In lieu of the book report I intended to do this past Monday, I shared an excerpt of the novel I am working on.
Someone asked me how it is progressing, and I am happy to say that I "won" National Novel Writing Month this year by a pretty wide margin. The requirements for "winning" are to write a 50,000 word novel. It needn't be a finished product; a very rough draft would suffice, and that is just what I have achieved. My novel is currently 119,230 words, which translates to about 581 pages when it is formatted the way publishers recommend for a manuscript, Courier New, 12pt font, double-spaced.
I am pleased with the progress I have made, but I know that what I have is a far cry from what I need to get it published. I am hopeful, though, and for someone like me hope is a powerful motivator.
However, this blog post is not about my novel-in-progress. It is, instead, the post I intended to publish on Monday: a report on a book that my psychiatrist recommended to me.
The book I would like to review this week is called "Why Unlocking We Sleep: the Power of Sleep and Dreams" by Matthew Walker, PhD. Before I begin the book review, though, I feel I need to say the following.
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that anyone actually read this book.
I am not saying that it is a bad book, nor am I denying that I value the lessons I learned in reading it. Frankly, it is a dense tome of knowledge, and if you read the table of contents you might be surprised at how in-depth and varied the topic of sleep can be. The author explores the effects that our diets and lifestyles have upon the chemical forces at play, the evolutionary aspects that determine the quality of our sleep, and the way sleep deprivation can be as devastating a force upon our lives as anything else we might imagine.
So, why is it that I cannot recommend that anyone actually read this book? Firstly, I am not discouraging anyone from buying it and giving it a read. It is very interesting, and I found it not only useful, but critical at times, in being a proactive partner to my psychiatrist, therapist, family doctor, and wife in combating my depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The fact remains, however, that as comprehensive and detailed as this book is, its author writes in such a dry, clinical manner that it becomes a bit of a chore sifting through his quite obviously brilliant ideas to find the parts that pertain to you. Even my psychiatrist warned me of this when he recommended the book; he said that this book was as likely to put me to sleep in the attempt to read it as it was to help me understand why that is a good thing.
"Should you feel drowsy and fall asleep while reading this book, unlike most authors, I will not be disheartened" (Walker, M. P. 2018).
One of the factors that contributed to my diminishing mental state early in 2020 was the fact that a multitude of bad news had rendered me almost incapable of getting 'good' sleep. Good sleep, in this case, is deep, restful sleep wherein you achieve the right conditions for the hormone Serotonin to be replenished before you wake the next morning. Serotonin is a hormone that helps us survive the rigors of our lives. It only lasts 24 hours in our systems, and our entire supply is only replenished when we sleep, and sleep well. When faced with challenging moments, confrontation, discomfort, or any other manner of stressful stimuli, we make use of Serotonin to keep us calm and focused, prevent us from becoming a victim of our own emotions, and choose correctly whether to stand and fight or run for our lives when we are in danger. There are medications called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's) that can help us make more efficient use of the supply of Serotonin we have, but they are relatively ineffective if we aren't refueling ourselves by getting good sleep.
"The elastic band of sleep deprivation can only stretch so far before it snaps" (Walker, M. P. 2018).
Early in 2020, my mother became very ill and wound up hospitalized. She was having breathing issues related to her heart, and she required a fairly lengthy stay in the hospital as a result. She is the age, now, that her own mother was when she passed away. I was brought right back to my state of mind as it was in the days before my dad died, and I was terribly depressed. I knew, then, that I was having a crisis of my own, but I tried as hard as I could to isolate my problems so that the focus could remain on my mom.
Shortly after she came home, after nearly a week in the hospital, my sister had a medical condition that came out of nowhere. I had become accustomed to hearing her complain about the tiniest amount of pain or discomfort, and this was the first and only time she had been keeping a serious medical condition secret from everyone, including my mom. I was stunned by this situation, and I still am in some ways. I began losing a lot of sleep around this time. That was when my wife went to our family doctor regarding some lightheadedness and he discovered that she had formed a blood clot in her leg. Her symptoms indicated that the clot may have led to further clots being formed in her lungs, and this, too, turned out to be true.
I stopped sleeping almost altogether at this time. I was so terrified of losing her, and neither my sister nor my mother were doing very well. I was having a difficult time getting through a day without having a very low moment or two where I felt positively lost, hopeless, and useless. I began to hate the guy in the mirror, so I just stopped looking in it altogether.
As I look back, I recognize that I was in a spiral that just kept getting steeper and more erratic with every piece of bad news I heard, and I was sleeping an hour or two a night, as a result. I was dreading going to work because I was terrified that something would happen at home and I would be too far away to be of any use, and I was disheartened with my certainty that even if I was right in the same room when whatever inevitable tragedy happened next, my own ineptitude and insufficiency would render me completely moot. All along, I slept terribly. When I did get more than a few hours, it was restless and full of unspeakable, vivid nightmares. My subconscious was punishing me, in a way, and the results... well, they culminated in a devastating moment on the morning of my birthday a few months later when I drowsily stared at the newly-43-year-0ld me in the bathroom mirror and decided I didn't deserve to live, anymore.
"Fitting Charlotte Brontë's prophetic wisdom that 'a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,' sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality" (Walker, M. P. 2018).
Things did start to improve, though I thought it only to have been a brief lull within a string of relentless, damaging storms washing my faith and hope away, eroding my desire to live altogether. I didn't realize how gray things had gotten for me, honestly. I needed to put some distance between myself and my stress to see it. Getting a few night's good sleep was critical in providing me this fleeting moment of clarity.
During this lull, when my mother, sister, and wife were all seemingly on the mend and out of the woods for the moment, I had a great opportunity to get away from everything and try to find a way to trust in myself, again. I had arranged, way back in the heady days of 2019, for a trip to Boston over a long weekend. It was supposed to be a part of my great friend's bachelor party, but the other groomsmen were unable to attend for one reason or another, so it just became me, the best man, and my pal, the groom, hanging out in Boston to attend a giant nerd convention called PAX East 2020.
Though it was meant to be a trip for four or five guys, it wound up just being me and my friend, who is also my partner at work, with four days and a fairly open schedule. The whole trip was great! The weather was chilly, of course, being late February, but we had blue skies and Uber, so we managed just fine. Our hotel was terrific and very conveniently located, we ate a lot of great food, went to a Bruins game, attended PAX East 2020, and went to a gun range for some target practice. The whole trip was fun, relaxing, and worth every second and every dime we spent.
I got some of the best nights of sleep I had had in well over a month, and this lasted a few days after we returned home. None of my problems at home, nor at work, seemed so impossible to endure as they had, and I was looking forward to the second half of the bachelor's celebration planned for April, which most of the other groomsmen would be able to attend. We planned to take the Metro North train down to NYC. got tickets for the stand-up comedian, Jim Gaffigan, at Radio City Music Hall, and were going to head to Planet Hollywood in Times Square afterwards for steaks and wings.
Of course, I didn't recognize that the reason things started to get better was because I had unintentionally been doing something called 'self care.' I got some rest. I enjoyed myself. I forgave my failings and gave myself permission to step away from life's problems for a while. I still felt that I did not deserve any of the happiness I was experiencing, but I fought against that sentiment by forcing myself to accept happiness, anyway. By setting aside a little time to do things that let me rest, relax, enjoy myself, I was forced to reluctantly accept that just because I had a stretch of stressful experiences didn't mean that good, fun, relaxing, and rewarding ones were never going to come my way, again.
Even if I had not experienced a mental health crisis on my birthday in March, our plans for the second-half of the bachelor's celebration would have been curtailed by Covid-19. Since his wedding was pushed off until next June, we may have a chance to make it up, though. However, the point of telling you about my trip to Boston was that it shone a bright light on the state of the life I was returning to. If I had recognized that good sleep was as important as it is, I would not have been so careless about my sleep schedule after I got home from my vacation. I got some good sleep, there, and it did help me regain, albeit temporarily, some sense that I was in control.
It gave me perspective. It took therapy, medication, and the love of my family, and the patience of my friends, co-workers, and employers to help me learn how to harness the power of that perspective. It took this book, "How We Sleep," to make me recognize the fact that I was so sleep deprived after all of the events of early 2020 that even with a few days away from it all, I was still starving my mind of the fuel it needed to keep me safely out of the horrible, seemingly inescapable gray I was rapidly sinking into.
I needed to read this book, as impassibly written it is, because it made me value the role of good sleep in my ongoing efforts to recover. If you buy this book, or borrow it from a library, I hope you get as much out of reading it as I did, and if not, I at least hope that this blog post helps you understand the importance of getting sleep. It also made me face the very real problem that my lopsided, unhealthy work cycle presents when it comes to facilitating good sleep and maximizing its benefits.
I work at a job that requires rotating shifts. I work seven evenings in-a-row, from 3:oo in the afternoon to 11 at night. I then have a two day weekend which precedes a six-day stretch of morning shifts that begin at about 7:00 in the morning and end at 3 in the afternoon. I then have about a day and a half off, because on the night of my second 'day off,' I go in to a seven-day workweek wherein I work from about 11:00 at night until 7 AM the following morning. I then have a few days off, work two, five-day Monday-Friday morning shifts, and start the whole mad cycle over again.
To paraphrase my psychiatrist after I explained the above to him, 'that work schedule is damaging and unsustainable.' The reason for this is explained in the book, "Why We Sleep" in a section entitled "My Rhythm is Not Your Rhythm." In this section, he describes the two main 'chronotypes, which are 'morning larks' and 'night owls.' I fall under the latter category.
"Most unfortunately, owls are more chronically sleep-deprived, having to wake up with the larks, but not being able to fall asleep until far later in the evening. Owls are thus often forced to burn the proverbial candle at both ends. Greater ill health caused by a lack of sleep therefore befalls owls, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke" (Walker, M. P. 2018).
I do not pretend to have a solution for the way my work schedule sabotages my efforts to consistently get good sleep, and I have had no choice but to rely upon outside factors, like medication, meditiation, and deep breathing exercises, to help me assert a more proactive role in getting myself to sleep when my brain is hesitant to do so. My psychiatrist was right; my work schedule is unhealthy and, I believe, unsustainable in the long term if my health and wellbeing are going to be a priority for me. However, I am honestly elated to have the job I have. It is good work, and a great company. I work with terrific people in a relatively safe and comfortable atmosphere. I am compensated well for my work, and I do feel appreciated by my peers, my bosses, and my family. It helps me not only keep my household afloat, but to make strides toward improving the lives of others because I have been fortunate enough to be able to donate so much more to charities. I get a lot out of my job, and I am grateful for it, so until a healthier alternative comes along I am right where I am supposed to be.
It feels good, feeling that way. I struggle with sleep, but empowered with the knowledge I have attained during my therapy and through books like "Why We Sleep," I feel as if I can relax a bit more, and that helps as much as any medication, meditation, or breathing treatment can.
Our lives are very chaotic these days. Make sure you get as much good sleep as you can, as it will arm your mind to help stave off depression and anxiety. We can all use a little more peace of mind, don't you think?
I have attached a link to the author’s page, in case you have an interest in checking it out. Just click the image of Matthew Walker's website, below. If you have any questions about it, please reach out and let me know.
As always, if you just want to reach out, for any reason, I would love to hear from you.
Walker, M. P. (2018) Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. New York, NY.
Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.