Mental Health

Anxiety > Insomnia > Anxiety: Capitalism?

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[Image: photo of Sage lying down in a bed with a disgruntled/sad expression on their face].

 

CW: discussion of anxiety, insomnia, and mental health.

Hi, I’m Sage, and sometimes I forget how to sleep.

Maybe this makes me sound quirky, but I can assure you that it’s mostly just terrible.

I have anxiety-induced insomnia and sleep-deprivation-induced anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not always sure what triggers my bouts of sleeplessness, but I know as soon as they’ve been activated.

For awhile, all is well. Then one night, right after I lay my head down, I’m hit with the first pang of anxiety. It begins just below the centre of my chest and rolls into my stomach, and it tells me I will be wide awake for many hours to come. Usually, this will last for three or four nights in a row and then resolve on its own. Sometimes, however, it can go on for weeks or even months. Life transitions, burn out, arguments, overcommitments, and a variety of other stressors can all be triggers. Sometimes, it feels like life itself is a trigger.

I’ve tried many things over the years in an attempt to either solve or cope with this issue and have come to the conclusion that if I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. That sucks but it seems to be the way it is.

On August 19th, after returning from a long trip and needing to wake up extra early for work the next morning, I wrote:

I have to change my relationship to sleep in order to get over my insomnia. I have to switch from “should” to “want,” like with food, where it is healthier to have a “want” relationship than a “should” relationship. Instead of, “I have to sleep now because I should in order to be functional tomorrow,” I need to go, “I am tired, I am done with the day, and I want to go to sleep”. The “should” is what keeps sleep from happening by making me anxious. I have to do the difficult work of changing the way I think about sleep.

The next morning, I wrote:

The trick is to lean into the anxiety. The issue is with trying to make it go away, make it stop so that I can sleep, but that does not work. I need to feel the anxiety in my body, the way it rolls in my belly and tingles my feet. I need to take deep breaths, not try to erase the anxiety but breathe into and around it. I need to lay there and embrace it. Eventually, I can get to sleep this way. Eventually.

It’s tricky because I can use these strategies to help myself fall asleep, but then I will often wake up about ten minutes later with a renewed surge of adrenaline. Anxiety really gets the best of me when I’m not awake enough to properly deal with it. Reasoning gets harder and fear takes over. It’s best, when this happens, to turn on the light and read, write, drink water—anything but continue to lie in the dark with the fear.

I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with bouts of sleeplessness before, but they can seriously interfere with your quality of life. I’m far more irritable and less able to focus on whatever tasks I have to perform. I try to compensate for my lack of energy by drinking more coffee than normal, which makes me feel even more anxious. I often end up cancelling plans, getting sick, and feeling totally disconnected from my body. Most of the coping mechanisms I have for managing my mental health go out the window. Small things that would normally have little impact on my mental state send me over the edge into full-blown panic attacks.

To summarize, when I stop sleeping, EVERYTHING IS BAD.

Pot helps sometimes. Herbal remedies help sometimes. Deep breathing helps sometimes. Leaning into the anxiety helps sometimes. Reading a book helps sometimes. Sleeping with my partner helps sometimes. Writing helps sometimes. All of these things help sometimes, but I haven’t found anything that helps all of the time, that is guaranteed to help me get to sleep. Even with my awareness and coping skills, I still experience anxiety-fueled nights with little-to-no sleep on a regular basis.

I will likely never be “cured” of this issue. Insomnia runs in my family on both sides. I’ve had sleep issues my whole life. My mother says my brother was the picky eater while I was the troubled sleeper. I remember, night after night when she would tuck me in, I would ask her, “What if I can’t sleep?”

She would reply, “Then you’ll just be tired. It’s not like you have to perform brain surgery tomorrow”.

I still use this to calm down sometimes. Thank god I didn’t become a surgeon.

Until my brother was born and his crying kept me awake, I insisted on sleeping in my mom’s room because sleeping on my own scared me. A nightlight wasn’t the solution because it wasn’t the dark that bothered me, it was the fear of being alone with my nighttime anxiety.

I believe this issue is in my genetic makeup. It has also been with me for my whole life and I don’t expect it to ever go away, so what do I do? Is there anything I can do beyond what I’ve already tried? I don’t think so. I feel like I’ve tried everything. And yes, before someone suggests it, I have tried meditation and mindfulness exercises. Those things are about as effective as everything else I’ve listed.

I’m anxious. I’m an insomniac. These things are a part of me, a part of my package. I seem to have been born with them. I doubt they’ll change or go away. Sometimes, they’re relatively mild and easy to live with. Sometimes, they flare up and significantly impact my ability to function. It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting! But also, it is what it is. I don’t know if it’s worth my sometimes very limited energy to fight something that may, very well, just be an integral part of my existence.

I read once that there’s an evolutionary advantage to some folks being light sleepers because if there’s trouble at night, the light sleepers are more likely to wake up and alert everyone. Perhaps this is true of insomniacs as well. We keep odd hours and are often hypervigilant in the middle of the night, aware of whatever may be lurking in the dark while many are blissfully asleep. Perhaps my insomnia isn’t purely negative and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Yes, it makes functioning in the nine-to-five world difficult, but I solve a lot of problems at night, I process things, I remember important things I’d forgotten during the day, I read, and I write. When I’m not totally consumed by anxiety, which often results from me resisting the insomnia, it can actually be a thoughtful and productive time. I’m able to look at things from a different perspective than I do during the day. I wrote a poem once that captures this:

wide awake at 4 am
getting my tasks done
my boxes checked
my ducks in line
what would i do
if it wasn’t for
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
reminding me
of messages to send
of supplies to bring
of work to plan

what would i do
if i didn’t
wake up & worry
so early
in the morning
forget probably
slip up probably
be stressed probably
it’s 4:20 now
i’m writing this & thanking
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
the 4 am that’s saving me

There’s research that shows that humans are not necessarily meant to sleep solidly through the night but in two stages, which would explain why so many of us deal with insomnia. It may actually be hardwired into us to be alert for a few hours when we think we should be sleeping. Unfortunately, we’ve created a society that doesn’t accommodate that. I’ve thought about how much easier my life would be if I had time to take a nap during my lunch break or sometime in the afternoon, if I could split my sleep and my workday in two. What makes me anxious is knowing that I have to get up early in the morning and then muster the energy, regardless of how little sleep I get, to go go go all day without any breaks, rest, or downtime.

Wait a second here, might the problem actually be… capitalism?

Might it be how we’ve structured the workweek to maximize our labour rather than fit comfortably with the rhythms of our bodies and minds? Hm, there’s a thought. I know during times in my life where I’ve had more flexibility with my schedule, where I could choose when to sleep and when to work, insomnia hasn’t been an issue in the same way.

Okay, so now I’m thinking that rather than mindfulness exercises, to deal with my insomnia, I should be using my sleepless nights to work on overthrowing capitalism. This would also give me something to focus on rather than my anxiety about not sleeping. Alright, there’s one thing I haven’t tried. I’ll give it a shot.

Life and Death

Inside the MRI

CW: discussion of health issues, medical stuff, and death.

I lie on my back with my head ear-muffed inside the MRI scanner, listening to bad club music, trying not to laugh, and thinking about death. The awkward redheaded technician is visible as a shapeshifting shadow through the glass. They’ve provided a mirror inside the machine so I can see them and not have a panic attack. They are (apparently) shifting my copper IUD around and taking a picture of the inside of my skull. The instructions said to put on pants but I couldn’t find any pants. I’m worried they can see up my gown and grateful I kept my underwear on. My grandfather died of brain cancer and I’ve been getting migraines. I searched for his obituary online and came up with nothing. He’s buried in Smiths Falls. We used to visit his grave once a year. I wonder if death is like dreaming, if when you die you go to a dreamscape. Maybe dreaming at night keeps us in touch with death, a little taste of the other side, reminders of what we will go back to. Is my grandfather dreaming? Did he ever lie on his back with his head ear-muffed inside an MRI scanner, listening to bad club music, trying not to laugh, and thinking about death?

Death seems less scary if it’s like a dream because I know what a dream is. I never really knew who my grandfather was. I’m scared I might have brain cancer.

 


Note: Nothing scary came up on the MRI, thankfully. I’m still trying to figure out what’s causing the migraines but I’m okay.

Creativity, Life and Death, Sex/Relationships

17.22.750 Chapbook + Patreon

I am launching two new things today! The first is my chapbook, the details of which are below, and the second is a Patreon page, which exists to support my writing. Depending on the tier, patrons can get access to my zine, chapbook, works in progress, details about my writing process, and other bonus content.

This means that you now have two options for accessing my zine/chapbook, either by purchasing them through PayPal or by becoming a patron! Let me know if you have any questions about this here.

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[Image: black text centred over white background that reads, “17.22.750”].

17.22.750 Chapbook

What does it mean to be the 26-year-old editor of your 17-year-old self? What does it mean to come back, years later, and publish something never meant to be shared? Can modern-day me consent to publish past me? I suppose I’m going with yes.

17.22.750 is a 35+ page chapbook comprised of approximately 750-word entries I wrote at the ages of 17, 22, and 26. It is about growing up and having lots of questions. These younger versions of me navigate school, work, relationships, heartbreak, existentialism, gender, sexuality, in addition to fear and excitement over an always unknown future. Originally private entries written on 750words.com, from high school to university to adulthood, I spill out the clutter in my head with stark honesty.

Order the Chapbook | $5.00 CAD

Once your payment has been processed, please allow 1-2 business days for me to email you a copy.

Life and Death

The Spirit Slice

This post may not be for you. That’s okay. You don’t need to read it or like it or agree with me. Oftentimes, conversations about spirituality can feel divisive or cause people to roll their eyes. I suppose it is a contentious thing, and I understand why, though I think it’s a shame so many of us feel the need to keep quiet about our beliefs. Keeping quiet can feel like being hidden and be rather isolating, so I’ve decided to open up about this aspect of my life and see how that goes. If you’re going to stick around, I challenge you to keep an open mind but respect that we may not see eye to eye.

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[Image: wooden outdoor steps leading up, covered in dry leaves and a yellow evening light, with some trees and a light blue sky at the top].

 

In an increasingly secular world, I have found that spirituality is an often neglected slice of the pie. It’s usually included as a dimension that is essential to one’s overall health, and yet it’s a dimension we are often not taught to nurture.

I’ve struggled with maintaining spiritual health and believe this affects all the other dimensions of my health as well, such as the mental, physical, emotional, social, and environmental ones. Good spiritual health can be the key to maintaining all of the others because it has the potential to guide you in this. I think it’s pretty important but don’t feel like my culture taught me exactly how to nurture it because of how secular this culture is. However, I have had a few opportunities throughout my life to learn more about engaging with the spiritual.

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[Image: statue of a monk in robes, looking off to the left, with dark eyes]. Photo by jeltovski.

 

I grew up in a Buddhist home and was introduced to meditation, mindfulness, and the teachings from a young age. Though I do not identify as a Buddhist at this time, there are a lot of things I love about its approach to life and the world. Buddhism isn’t a religion and I’m not sure it can properly be described as a “spiritual” practice, but it does involve some spiritual elements and tools. I’m thankful that I was given these tools when I was growing up so that they don’t feel so foreign to me as I work on developing them now.

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[Unitarian flaming chalice with a circle of rainbow stones around it]. Image from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.

 

I was in a Unitarian youth group when I was a teenager and I loved the sense of community and social responsibility I found there. My youth group leader was also a Pagan, and often brought a mix of Unitarianism and Paganism to the activities we did together. I liked that Unitarians were spiritual people invested in social issues, and no strangers to activism, as so often spiritual communities seem to lack this.

Two other aspects of these Buddhist and Unitarian communities I have appreciated are that they are okay with you holding other beliefs. You are allowed to be a Pagan and a Unitarian, or a Pagan and a Buddhist, or a Unitarian Pagan Buddhist. That’s been my impression, anyway.

I’ve been fortunate to have had these opportunities over the years. I consider myself lucky because outside of these little pockets, spirituality in a colonial 21st-century Canadian context has been difficult to find.

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[Image: metal pendant with a tree and pentacle carved into it]. Photo by Dryad Design.

 

I’m trying to carve something of a spiritual path for myself. I’m trying to piece together what I like, what I don’t, and what I’ve learned from my journey so far to form a non-institutionalized “religion” of sorts that makes sense to me. I’m trying to be mindful of appropriation, something I think many new age spiritualists are guilty of. I’m also not sure I would describe myself as “new age” as most of what I’m interested in—Buddhism and Paganism in particular—are actually pretty old.

I’m starting small and I’m going slow. I’ve overloaded myself with research and activities in the past, and then felt overwhelmed by the whole endeavour and given up, thinking I just don’t have the time for a rich spiritual life. Right now I’m reading a book (feel free to laugh at the title) called, “Everyday Witchcraft: Making Time for Spirit in a Too-Busy World” by Deborah Blake. I’ve started with a morning ritual where I greet the day, say thank you, ask for what I need, protection for those I love, and for the world to get better. I like this because it is short and simple and it sets the tone for the rest of my day. Sometimes, I also light a candle and draw a tarot card. I got off to a rough start yesterday and realized that I’d forgotten to do this ritual, so I sat down and did it, which allowed me to reset myself and restart the day. There’s power in these kinds of things, in ritual—setting intentions, being quiet for a few moments, acknowledging you’re a part of the world, and then repeating the process. There is a quiet and subtle power in such things that I think is highly unrated in the modern Eurocentric context.

I’m also thinking about looking into the local chapter of the Unitarian Church in my town by attending a Sunday service. I can scope it out and see if I feel like diving back into this community.

“Making Time for Spirit in a Too-Busy World” is something many of us, myself included, neglect to do. It’s easy to dismiss spiritual work as trivial, silly, or unimportant when the mainstream cultural narrative tells us that it doesn’t matter. But so many cultures throughout history and the modern world tell us otherwise. People have always believed in things, told stories about existence, performed rituals, and participated in spiritual communities. I’m not here to argue that this matters because I know, deep down, that it matters to me. I’m just here to remind myself, and perhaps you, if you’re listening, to make time for what matters. Figure out what matters to you and allow yourself to let it matter without judgement, dismissal, denial, or shame.

Be a Unitarian Pagan Buddhist, if that’s what makes sense to you. Or be a witch. Or be something else. Or don’t bother with any labels.

Research and explore. Be mindful and respectful. Take an interest but don’t take what isn’t yours.

Figure out what you need. You likely know what that is even if it takes time to sort out the details.

Mental Health

Panic

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[Image: Close up of turbulent, foamy water crashing towards the camera. Grey, white, and light green tones]. Photo by RaspberryLime.

 

CW: description of panic attacks, mental health issues, negative self-talk

I woke up last night to a full blown panic attack.

I had fallen asleep with some sad feelings. I was in a bit of a funk but didn’t know exactly why. I had some theories. I decided to sleep on it. Sometimes that helps.

The temperature outside dropped very low. The wind roared against my window. Cool air slipped silently into my room.

I woke up shaking uncontrollably but didn’t realize I was cold.

Hundreds of thoughts were racing through my brain, competing for attention. I couldn’t parse them. I couldn’t pull them apart for examination. They were a mess, and they didn’t make any sense, but they all felt real.

Thoughts like:

“He doesn’t care about you”.

“It’s over”.

“You’re a fuck up”.

“You’re useless”.

“You’re selfish”.

“You’re alone. You’ll always be alone”.

“You’re pathetic”.

“No one cares about you”.

I couldn’t keep up with it all, the cyclone in my brain.

Along with these thoughts, I felt a powerful desire to do something destructive: to send a slew of accusatory texts, blow something up, and push someone away to affirm the idea that I will always be alone.

Then I realized I was cold. I was shaking because I was cold, not because I was useless or selfish or pathetic or alone, but because my room had gotten fucking cold. I got out of bed and switched on my space heater, then dove back under the covers and curled into a ball for warmth.

Slowly, the room and my body began to warm up. My heart rate slowed. My shaking became less violent and then stopped altogether. There only remained a lingering feeling of dread in my stomach.

“I’m alright, I’m alright,” I reassured myself. “I just need to warm up”.

Eventually, I fell back asleep. I woke up several hours later in my normal state and thought, “What the hell was that?”

I’ve been having panic attacks since my early twenties. I was in university when they first hit. Though I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder my entire life, the panic attacks bowled me over when they first showed up. It took me a while to develop coping mechanisms for them. They consisted of surges of intense anxiety and fear like I’d never experienced before, irrational and hopeless thoughts, shortness of breath/feeling an inability to breathe, a tightness in my chest, a racing heartbeat, and generally feeling like I was dying/going to die. They almost always happened at night. I struggled with insomnia in school as well and the panic attacks reacted cyclically with that. I’d often struggle to fall asleep for hours, eventually clock out for twenty minutes or so, and then wake up in a panic and be wide awake for hours afterwards. That or I would have an attack because I couldn’t sleep and the deprivation was interfering with my ability to go to classes, study, write papers, and do exams. I was chronically exhausted, stressed, and anxious. I was living on my own for the first time in the middle of a big city where I knew almost no one. My roommates weren’t exactly the friendliest bunch and my school didn’t have a great track record as a warm, welcoming place. I was putting an immense amount of pressure on myself to perform as well as I had in high school, even though the expectations were much higher. I was struggling financially, living off of OSAP loans and paying too much for rent every month. These circumstances were ripe for my mental health to take a nosedive and the panic attacks subsequently developed.

One of the most important non-academic things I learned during my years in university was how to cope with panic, when the rational portion of your brain shuts down and the fear-based, animal brain takes over. I developed strong abilities to self-soothe, ride out the fear, and practice self-care following an attack.

I’m in a much better place now than I was back then, so last night caught me by surprise. I haven’t had an attack like that for almost a year. I wasn’t prepared for one, and for a little while there, it seemed like all my coping skills had gone out the window. It’s always challenging when the panic sneaks up on me when I’m half-awake because for a while, nothing really makes sense and I can’t take the wheel because I don’t even know where the wheel is.

But I did it. Those skills I developed a few years ago came back. I remembered. I rode it out, self-soothed, and even managed to fall back to sleep. I also didn’t do any of the destructive things my panicked brain was compelling me to do.

So, there’s another bad night under my belt and one more small victory too.