Eight days ’til China: Sleep Deprivation 2, Electric Boogaloo

So, I’ve had this ridiculous cold that’s come and gone for something like six weeks. It manifests itself with a tickling, persistent cough that wakes me up in the middle of the night. I fumble for the medicine cabinet, grab the Chloraseptic and start spraying frantically, so’s I don’t wake Steve. That happened last night, at 3 a.m.

Then, at 5:50, I heard a nearby smoke alarm chirping. You know, that bloody irritating sound they make when they’re out of batteries. I had my earplugs in and tried to deny that there was an insistent chirping noise outside my bedroom door, since Steve was having no trouble doing that. I felt that he should share in this experience, so I elbowed him. He didn’t move. I shoved him, nicely.

“What?” he grumbled. Steve is difficult to wake.

“There’s a smoke alarm chirping, and I can’t reach it,” I told him. That was a tiny fib, because I didn’t exactly know if I could reach it.  Steve’s tall, so it seemed reasonable to expect him to handle it. Right?

“I don’t hear it,” he said.

“Well, I do. And it’s right outside Bini’s door, so it’s bound to wake him up.”

That did it. Steve heaved himself from bed and went to look for the offending chirping. At our old house, all I had to do was open the smoke alarm and rip out the battery, and we’d be good until I remembered to buy another one. But this smoke alarm will not be silenced. I heard Steve struggling with it, while it chirped ever more aggressively. After about ten minutes, he came back in and flopped back into bed.

“What happened?” I asked, as though he’d been tussling with a crocodile.

“It won’t shut up,” he said. “I wrapped it in some blankets and buried it in the room.” He put in his earplugs.

By then, it was after 6 a.m., and I knew it was pointless to try and go back to sleep. So I lay there, for 50 minutes, until the alarm went off. Then I made Steve get up and make coffee.

In two weeks, I think I might have to be more participatory.

Off to buy a 9-volt battery.

My tiny little pill

Mother's little helper.
Mother’s little helper.

It is January 23 in the Pacific Northwest. And I am happy.

Traditionally, these two things did not go hand-in-hand for me. Seattle is, from November to April, quite chilly, damp and gray. It took a couple of winters to figure out that my February blues could be attributed to the lousy weather. I thought I was way too tough for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I was wrong. I bought a happy light and upped my Vitamin D significantly.

I know that my current happiness is partly due to our impending adoption. In six weeks or so, our family of three will board a plane to Shanghai, and then another plane to Xi’an, where we’ll become a family of four. Our soon-to-be new son is almost three. He’s adorable. And I can’t wait to get over there and become his mom. I just can’t wait.

But I also know that my happiness, or at least my ability to focus on the happy parts of our upcoming adventure, has much to do with the little pill that I started taking in November. An antidepressant. A teeny, tiny dose that my doc calls a “therapeutic” dose. A dose I could stop taking whenever without any taper. A dose that has radically altered my mood.

Before this pill came into my life, I was kind of a mess. Even the tiniest bumps in the road would activate my emotional airbags. I radiated stress. I was always ready to do battle.  I snapped at my loved ones and friends. And I couldn’t sleep.

I don’t know how I got that way, which was another source of anxiety and self recrimination. I was totally aware that I was touchy, reactionary and unhappy, but I couldn’t right the ship. When my insomnia flared up, in August, my anxiety found fertile ground in my exhausted brain. I felt like my nerves were tightly wound violin strings. I found it impossible to relax.

On the rare night when I did sleep, I had a recurring nightmare where Bini was hit by a car, and I was too late to prevent it. I would wake up gasping, my heart pounding so hard I thought for sure I’d wake Steve. I’d stumble from my bed and into Bini’s room, just to make sure he was OK. Then I’d spend the rest of the long night thinking stuff like: It’s a sign. It’s a message. I’m not fit to parent. I need to stop this second adoption.

I started spiraling downward. I felt like I was at the bottom of a muddy, slippery hole, and I couldn’t find my footing. I was scared.

There were reasons for this. The adoption process, this time around, was really hard. We said no to five deserving little boys before we were matched with our soon-to-be son. I tried to go cold turkey off my Lorazepam sleep meds and it made my insomnia much worse — a side effect I wasn’t aware of. We got some bad news, which I won’t go into. And I got into a terrible argument with a close family member, who still won’t talk to me.  But people go through difficult times, all the time, and they don’t fall to pieces. Why was I so different?

I tried everything, really I did. I went to counseling, and did neurofeedback. I went to acupuncture twice a week. I started meditating, thanks to a handy iPhone app which featured a nice man with a soothing British accent. I cut out alcohol. I took L-Theanine. I went to see a sleep-specific naturopath. I started tapering off the Lorazepam, very slowly. Still, I was off-the-charts anxious. So I went to my doctor, for some blood work.

“Have you considered going on a low dose of antidepressants?” she asked.

“No. No way.” I replied.

“Why not?”

Why not? Because I’d been on a low-dose of antidepressants before, when I had a terrible job and wasn’t sleeping at all. I have Paxil to thank for helping me crawl out of that muddy hole, get my resume together and get a kick-ass job that I loved. But the tapering process off that stuff was brutal, even though the dose was small.

I went on them again when Steve and I were going through infertility, and they helped. But I went off them after I sought treatment for my decades-long eating disorder, and that weaning process had also been brutal. Why do that again?

Because. Because my doctor pointed out that anorexic and bulimic brains have shown to be permanently altered after decades of endless punishment-reward cycles. I was an expert at both severe food restriction and hard-core exercise bulimia, which I camouflaged quite successfully as “training” for many years.

Because. When my doctor asked me how long it had been since I was happy, I really had to think. I knew what she was after, so I wanted to tell her “yesterday,” but in fact, the best I could come up with was October 2013, when Steve and I were in Paris.

Everything was a chore to me, even good things. A relaxing massage appointment was just another thing on my to-do list. Making cut-out snowflakes with Bini was just another thing for me to clean up. A night out with Steve was a temporary reprieve from the stressors of parenting, four pets and a house that always needed cleaning. Give me something good, and I would squash it under my Mighty Foot of Doom. It’s my gift.

“That’s not normal,” she told me. “That tells me that there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.”

I made some sort of dismissive noise. “Chemical imbalance? Everyone I know is on antidepressants. Does EVERYONE have a chemical imbalance?” I went on to point out that great art, great music and great literature would have never been created if people were never sad. Anger and anxiety were normal emotions. They were part of the deal.

“Happiness is also part of the deal,” she said gently. “And you’re telling me that you haven’t been genuinely happy in a year. That’s not good. It’s not healthy.”

So I took the prescription. A week later, I got it filled. And a week after that, I started taking my therapeutic dose. I felt better almost instantly. (I’m very sensitive to medication. I took Vicodin once, and it made me sneeze uncontrollably.) Taking my tiny pill was like entering a warm, cozy house after trudging through the frozen tundra. I felt relaxed. Relieved.

Two months later, my hard edges are smoother. I absorb bumps in the road better. I am much more patient and kind to my son. I’ve quieted my savage inner critic, which was as relentless as CNN’s news ticker. I still feel anxious and sad and overwhelmed at times, but those feelings don’t dominate me anymore.

I’d be lying if I said that writing about this isn’t itself causing me apprehension. Once I hit “publish,” this goes public. Maybe three people will read it, maybe 3,000 will. It’s probably not great for my “brand” as a freelance writer to acknowledge my anxiety, and my little happy pill. There were be people who judge me.

To paraphrase Veronica Sawyer from the movie “Heathers,” I’m a human being, not a game show host. Writing authentically and transparently, at least in my personal writing, is all I know how to do. And throughout my career as a journalist and now, a blogger, I’ve heard from hundreds of people who’ve told me that my honesty was helpful to them. It certainly helps me. If someone doesn’t want to be my friend or hire me because of it, they can quite cheerfully bugger off.

We have a huge unknown entering our lives any day: A child that we don’t know, who doesn’t know us, and who’s lived in an orphanage his whole life. At best, it will be difficult, and at worst, it will be a disaster. But we’ve sought counsel from doctors, fellow adoptive parents and therapists who work with adoptive families. Steve and I have made the best decision that we can, given the information that we have. The rest is a leap of faith, of love, and of hope.

I know for certain that my tiny little pill is helping me handle the uncertainty. I feel clear-eyed, I feel strong. I feel ready, damn it. I am ready. I know we’re tempting fate. I know there will be dark days when I wonder what the hell we’ve done. But Steve and I are experienced adoptive parents. We have an extraordinary son. We can bring up another one. I know we can.

I do feel a little strange about my happiness, knowing that it’s due to a little tiny pill. It’s like winning a medal that I didn’t entirely earn. But I’ll take it. I’m choosing to look on the bright side, for once. It comes much easier now.

Halloween is hell

I love scary things. Bini is scared of "Scooby Doo."
I love scary things. Bini is scared of “Scooby Doo.”

I love Halloween. LOVE IT. In the Bay Area town where I grew up, the weather was always mild so kids roamed the streets for hours, collecting candy and scaring each other. And I liked being scared. Still do. I used to stay up way past my bedtime watching “The Twilight Zone.” I watched “The Shining” over and over.

I’m sure I inherited my love of horror from my dad, who used to tape old scary radio stories from the 1930s and 40s, like “Inner Sanctum,” “The Shadow” and “Suspense.” Dad would play these tales for us on long road trips, terrifying the snot out of us with stories of young coeds getting their heads crushed by tombstones, and nagging old wives who get killed and stuffed into pipe organs. Yes, really. My dad didn’t know from “appropriate.”

As an adult, I used to go to scary places on Halloween. One year, I went to New Orleans, which is super-freaking-fabulous on Halloween. Another year, I went to Austin, which isn’t really scary, but they have fruit bats that fly out from under a bridge. Another year, we were in Bangkok, which is terrifying for different reasons. Anyway, I think you get the point.

Of course, I hoped that my own son would enjoy Halloween, and being scared, too. No such luck. Bini is afraid of “Scooby Doo.” And ever since the neighbor kid showed up on our doorstep wearing a Michael Meyer mask, Bini has spent every October freaking out over Halloween. And by that I mean nightmares, super-crazy-energy, vacillating about trick-or-treating and just general disobedience. This year has been the worst yet. He’s older now, and everything this month has been an argument, topped off with crying jags and bouts of manic tumbling. Steve and I are at the end of our respective tethers.

So yesterday, I thought I’d try something other than screaming at him: I had him write down what was bothering him. My own therapist had suggested that I write down all of my top stressors, and possible solutions for each. So I got my little journal and wrote, and Bini sat next to me and complained.

“Just draw something, then.” I suggested.

“No,” he shot back. It’s the word of the month. Oh, you toddler mamas think they grow OUT of that? Har de har har.

“Well, I’m going to keep writing,” I said, describing on paper how my insomnia was stressing me out.

After a few minutes, Bini stopped drawing himself inside an army tank. “Mommy, can I tell you what’s scaring me?”

“Sure,” I said, taking his notebook and awaiting dictation. “Go ahead.”

Bini’s scary list is as follows:

  1. The Joker
  2. Clowns
  3. Men in Kabuki masks

So, there’s a theme here: My kid is scared by weird makeup and masks. I explained, in painstaking detail, that these were disguises. That underneath it all, everyone in a disguise is just like us — with regular skin and hair and eyes. Bini didn’t look convinced. So I took the low road, as I so often do.

“Bini, just imagine those scary people without any clothes on,” I said.

He started giggling. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you see someone in a scary mask, or dressed as a clown, I want you to think of them naked. Like, you can see their butts.” He looked at  me, agog.

“Mama! You want me to imagine people’s penises hanging out? That’s potty talk!” His eyes were wide, but he was cracking up.

“You’re darn right,” I said. “That’s potty talk, and potty talk is funny, isn’t it?”

“It is!” By now, he was laughing so hard he fell off his chair. “It is funny!” But then, he looked pensive again. “Won’t I get in trouble, though?”

Oh dear. Now I had visions of Bini pointing at a kid in the school Halloween parade and shrieking “TESTICLES!”

“So, let’s just imagine it, like in our heads, OK? And it’ll be our secret.” Super awesome. I’m just waiting for CPS to knock on my door.

“OK, it’s our secret,” said Bini, looking thrilled to have such a secret with his potty-talking Mama.

So that’s how I taught my son to combat his Halloween fears, ladies and gentlemen: Naked people.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

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.