I have become overwhelmed by sleep deprivation. I knew having a second child would shake things up and I knew that I needed to make sleep a priority, but I didn’t take the proper action to guard my sleep. Night after night and poor nap after poor nap, those one-to-two-hour doses of REM-less sleep chipped away at me.
Suddenly about a month ago I realized I had flipped the switch from very tired mama to utterly and painfully exhausted. The worst part about sleep deprivation is how it slowly builds so you can sort of shrug it off until the very moment you can’t and things have gone from not-so-bad to near emergency in a blink. Loss of sleep has effected all aspects of my daily life.
The symptoms began a few months after my son Scoop’s arrival with a sluggish memory and difficult to shake brain fog. I would laugh it off when I had to stop mid sentence to grope for a simple word like cupboard or pencil while staring at the object I couldn’t name. “Whoops there goes my ‘mom brain!’ Oh well it’s just the year of the baby. I’ll be back to normal soon.”
Not long after my short term memory started to fill with gaping holes. I had to stop all activity and grind the gears of my mind to recall the previous night’s meal or a family activity from a week ago. Although things were progressing beyond laughable, I didn’t worry too much. One day I had a scare that should have been a call to action right then and there. I packed both boys up and headed to the library for the story hour. At the library I reached to unbuckle the baby from his car seat and found he was sitting on top of the straps. The discovery sent a shiver of fear into my core. I hugged him tight and began to worry but I didn’t say a word.
Depression and anxiety sank into my body a little whisper at a time. I have come to expect a few blue weeks in mid-winter, so once again I didn’t worry much at its arrival. I was also struggling to get over a pesky cold, so, I did what I thought I should do, pulled up my boot straps and carried on.
My internal monologue was a tapestry of motivational platitudes. I would feel the tug of weepiness and think, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When the baby woke after fifteen minutes from a nap that I hoped would last an hour I just told myself, “we never get more than we can handle” or “motherhood is about self sacrifice.” From there the physical symptoms began. Over the next couple of weeks I became shaky and constantly ill-at-ease. My chest often felt tight. Deep relaxing breaths were nearly impossible to come by and my body felt strangled on the inside like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
My vision felt restricted and my brain compensated for the haze by drawing my attention to things in my peripheral vision so that my eyes had trouble focusing ahead. The fuzzy vision and constant physical discomfort were often scary and infuriating all at the same time. I got out of bed in the morning with my anxiety level already around a five, little things pushed my buttons so in was a constant battle just to keep calm. I begged The Little Helping to play quietly. I prayed with all of my strength for the baby to, “just sleep a little longer this time.”
I desperately wanted to hold a complete thought in my head but it was like catching dandelion fluff through a closed window. Eventually most of my stream of thought was replaced with a dull hum, white noise. All the while I kept smiling and shrugging when people asked how we were doing. After all this is all just temporary, part of the baby year. A couple weeks ago I began to have panic attacks.
Around the same time I went from having little to no hunger sensation to enduring days of a constant yawning hole in my stomach. With very little warning the dull ache of hunger would turn angry and insistent with the panic following right behind. My heart raced, my mind raced, my thoughts raced, but my body remained heavy and tired. My body was triggering the fight or flight instinct against itself and my consciousness, such as it was, was stuck in the middle. While the waves rolled over me I could imagine my mind launching up and out while my body finally fell to the ground to sleep for a thousand years.
Unfortunately these attacks, unwanted at any time, frequently struck at moments when I had the least control over my environment. Driving became a very scary activity. Going to the grocery store took a tremendous effort. The day I took The Little Helping to see a nutritionist and discuss how to reintroduce gluten into his diet, I sat on her couch white knuckling my way through each second. Imagine trying to be engaged while a violent storm is raging inside your body. I was talking about coconut flour pancakes while every impulse in my brain was screaming to get up and run as fast and possible in any direction and my physical being just wanted to lay down on that couch and sleep.
Later that afternoon the boys had an appointment with their doctor, who was already concerned about me. It was during that appointment that I finally stopped trying to be Rose the Great and Powerful and stepped out from behind the curtain. She held Scoop while I cried then with a voice full of compassion asked what she could do to help. I joked that she could write my kids a prescription for Ambien (seriously, it was a joke).
She did write me a prescription and, I wish I had saved the piece of paper, it said, “Eat more, exercise with an increased heart rate 3x per week, and get some sleep.” She also sent me home with a bottle of B vitamins. I got to work on the first instruction immediately. The second has been a little trickier to fit in but I have been able to hop on the treadmill several times since that appointment. Unfortunately the third instruction remained out of reach for several more weeks.
Sleep became my holy grail, the single most important component around which my entire day was centered. I searched the web for the magic formula to achieve better baby sleep that would allow me that all powerful night of restorative rest. We never really figured it out with The Little Helping but with no other children at home and fewer obligations the disrupted sleep didn’t bother me as much (it did bother me though, more than I realized at the time).
I found a few on-line sources helpful but over the period of time that I was trying to improve the sleeping situation things deteriorated further. Over the course of two weeks Scoop went from waking 3-5 times a night to waking 7-9 times a night. That is when I decided to find a person who could walk us through teaching Scoop and in turn our entire family to sleep better.
Our help finally arrived in the form of a doula who specializes in pediatric sleep. We called her on Monday after a night when I finally fell asleep as dawn broke. On Thursday she sat in our kitchen and we mapped out a plan to get our family back to sleep. That day I was excited knowing help was on the way and anxious thinking she was going to highlight everything we did wrong. She didn’t scold us for a second. She was matter of fact and focused. She smiled when I apologized for asking the same question three times because I couldn’t remember her previous answers. It was a relief to finally feel supported and empowered. She didn’t leave until we fully understood that she would not leave us hanging, that we were now a team.
For the first time in months things felt hopeful. We started our new approach to baby sleep that very night. We are seven nights in and last night, for the very first time since his birth, we did not need to soothe Scoop back to sleep. We heard him stir a few times and then settle right back down. To say it was a relief is an understatement.
This process forced me to change notions about myself and parenting that I have held for a long time. I had to answer some difficult questions, like, “So, how’s that working for you?” I had to wait until the pain to change was less than the pain to remain the same. I had to reignite my faith in others, something that was stifled by depression and anxiety.
Recovering from prolonged sleep deprivation is going to be a slow process. It is going to take many more nights like last night to get my body and mind back in balance. Sadly I will probably feel worse before I feel better. But that’s okay. I’m okay. I know where the help is if and when I need it.
If you are wrestling, struggling or otherwise in the midst of dealing with any of the issues I mentioned in this post: please tell people, please do not stop reaching out until someone takes your hand, looks you in the eye, and says you are not alone and they will walk with you as long as you need them to be there. Call a friend, family member, doctor or a doula. You are not selfish, you are not lacking, and you are not a failure, you are a wonderful beautiful person who deserves to feel better - now.
If you are in the Seattle area and would like help getting your family to a better night sleep please check out Marianne Jacobson's website. She has been a God send for us. Really and truly.
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