Leaving what I love

love-beans-caffeine-coffee

Do you remember your first cup of coffee? I do. I was 21, living in Sydney, Australia, working in a cafe. One day the bartender, who I thought was quite cool, offered to make me a flat white. In a failed attempt to mature and worldly, I took it and drank it. I spent the next three hours buzzing around on a wave of ecstasy. It was amazing. And I’ve enjoyed 1 to 15 cups of coffee every single day since then.

Until about a month ago. On May 21st I did it, I gave up one of my most favourite things and definitely my most favourite habit–coffee.

Crazy people all over give up coffee for all sorts of reasons–tummy troubles, anxiety, etc. For me it was sleep. I’ve kept my struggle with insomnia no secret. For about a year and a half I thought I had it all under control, but this spring insomnia reared its ugly head again. For a month I slept only 4 hours a night. My left eye twitched constantly. When it come to dealing with insomnia, giving up coffee was pretty much the last thing I had to try, so I made the choice to quit cold turkey.

I wanted to write this post for those of you who are considering giving up coffee for insomnia or any other reason. Let you know that it is possible. It can be done. It’s not fun at first but there are actual benefits. Here is what you can expect, or at least how the how the whole thing unfolded for me:

**When I quit I was drinking about 3 large mugs of coffee a day

Day 1-5. I felt like my head was in the sand. Or in the clouds. Or filled with cotton balls. It felt like there was a haze between me and my reality. It sucked, but don’t worry, it didn’t last. If it did I certainly wouldn’t have stayed off caffeine. Fortunately for me, I did not get headaches. My bowel movements remained the same (I know you were wondering). I started sleeping slightly better immediately. And here is the interesting part, I started feeling less anxious. When I drink coffee and I’m in the midst of a bout of insomnia, life feels like a crisis. But as soon as I quit, the crisis ended. I was simply just tired.

Day 5-10. I finally began sleeping better. My eye stopped twitching. I was still in a crazy, hazy fog, that didn’t change. I noticed I was overall less anxious and more calm in every area of my life.

Day 11-25. I’m no longer hazy, not at all. I wake up good to go. I am more even keel than I have ever been. The highs and lows that I thought were parts of my personality don’t happen. Turns out it wasn’t my personality, it was the caffeine. It’s a really, really good feeling. On day 12 I slept through the night which is not something that happens to me regularly.

Today. Straight up, it’s been one month. It’s still new so I’m still feeling righteous about it, but I think I might be a convert. You should be too. Don’t get me wrong, I miss coffee like crazy but life just seems so much easier without it. For example, last night I slept from 10:30PM to 4AM (work is stressing me out). While it wasn’t enough sleep for me, the quality of my sleep has improved so much that I didn’t feel that terrible. I also didn’t have the caffeine-induced sense of urgency that I didn’t know existed until I quit. I’m tired but I’m good.

changing the motivation

Here is a confession: over the last year and a half I have tried, numerous times, to get back into the physical shape I was in when I turned 30.

I have publicly declared my resolve, my fitness plans, my diets. I have have made running a commitment several times and occasionally succeeded. I have incorporated yoga and strength training. I have traded in the beer and donuts for vegetables and protein. Mostly. And despite all of this, I have not reached my goal.

While I can’t say for certain why I have never achieved this particular goal, I think I have an idea. I think it might be because the only thing at stake was change, and not a huge one at that. It would mean being able to easily run 20km instead of 8km. It would mean fitting comfortably into a size 8 instead of a size 10. A change, but not a huge one. And when the status quo isn’t that bad to begin with, change isn’t always the biggest motivator. At least it hasn’t been for me, as evident in my pant size and how much I wheeze at the 10km mark.

Well, last week I changed the stakes.

On January 7th I signed up for a 25km trail run on Vancouver’s  (incredibly mountainous) North Shore. This is serious. On January 7th I could get through a 10km run on road, but not much beyond that. I’ve got (less than) 2 months to increase my fitness big time. Change is no longer the unsuccessful motivator. Instead it’s the Dirty Duo race. It’s not embarrassing myself. It’s about finishing and not dying in the process.

I’m only 6 days into training for this and I already know it’s a motivation game changer.

Resolution in Action

1. Keep running. Commit to it. 3x a week. Make it as important as work and almost as important as loved ones. Definitely more important than tv.

2. Meditate, though feels impossible. Start with 3 minutes, work your way up.

3. This.

4. Convince yourself that your whole entire life is how you make it, how you react to it, how you respond. Happiness or unhappiness is less about what happens and more about what you do in those situations. This one is going to be hard. Keep trying.

Overcoming Insomnia: “Other” Approaches

Often it goes like this: You start having trouble with sleep. Maybe you are just restless or maybe you have full blown insomnia. Maybe you’re down to 5 hours a night or maybe you’re down to 1. Either way it sucks. So you make the recommended lifestyle changes. You talk to you doctor and try some natural sleep aids on her recommendation. But your sleep struggles persist and when they go on long enough you are willing to try anything. ANYTHING….including:

Acupuncture. Fortunately I was lucky to have a practitioner friend who was committed to curing my insomnia with regular acupuncture.  Depending on your income and your benefits, this isn’t an option for everyone. Unfortunately my regular acupuncture treatments did not help me sleep. They relaxed me incredibly, perhaps the most unstressed and relaxed I’ve ever been, but it did not effect my insomnia.

Transformational Breathwork. This was interesting. I took a 4 hour workshop that involved lying in a dark room with 10 strangers and just breathing under the guidance of practitioners. For 4 hours. It seemed as though everyone else in the room had life changing experiences, but not me. And no, it did not help me sleep. 

Hypnosis. I wanted this to work so badly, I really did. But it did not. I went to three sessions. I believed.  I participated. I followed all the instructions. I think I’m just too high strung to be hypnotized. Didn’t work. 

Swimming. Apparently this resets your circadian rhythm. It didn’t help me.

Meditation. Again, I’m too high strung for this to work, though I’m totally open to trying meditating again…one day.

Prayer. Nope. 

Podcasts and Crime Dramas. I have no idea why this works for me, but it does. It’s a trick I use when I wake up in the middle of the night or too early on a weekend and just feel awake and ready to go at a time that I should still be sleeping. I put on a podcast or a crime drama–something that I’m not invested in or excited about, but am interested enough in to take my mind away. I’m able to check out, my mind drifts and I fall back to sleep.

Therapy. Every six months or so the Globe and Mail has an article on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Insomnia (CBT-I) and how it can cure insomnia better than anything. Unfortunately, there are very few CBT-I trained therapists in Canada and none that I have found Vancouver Island, or elsewhere who would be willing to speak over the phone. So while, this sounds very promising, it is not accessible to everyone at this time. I did, however, speak with a therapist with some sleep experience, but it was clear my issues were out of her scope.

Oh the things you try when you’re desperate. While I know some of the practices above really do help people sleep, I just wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

Overcoming Insomnia: Naturally

In my post about insomnia and lifestyle I said that the first two things people ask about when you tell them you’re not sleeping are your coffee intake and exercise details. That was a lie. The first thing they always ask is, Have you tried melatonin? And when this happens to me, I want to punch that person in the face. People, this is not a helpful thing to say to someone who is genuinely struggling with sleep. Of course they have tried melatonin. Everyone has. And for some people it works great, but for others it doesn’t work at all. Fortunately, these days health food stores are lined with different natural methods to encourage sleep. Here is what I have tried, yes, including melatonin.

Melatonin. I’ve used this off and on over the years. It helped for mild sleep trouble, but not at all for real insomnia. Despite this I used to take it hopefully every night, but heard through the grapevine that it wasn’t wise to take long term or regularly so I stopped and my sleep patterns didn’t change.

Valerian. This did not help me sleep at all, just made me feel uncomfortably high as I lay awake throughout the night. A friend of mine also tried valerian for a bout of sleeplessness. It definitely made her feel wonky, but it also helped her to sleep.

Selenium. This did nothing with my insomnia, other than make me feel the same way valerian did.

Magnesium. When I first read about the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, I thought I had solved the problem. I was so sure that taking magnesium before bed would be my silver bullet. It wasn’t. However, there is a difference in my sleep quality when I take it and when I don’t. If you have sleep trouble or aren’t getting deep sleep, you might want to talk with your doctor about potentially having a magnesium deficiency. Taking magnesium before bed didn’t help me sleep, but it has improved the quality of my sleep.

Chinese Medicine Concoction. Didn’t work.

GABA. GABA was recommended to me by a friend when I was struggling pretty frequently with anxiety. I ended up taking it before bed when my mind was racing and was surprised by how effective it was. GABA helps to turn my mind off and bring me to sleep. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any reputable reports on the safety of long term or regular use, so I try to limit it for those nights (or middle of the nights) when my mind just won’t be quiet.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list of the natural options available to improve sleep, it’s just what I tried and how it worked for me. Before trying any of the above, or anything at all for that matter, please talk to your doctor. Side effects are real and crazy things.

 

Overcoming Insomnia: Lifestyle Changes

It sounds absurd to even say, but I struggled with insomnia and sleeplessness for nearly three years before I was ready to make lifestyle changes that would improve my sleep. Bad habits are hard to break and change is a scary thing, even if you so desperately want the outcome that it will bring. It’s not enough to just say you want to make changes because you long for the end result. You have to be ready deep down in your heart to make the commitment. You have to know that with every step forward you will take the occasional step back and even when you feel so far ahead, the results don’t show up all at once. Changing your life for the better is an ongoing process and it can be challenging. That said, some of the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle have been the best things that I’ve done for myself when it comes to sleep. And some didn’t make a difference at all.

Here is what worked and what didn’t for me:

Alcohol. I’ll admit, this one was hard for me, but reducing the amount I drink is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. Pre-June 2012 I drank a lot more than I do now. I’d go for drinks 2-4 times a week, having 3-8 beers each night out. I was single and social and hated staying in alone. Eventually I noticed every time I went for drinks my sleep was especially bad. No exceptions. Any time I got even a bit tipsy I would have no troubles falling asleep, but would find myself wide awake only a few hours later.  I did a bit of googling and turns out there’s a science behind it. I knew reducing my alcohol intake would help me sleep better. It took some time, some commitment and some serious FOMO, but I’m there. I now stick to 1-2 glasses of wine a night (if at all) and if I drink more than that, I’m ready for the consequences.

Exercise. When I told people I was having trouble sleeping, the second question they always asked me was about exercise. Was I getting enough? Was I exercising too late at night? Had I tried yoga? Well, let me tell you. During my sleep struggles I’ve tried running 60km a week, being totally inactive, committing to yoga and everything in between. I’ve tried exercising first thing in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Never once did I find a direct correlation between my exercise habits and my sleep. That said, I do feel best when I exercise regularly either first thing in the morning or right after work and that has to count for something.

Schedule. When I look back at my life when my insomnia was at it’s worst, my schedule looked this: Wake at 6AM. Work 8 hours, Run 15km, Go out for dinner/music/drinks/volunteer commitments, Home at 11PM for bed. Repeat five days a week. The other two days I was working 16 hours between my two jobs. It’s no wonder I didn’t sleep. Making changes here was tough, I felt that by making more time for myself I would be letting others down. It took me a long time to realise that an exhausted, run down, absent version of me wasn’t what people wanted, but at that rate it was all I was capable of giving. I started by taking Saturday days to myself. I wouldn’t plan anything before 4PM. That was my time. It only grew from there. These days my schedule is lot less full, I spend a lot of time at home both during the week and on weekends and this has no doubt made me more calm and improved my quality of sleep.

Night Time Routine.  In all of my sleep research, one of the things I read about the most was the importance of having a night time routine. So I created one, and considering I had already reduced my alcohol intake and social commitments, this wasn’t too hard. I would make sure that I was home by 9PM (at the latest) so I could just spend 1-2 hours to myself, no work or serious conversations, just relaxing, reading or watching TV. **Many experts suggest turning off the TV a few hours before bedtime, but I never could abide by this rule** While I don’t think it helped with my insomnia, it did help with my quality of sleep. It didn’t ensure I would sleep through the night, but it made being asleep by 11PM a pretty sure thing. 

Coffee. The first piece of advice that uneducated people give to insomniacs? Quit coffee. Um, no thanks. That just isn’t an option for me, and thankfully my doctor said it didn’t have to be. She did say, however, that I needed to make an adjustment in the amount and timing of my favourite vice. I cut back from 8 cups a day to 3 and no longer drink it after 1PM. Despite the changes in my coffee intake, both my insomnia and sleeplessness persisted. Though I will admit, I never quit coffee completely and perhaps that could have helped. Someone stronger than me will have to try this and get back to me.

Sugar. I love refined sugar. Candy, chocolate, donuts, cronuts. Give it all to me. At least that’s what I used to say. I never reduced my sugar intake to help with my sleep. I should have, but I just love sweets too much. I did, however, reduce my sugar intake when I hit my 30’s and learned the hard way about how metabolism actually does slow down. Vanity wins out again. Though through this I learned that my sleep quality is much worse on the days I eat a lot of sugar.

Meat. I was a vegetarian for thirteen years and a vegan for four. I never thought that meat would become part of my life again, but in January 2014 it did. I started eating meat again, not on the recommendation of my doctor, but on the recommendation of three other women who suffered from anxiety and insomnia. All three of them had been advised by their doctors to start eating red meat again and all three said it helped. Currently I don’t believe I eat enough red meat (maybe twice a month) to feel any benefits. 

Now, this is obviously not an exhaustive list of lifestyle adjustment you can make to sleep better and overall live a more healthy life. I’m leaving out some of the most common suggestions–no electronics in the bedroom, no late night eating, using your bed only for sleep and sex. This is just a list of some of the major adjustments that I have made. For further suggestions on lifestyle changes you can make to get a better sleep, I would suggest googling just that.

 

 

 

Overcoming Insomnia: My Story

Insomnia is the kind of thing that you don’t even think about if you’re not suffering from it. But when you are it consumes your whole entire world. While sound sleep has never been my strong suit, I suffered from chronic insomnia from September 2009 through January 2014.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’ve always been a bad sleeper. I needed white noise and blackout blinds before I even turned 10. I used to fake sick so I wouldn’t have to have sleepovers, both as a child and later with boyfriends. I’m high needs when it comes to getting a good night sleep. I need space and quiet and darkness and familiarity. That’s how I’ve always been and I’m sure it’s something I’ll be managing until the day I die. This is annoying and often inconvenient, but this is not insomnia.

Insomnia for me started in September 2009. One day, without any lifestyle changes or major trauma or event, I just stopped sleeping. For about three weeks straight I slept maybe 1-3 hours a night. It was terrible. And then it went away. I went back to being a high-maintenance and restless sleeper, but a sleeper. My insomnia came and went over the years, at first for a few weeks every time the seasons changed, until eventually I went without sleep more often than not. I would go months without ever getting more than 4 hours of sleep a night. Middle of the night, hysterical panic attacks became normal for me. My stress level sky rocketed as my passion and participation in the world plummeted.

Insomnia and sleeplessness are two different things, neither of which are fun, and both of which I will address over the coming weeks. Sleeplessness can come from being too hot or too cold, an unfamiliar bed, a racing mind, excitement, lifestyle factors, etc. The day after sleeplessness I’m tired, grumpy and impatient. I’m more likely to order take out and less likely to exercise. Life is less bright but it’s still there, I’m still participating, living in it. Insomnia is something else. Lying awake at night it’s as though your entire body, eyes and even mind are so ready for sleep but something is just not firing, something is preventing you from getting there. It’s almost relaxing until I realise it’s 4AM, and I only have two and a half hours to get any sleep at all. The day after insomnia, nothing matters. Not my relationships or friendships, my career or my health. I cancel plans, forgo runs, eat junk and do the bare minimum at work. Nothing matters. Throughout my struggle I was constantly wondering if I would eventually lose my job and my friends. I wondered if I would ever be able to have a relationship. I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be able to have kids. For over four years insomnia ruled my life.

If you’ve been there, you know this is no way to live. In June 2012 I knew I couldn’t go on. I needed to do something, so I started to make adjustments in my life and began to try everything I could to combat my insomnia. Now, after 2 years of trying everything,  I’m finally there. I sleep. Often through the night. I’m a real person now. I still struggle from time to time, but any normal person does. Life is good for me now, exponentially better, and it’s all because I sleep.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to share everything that I have tried, what has worked and what hasn’t. What has helped with my sleeplessness and with my insomnia. And hopefully someone out there will read it and be able to get the rest they need.