It was the middle of the afternoon, I hadn’t slept for more than thirty minutes at a time in days, barely much more in weeks. I was on the floor, tears making steady, salty tracks down my face, pleading with whoever was watching over us to make it stop, to help my baby sleep or to somehow magically spirit me away. I couldn’t do it anymore, I whispered out loud, as for the millionth time I rhythmically patted the mattress next to my little girl, like a wind-up monkey clapping cymbals.
She hadn’t learned to self-settle and at 11 months old, she was sleeping in short bursts but would wake up between cycles, needing me to comfort her back, whatever the time day or night. My partner worked full time, I was still breastfeeding, and our families were the other side of the globe, so for the majority of the time it was just the two of us.
When I could scrape together enough energy to stop and observe my thoughts, as they spiralled deeper and darker, it was like listening to a stranger. By this point I could barely see the wood for the trees and the darkness was overwhelming. I came to the realisation that it was time to ask for help. While I was clinging on to the precipice of rationality, deprived of even one more night’s sleep I may not have the strength to hold on and would plunge to depths beyond even my own control.
So I called my GP. An emergency plan went into action that afternoon and within a couple of days my little family of three was admitted to a Tresillian residential centre or as those in parenting circles call it ‘sleep school’. What proceeded was the most challenging week of all our lives, but also one of the most enlightening (I will share more on that in the coming weeks).
One of the seemingly most basic revelations was that sleep deprivation was one of the triggers for my dangerous spiral. I realised that most likely this had been an issue in the past and would certainly be in the future. And while I was beating myself up for not being able to cope, telling myself I was weak and a failure, it became apparent that no one could be expected to cope under those circumstances. But we’ve been taught, not just as new parents, but as humans in general, that a lack of sleep is a ‘badge of honour’. Surviving on as little sleep as possible is to be celebrated and revered and burning out the inevitable result of a successful life, right? Arianna Huffington, creator of The Huffington Post, frequently cites her ‘wake up call’ only coming when she literally passed out from exhaustion in her office, fracturing her cheekbone and waking up in a pool of blood. She was so transformed by her experience that she installed nap rooms in her offices and wrote a book on the topic.
But sleep is not just about recharging and building up our energy. It’s also not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s the time our brain is given a hose down. The toxic build-up from the day is literally flushed away by our glymphatic system. Our physical and mental health is affected not just by the amount, but also the quality of our sleep and depriving ourselves can lead to a host of issues.
The tide does appear to be turning though. With the relentless waves of new technology and our constant connectivity, even those purveyors of the 24 hour news feeds and endless rabbit hole searches are encouraging us to find ways to ‘switch off’. Creating positive habits in relation to rest is on the rise, not just at home but in the workplace too and thankfully, sleep, it would seem, is a new badge of honour.
I still battle with the darkness in my brain, especially when it hasn’t had enough sleep, but I have learned to step back, observe the thoughts and signs and I ask myself, ‘How much sleep have you had over the last few days?’ The answer invariably is, ‘Not enough!’ so I start with that.
There are many resources on the topic of getting more and better sleep. A few tricks I have learned and add to my routine when I feel the clouds approaching are:
Turning off devices an hour before bedtime, and I don’t mean buying one of those apps to turn your screen orange. Turn them off! Books and magazines are a great way to wind down – provided you aren’t reading anything related to work or parenting as that will just switch your brain on! Check out our Book Club post to see what the team has been reading.
A relaxing bath or shower in the evening with a podcast. Don’t do this directly before bedtime though, as research suggests your body actually needs to cool down in order to prepare for sleep. Here are a few podcasts you might enjoy; I always check out the Ted Radio Hour and StoryCorps. If you were hooked on Serial by the makers of This American Life you’ll want to check out their newly released STown.
Avoiding caffeinated drinks in the evening and replacing them with soothing herbal teas. Or my partner swears by this recipe used by entrepreneur and author of the 4 Hour Work Week Tim Ferris; Make a cup of decaffeinated black tea and add 2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar and 1 tbsp of unfiltered honey (we just use regular honey!)…I tried it recently and I have to say it seems to be working for us!
10 minute meditation…a great programme for getting started is here
Aiming to go to bed half an hour earlier. Everyone’s sleep needs are different of course, but on average you’re winning if you hit at least 7 hours a night…my magic number appears to be between 8-9! Just pulling bedtime forward half an hour will make a difference.
Not only can these habits improve sleep, but creating comforting routines and taking a moment for yourself will improve your daily existence. These simple acts can bring a moment of peace and joy to the hectic pace of our lives and enable us to recharge not just our bodies but our minds too. It’s time to set our own wake up call, and if we need to hit ‘snooze’ once in a while, well, that’s ok.
Image posed by model. Photographer: Hernan Sanchez/unsplash.com
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