percent of the world is bewildering, and it’s scary. The effects of my insomnia spill over into my life in destructive ways. My fuse is shorter, my brain is duller. I feel sad, I feel anxious. So yes, my insomnia has become a project, because I refuse to live like this. And I will fix it.

I just don’t know how yet.

Re: Student Share Night, but really, just a bunch of nonsense

My son is good at being sneaky. And he wants to wear shades.
I’m glad my son has recognized his marketable skills early in life.

Last night was “Student Share Night” at Bini’s school. In my day, we called it open house, but whatever. Bini’s teacher told him he “had” to come, and although we’d planned to, I don’t like being told what to do, which should give you an idea of what kind of student I was.

Anyway, there was a frozen-yogurt social afterward (because it’s healthier than ice cream), and I volunteered to help scoop toppings. You probably don’t know this about me, but I slung fro-yo in my day. Yep. Yogurt Park, a Walnut Creek, Calif., institution, where the small size was medium and if you wanted a small, you ordered a mini. DUH. For three straight summers, I perfected the art of calling out “Can I help who’s next?” while looking supremely bored.

Bini was alternately nervous and excited as we fought our way through the thick crowd on the way to his classroom. There, he showed us what he’s been up to since September. Holy mackerel. They do so much WORK, and some of these kids have better penmanship than I do. We looked at his Suessy sentence, and his book of self portraits since the start of the year (in September, Bini drew his arms coming right out of his giant square torso; this month, he’s got arms and shoulders and perfectly rendered hair). We saw his “What I want to be when I grow up,” and my kid wants to be a secret agent. Could be worse. One kid wanted to be a princess ballerina, and her parents have to figure out how to break it to her.

I had to split a bit early and make my way to the mosh pit that was the gym, where people were queuing up for miles to have Menchie’s frozen yogurt. (All they had was vanilla, which was just my damn luck.) I muscled my way up to the front, where there were nine tables of volunteers scooping out toppings: chocolate chips, two kinds of sprinkles, some sort of crunchy chocolate cereal I didn’t recognize, and chocolate and caramel syrup. It was complete chaos, which is what you’d expect in an elementary school gym where they’re giving out free frozen desserts to a bunch of kids. Seeing no order to the situation, I walked up to toppings-scoopers and offering to relieve them. One woman finally agreed, so I stepped in next to another mom.

“Let’s try and split it up,” she said. “You do the caramel and chocolate sauces, and I’ll do the scooping.” She was probably a project manager in real life. This system worked for about three minutes, and after getting goop all over myself I noticed that the other volunteers had on gloves. I walked off to glove up, and when I came back 80 seconds later, there was another volunteer in my spot, grimly squirting sauces.

“Oh hey — I can slip back in here. Just needed to put gloves on,” I said.

“I’ve got it,” was the terse reply.

Okee doke. I was ready to find my family and go home to find some chocolate when the harried organizer rushed past, looking like she might have a nervous breakdown. “Oh thank God,” she nearly sobbed. “Can you PLEASE help out on table nine? She’s all alone and it’s just crazy.”

Table nine was indeed busy, but it wasn’t like Altamont or nothin’. Me and my topping compatriot worked congenially, side by side. She seemed to grasp that this was a happy thing, delivering sugar to people.  And it was an interesting experience, topping vanilla frozen yogurt for the school population and their families. The kids, by and large, had better manners than their parents. One grandmother dug her hand into my chocolate chips and shoved them into her mouth, dropping strays onto the table.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you not to do that,” I said. “If you’d like some toppings, I can put them in a cup for you.”  She grunted and walked away, munching.

Shortly, it was 7:45 and the cleanup crew (again, volunteer parents) was on the case, breaking down tables and kicking people out. Which was fine. I went outside to find Steve and Bini on the “lower playground” (the “upper playground” is for “big kids,” according to my son). I managed to catch Bini doing the whole monkey bars, all by himself, while Serena, the adorable pigtailed girl from his class, watched from below. When he hopped down, she gave him a hug. He let her.

On the way home, we ran into another family from the street and we walked home together. “Do you remember elementary school being like this?” asked Amir, our neighbor, who himself had a rigorous education in Israel. All of the adults agreed that we didn’t. But I’m not going on again about that.


It’s been a year since my best friend died.

I loved her so much.
I loved her so much.

It was a year ago today that my beautiful Sophie died. A whole year. I’m another year older, my kid is in kindergarten, I’ve been to Paris. But my Sophie is still gone.

It was a gorgeous, early spring day, March 25. Steve and Bini had left, it was preschool day, and I was racing out the door to go somewhere. Steve had fed Sophie; her bowls were downstairs. She was downstairs all of the time in that last year. She was too weak to make the trek up the indoor stairs, so she was alone a lot. She slept most of the time.

That morning, I found her collapsed, next to her food and water bowls. She looked at me, bewildered, and I remember thinking, “No, no, no, no NO. No, goddammit. I’m not ready. ” Because I knew this was It. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma seven months prior, and the dog oncologist had told us four to six months. I didn’t listen. I believed she’d beat it, somehow.

I was hysterical, the way you are when you find your best friend in a really bad way. I tried to coax her to eat, but she couldn’t stand. I tried to hold her up, but her legs kept buckling. So I called Steve and shrieked out something, and he rushed back. Thank God Bini was at school that horrible day. Steve and I were not fit to parent.

It didn’t go well at the vet. This is a pretty horrible story, so if you don’t feel like crying today, I might skip it. We got her to the vet and they examined her and told us that she was bleeding internally. She was dying. If she came home with us, she’d die a terrible death. If we left her there they could keep her alive for maybe another day, but she’d be without us. So we decided to put her down.

If you’ve ever done this, you know how it goes: They give you time to “say goodbye.” It’s ludicrous. When are you ever ready to say goodbye? But we did our best and we cried so much that we went through a box of tissues. Then, they sedated her and we sat with her as they gave her “the shot.” And here’s the truly terrible part, the part that still keeps me up at night: She didn’t die. She had no circulation in her legs, where they gave the shot, so the drug didn’t get to her heart. They had to try several times before it took, and during that time, I was like an insane person, raving that I wanted to stop, that I wanted to take her home. I truly lost my mind for a couple of days. But that’s what happens when you kill your best friend.

I still see her, lying there. My glorious, gorgeous dog. If you’d ever met her, you’d agree — she was magnificent. A year later, I still can’t think about my sweet Sophie on the cold, hard ground without completely going to pieces.

Grief has weight to it. It takes every bit of your energy. Those first few days I felt like I was trudging uphill with rocks in my pockets. I did the bare minimum, begging off from everything that I possibly could. I kept her bowls as they were, with her uneaten food still in it. I buried my face in her blankets, trying to remember her smell, the feel of her fur. I created a shrine on her extra-large heated dog bed, with her well-loved stuffed toys. One day, about a week after she died, I came in to find Jinx, our cat, sleeping there. I started screaming “Get off her bed! Get off!” Jinx scampered off (and knowing her, probably peed on my shoes). I felt like I was losing my mind. Who grieved like this for a pet?

There were people who got it, who called me and wrote me e-mails and left care packages on my front doorstep. My mom, who adored Sophie, wrote a beautiful poem about her. My good friend texted me that she was going to get my son from preschool and keep him for the afternoon. She knew I was in no shape to be any kind of decent mother. Another friend told me that she went to a grief support group when her dog died. It made me feel less insane.

There were those who didn’t get it, who asked me things like “are you still upset?” when I clearly was still upset. I pulled away from those friends and I’ve kept my distance. Thankfully, I have more people in my life with empathy than without.

Two months later, we got another dog. I found Jones on Petfinder and I knew, just by looking at his silly face, that he was our dog. Some people questioned whether it was too soon, and in truth, it might have been, a little. But we needed a bit of joy in the house. Sophie’s long illness and our intense grief had left us wrung out and empty. We needed something to fill that void.

Jones is a different dog than Sophie, in pretty much every single way. Where she was regal, Jones is goofy. Sophie didn’t go in much for playing fetch; Jones’ singular obsession is the Chuckit. Sophie gently gnawed on her stuffed animals; Jones eviscerates antlers. Sophie was a dignified, once-a-day pooper; Jones passes gas all day long, and quite unselfconsiously. Sophie loved the snow; Jones high-steps through it like he’s walking on tar. But that’s OK. I’m glad Jones isn’t like Sophie. I couldn’t replace her if I tried. How do you replace your best friend?


Unfriending is a hostile act

I was clicking through some pictures on Facebook this morning, from the time we were in Ethiopia almost five years ago. I’ve got Ethiopia on the brain even more than usual because we’re revisiting all of those international adoption documents again — immigration, birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc. And I noticed that one of my friends, who commented on those long-ago photos, was no longer my “friend” on Facebook. I was puzzled. Sure, we don’t see each other that much any more, but I’m fond of her and want to keep up with her life. I assumed it was the same for her.

So I wrote her about it. And she told me that she had relocated, and shaved off 30 friends. It wasn’t personal.


I know much has been said and written about Facebook friends, and “friends.” I’ve written a little something myself. I have plenty of Facebook friends who are “friends” — people I rarely see and probably wouldn’t have much to say to in real life. And maybe my finger has hesitated over the “Unfriend” selection once or twice. But it doesn’t cost me anything to have these people as “friends.” So I keep them.

Unfriending is, after all, unfriendly. It says to that person: “Yeah, I accepted your friend request (or you accepted mine), but now, I want you OUT OF MY LIFE.” Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want. I’ve unfriended a few folks in my day — usually around election time, or when there’s a school shooting. I unfriended a bunch of former colleagues about a year ago, because I intended to set up a Facebook personal account and a Facebook work account. (I never did. Upon reflection, it seemed like entirely too much social media.)

But here’s the thing, those of you with itchy defriending fingers: If you’ve decided that someone isn’t a friend on Facebook, you’re sending the message that they’re not your friend in real life, either. And yes, that is personal. So defriend wisely, dear readers. The feelings you hurt might be those of a friend. A real one.

I hate camping. There, I said it.

Steve and I, at Big Basin State Park in California. This is the only camping I want to do — the kind you work for, damn it.

Every year around this time, the calls go out in e-mail: Who’s in for camping this summer? And every year, I forget about the previous year’s camping trip, with the freezing-cold nights or the train that seemed to be right above our campground. Every year, I write back an enthusiastic “Yes! We’re in!” and we book a campground somewhere beautiful in August, when it’s reliably nice.

Not this year. This year, I refuse. Because actually, I hate car camping.

Car camping is different from back-country camping, which I love. That’s when you pack as little as possible in a huge backpack and carry it 10 or 12 miles to a campground on a mountain. And there, after filtering your creek water and eating your freeze-dried astronaut food, you collapse into a blissful, dreamless sleep until dawn. You are far too exhausted to care that it’s not comfortable, sleeping on the ground. You know that in the morning, it will take 45 minutes for your water to boil for coffee, and it’s best to just get some sleep.

OK. Actually, this was kind of fun.
OK. Actually, this was kind of fun.

Car camping? Car camping is bullshit. That’s when you cram a ton of stuff — and I mean a TON OF STUFF — into your car, set up your tents and … sit around. Maybe you hike, maybe you kayak but if you have a really young child, you mainly just sit around and hope they go to sleep early enough so you can drink a beer. And you need to drink a beer (or two) because you know that the night is going to be long and horrible.

“But camping is so much fun!” Indeed, you haven’t really lived until you’ve strapped on a headlamp at 4 a.m. to visit the campground bathroom, all the while thinking: Didn’t a similar scenario end badly for someone in a “Friday the 13th” movie? And it’s a hoot to sleep next to your five-year-old kid, who alternates between being scared and kicking the crap out of you all night.

I’m closing in on 44, dear friends, and there is not a Thermarest on the market that can mimic a mattress. And some dumb college kids will ignore the campground curfew and whoop it up drunkenly until 2 a.m. and it’s just … not how I choose to spend my precious Seattle summer weekends. No. NO.

So, revoke my REI card. Tell me I’m not a true outdoor lover. I could care less. I am not going car camping this year, or ever again. So if you want two tents, three sleeping bags, three Thermarests, a camping stove and tons of other gear, you just let me know. I’ll sell it to you — cheap.