SLEEP: Chief Nourisher In Life’s Feast.

Sleep has always been hard for me. My very first memory is being in my bed at the age of five, cuddling with my mother, while we were surrounded by a chilly, damp fog. The doctors had told my parents I needed a cold humidifier to treat my asthma, which now seems like the last thing I’d want since I’m most comfortable in a warm, dry room.

I never wanted to go to sleep, even as a kid. I remember my brother, who was 12 at the time, would voluntarily put himself to bed at an appropriate time while I, an 8 year old, would fight tooth and nail to stay up late. It wasn’t about watching TV — our only television was in my mother’s bedroom and Irish channels all went off the air late at night, anyway. It wasn’t about being scared, either (that came later). It was about enjoying the witching hour; wanting to listen to more music, read more books, write more poems…

A few years later, while visiting my father in America, I discovered MTV. It was one of my first addictions. I remember the physical excitement I had waiting for the next video to start. A breathless anticipation. It was like a gambler who just keeps putting the money down, hoping the next hand will be a winner. If I didn’t know the band, I couldn’t tear myself away because what if the next video is a good one?? Night after night, I would stay awake until the sun came up. It was my secret life: the thrill of not living a normal routine, of being alone and able to do anything. There was always a disappointment when the windows grew lighter. My father got up very early for work and I was always scared that he would catch me, black circles and spiral-eyed, glued to the television at 6 in the morning. When I heard his footsteps upstairs in the morning, I would silently slink up to my bedroom and go to sleep. A few times, I didn’t hear him until he came downstairs and, quick as a ninja, I would have the TV off and lie down in a convincing position to make it look like I’d fallen asleep on the couch. My brother, as usual, had gone to bed at a decent hour, even during the summer holidays.

One time I woke up to a sound in my bedroom: a zippery repetitive sound, and, when I opened my eyes, I saw the glow of a flame under a ghoul’s face. Then the flame went out and I heard the zipper sound again and the flame came back. It was a man at the foot of my bed, holding a cigarette lighter, lighting it over and over in the dark. It scared the shit out of me. Those seconds, while my sleep-slogged brain tried to wrap itself around this scene and comprehend what was happening, seemed very long …and have never left me. It turned out, it was a drunk friend of my cousin looking for the toilet. He’d somehow managed to find his way down the stairs to the basement and through two closed doors into my pitch-black room.

I don’t know if my nightmares started before or after that. They weren’t chronic and didn’t concern me too much, but, when they happened, it was memorable. I would wake up screaming or yelling or arguing. I would sleep walk and sleep talk. They were mostly obvious stress nightmares: dreaming I’d fail exams when I had exams coming up, dreaming I couldn’t get to all the tables and I was the only server in the restaurant, that sort of thing.

At some stage, I began sleeping very lightly. It was more or less a conscious decision. We had a few break-ins in my house and I conditioned myself to be on high alert, even while I slept. I wanted to know if anyone came in my room. I would awaken to any odd sound, even faint, and, once I became a self-conscious teenager, I could never sleep properly at friends’ houses or on planes or anywhere visible because I didn’t want to be seen drooling and slack-jawed.

Once I got dogs, my sleep became even lighter. I wanted to be able to hear my kids in distress since my husband sleeps through everything. In the first few years of their lives, there was a lot of needing to pee in the night and puking in the early mornings and injuries that required nocturnal consoling. And I can’t discount the sleep interruptions caused by 185 pounds of snoring husband and 175 pounds of scratching, licking, readjusting dog in the bed beside me.

Just as I can count on one had the memorable, incredible meals in my life, there are a few memorable, incredible sleeps of my life. One was in Germany, the first night I was there as an exchange student. The room was silent and had heavy metal shades on the outside of the window that you lowered with a crank on the inside. The door was solid and soundproof. It was like being shut into a dark, silent prison cell and I slept like I never remember sleeping before. Of course, for days afterwards, the family with whom I was living made fun of how late I got up, so I never again during my stay let myself sink that deeply asleep.

Another time, I was visiting my oldest brother in Tennessee. I had just arrived from Ireland and he put me in the spare room and said, “Rack hard, Elizabeth.” That was a term they used in the Air Force, I guess. There was something about his permission — his COMMAND — to sleep long and hard and, also, the knowledge that my two family members that were there — my brother and mother — routinely slept 10+ hours, so they wouldn’t judge, that allowed me to let go into blissful slumber. Their plush bed probably helped, too.

As an adult, working in bars and restaurants, I never, ever went to sleep before 3am and regularly stayed up until daylight. These were the heady years of booze and fun. I could drink and talk all night. One night when I had just met my husband, we were staying up late, listening to music and talking — sharing really important stuff like you do with a new love — and he fell asleep mid-conversation. I was aghast. How rude! And who wants to stop the revelry before sun-up (or before the wine runs out)? What a weirdo. But, it’s one of the reasons he will never have M.E. He has an off-switch. Another reason is, he’s not a Type A perfectionist the way I am. I was always pretty obsessive about succeeding, but, once I quit drinking and became a full-blown workaholic, sleep got worse. I worked late, wound down from work even later and got up early to do, go, be… In between, I had responsibility-laden, over-achiever stress dreams.

But nothing… none of it compared to what happened when I got sick with M.E. Night terrors are very different to nightmares. Not sleeping much when you’re healthy doesn’t come close to a the lack of sleep caused by a broken immune system and a poisoned body. You’ve heard about it ad nauseum in this blog, so I won’t bore you more. All of this is just to set the stage to explain the incomparable joy of the last few months. I’ve been sleeping. I’ve been closing my eyes, falling asleep within minutes and not having conscious thought again for 7 hours, sometimes more. I haven’t wanted to shout it from the blog rooftops for fear of jinxing myself, but this is big. This is healing. This feels like what a normal person must experience. I’m still suffering from the lack of circulation, pain and nightmares, but it’s SO MUCH BETTER. I still don’t feel recovered in the mornings, but there’s SO MUCH HOPE. Every time I look at the clock and see 9am or later and my body is dry and soft and the last thing I remember is turning out the light the night before — no waking panting, heart-hammering, no drenching, trembling sweats, no full-body muscle spasms that twist my neck and crack my jaw — I break out in a shit-eating grin. Pure celebratory joy. A feeling I want to bottle and carry around with me. A swig here and there of rested jubilance.

My top tips for making some headway in this area: Feeling safe in your home, sleeping alone, never drinking so much before bed that you’ll have to get up to go to the loo in the night, balancing hormones (really, this may all be a consequence of topical progesterone and pregnenolone), and good ear plugs (life changing).

Also, when you have felt that you truly might die, every day afterwards is gravy. Going to bed excited that you got another day and you get another one tomorrow — but not so excited that your nervous system is jazzed up — that’s the key.

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

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Día de Muertos

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I can’t remember what was on tv. I was listening casually while I sat writing Christmas cards on the other side of the room. I had five half-boxes left over from the years before and I was determined to have all of them written on time because I’m notoriously late with cards. I decided to start writing them on Halloween night because I could see our gate from the dining table and, when the kids arrived, I could dash outside with the bowl of chocolates before my dogs heard anything and went into cacophonous protection mode. I was hunched over, scribbling and, when I straightened, I felt this ripple go through my body. I’ll never forget that feeling. Like a ghost had walked through me. Like unearthly cold hands had reached inside my body and stroked downwards, from head to toes. A momentary shudder through my brain and nervous system that I never imagined would settle into each muscle and fiber, growing, mutating, eroding. I think of it now and wonder what was happening on a cellular level while I was nonchalantly scribbling notes.

I said, “Oh, I’ve been at this too long” and went to the armchair, curled up fetal, and fell asleep. An hour later, I awoke and knew something wasn’t right. Although it hadn’t really started yet, it felt more serious than a cold or flu. I felt unstable on a systemic level and thought it might turn into one of my syncopal episodes where I would collapse, pale and clammy, with a barely detectable blood pressure and pulse. I said to my husband, “You have to come to bed now. Something might happen and I won’t be able to make it down the stairs to get you.” Those were the days when we used to share a room. Before my illness became my bedfellow.

I spent the next four hours colder than I’ve ever been in my life. I was fully dressed, in bed with a hot water bottle, teeth chattering, shaking so violently, little moans were squeezed from my chest. I vividly remember the eternity it took me to move my hand out from under the duvet in an effort to cover one freezing ear. I thought if my hand left the relative warmth of the blankets, it might freeze solid and shatter into pieces. Oh shit, shit, shit. I’m sick. This is a doozy. I couldn’t ever remember having something like this, but it reminded me of my husband’s horrid battle with chicken pox. He was the sickest person I’d ever seen.

I drifted into sleep, curled in a tiny ball against the headboard, holding my knees, and, when I woke up, I was drenched. I had never experienced even slight night sweats and I couldn’t believe my body contained so much fluid. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of water on me. I could slap my stomach and make little splashes of sweat. And I was so relieved. I had assumed I would battle this virus for days, but the fever had broken after only a few hours and it would be a quick recovery. How could I imagine that I would continue to experience this almost every night for the next two years, losing lifeforce into my bed sheets, becoming weaker and weaker?

I spent the last of the night drifting in and out of fever dreams, waking up intermittently, sweaty and shaky. My husband snoozed peacefully beside me. At one point, my bowels cramped up and I wondered if it was just some atypical food poisoning event. In the morning, I decided I was on the mend, showered, got dressed and went to work. Because that’s what you do… So, that’s what I did. You’d have to be on your death bed to call in sick and, besides, I wanted to save my days off for Christmas.

*****

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I’ve thought about that night a lot over the last three years. The moment my immune system shifted permanently. My utter naïveté about what could happen to a body. Although I’d taken many premed classes and had quite a few health problems in my life, it really never occurred to me that I wasn’t unbreakable. Or, at least, if I broke, I assumed I’d be able to be fixed if I put in the work. I had been diagnosed with Graves Disease a few years earlier, told it would kill me without treatment, had radioiodine ablation on my thyroid and had to avoid people for two weeks. And, during all of this, I never took a day off of work. It also never crossed my mind to get a second opinion, talk to others with the same condition or change my eating and sleeping habits. I just popped the radioactive pill and got back to work. The same month, I was told I had reactivated EBV by a naturopath and was advised to cut back my work schedule from 55 hours a week to 20… Ha! I’m sure you can guess how that went. I never saw that doctor again. I was too busy.

I had never been intimately exposed to chronic illness, so I was completely ignorant to the toll it could take on a family. I imagined it would be hard, of course, but you can never understand without experiencing it. Everyone in my family is healthy, even my extended family. We have our demons, but they’re addictions, mental health problems, typical old age conditions. I had my first major bout of angeoedema when I was 23 and went into anaphylaxis for the first time when I was 28. My siblings are all in their 30s and 40s and haven’t had more than the occasional cold. My parents are in their 70s and both still work and are active and social.

I was a sick baby. People would famously stare at the itty bitty girl with the old man’s cough. If I’d understood what could happen to a body, if I’d been less in denial, if I’d been less concerned about proving my bullet-proof toughness, I might have looked back on my childhood and my chest infections, thyroid disease, vasovagal syncope and all the symptoms that turned out to be mast cell activation disorder and tried to make changes to protect myself. If I’d understood what can happen to a body, I might have tried to nurture what was obviously a sensitive system, armour myself against external assaults and preserve what was still working. I could have eaten food that didn’t come from a restaurant kitchen. I could have taken a vitamin once in a while and stopped drinking all of my water out of cheap plastic bottles. I could have made sleep a priority, quit smoking and drinking sooner and not married a job that turned a run-of-the-mill control freak into a spread-too-thin obsessive perfectionist, trying to do all things, everywhere, first and best.

It’s been exactly three years since M.E. shuddered through my body and I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking about the life that I lost that day. I would take all of my previous health conditions over this one. It was like a death: of my career, of my strong body, of ignorant bliss, and of our future dreams. I think about the months leading up to it — the blatant warnings of a body in crisis that I chose to ignore. There was a nagging voice in my head that pushed me to make a will, living will and power of attorney the year prior, at the age of 36. That same voice made me insist on a quickie marriage in the back garden after my husband and I had been together 13 years. I wanted him to be able to speak for me if I happened to be incapacitated and have legal recourse and rights if I died. I did everything I needed to do for luck: old, new, borrowed, blue, coin in my shoe… We signed the papers on the patio table and, half way back to the kitchen to grab our lunch, I remembered the last thing needed to insure we didn’t jinx our new life: he carried me over our backdoor threshold. We didn’t tell anyone because we thought we’d have a proper ceremony with friends and family in the next year or two — maybe in Ireland or somewhere exotic on a beach. It was exciting to dream up plans for a wedding after so many years together. That was 44 days before my Halloween sickness.

My life feels like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I adored as a kid.

Move back to Ireland after college, turn to page 63 or drive across America to Seattle, turn to page 82.

Work your way up the restaurant corporate ladder, turn to page 103 or go to grad school for nutrition and dietetics, turn to page 123.
 
Jump in the lake in Virginia, just once, for only a few minutes, turn to page 146 or stay dry and don’t catch whatever is going to land you in the ER, wipe out your gut flora and set your immune system up for failure, turn to page 160.
 

Run into Walgreens on the way home from work and get a flu shot, turn to page 184 or keep on driving and live the rest of your life never having heard of myalgic encephalomyelitis, turn to page Happily Ever After.

I know, I know. You want to say it might have happened anyway. But it wouldn’t have. And you want to say I’ve got to stop ruminating over the what ifs and focus on the present. But it’s the Day of the Dead, a time to remember the dear departed. So, today, three years after the specter came to stay, I will think about the woman I lost that hallowed eve.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

I’ll leave you on a happy note. November 1st is not only the anniversary of the first day of my new life with chronic illness, it is also the anniversary of my first born son, Bowie, arriving in our lives. ^^