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Sleepless in the Hill Country


How many of us take a good night’s sleep for granted? For the first half of my life, I didn’t have a clue what it was like to lay in bed, desperately hoping for sleep. I always went to sleep within seconds after my head hit the pillow. Since then, however, sleep seems as illusive to me as finding Bigfoot in my backyard. While I know the root cause of my chronic insomnia, finding a way to fix it may be more impossible than turning lead into gold.

My first husband, Philip, was an electrical engineer, physicist, organic synthesis chemist and National Security Agency operative who couldn’t stop problem solving and was unable to get to sleep without taking Valium. Neither of us knew that the day he ran out of Valium would change our lives forever. We had no idea that after a few days without Valium, he would begin to rock back and forth and beat his head against the wall, or that it would land him in a straight jacket in a psyche ward.

The morning after Philip was placed in lockdown, I went to see him. His doctors were speechless. They’d never seen a case like his. Philip was fine and was demanding to be released. When I asked the doctors what they did after I’d left the night before, they told me they’d given him an injection of Valium. Giant light bulbs should have gone off for all concerned, but none of us had even a flicker. It was before anyone knew of the dangers associated with Valium. Philip was released and promptly plunged into the depths of depression and stayed in a darkened room for the next six months while I made excuses to employees and investors about his mysterious “ailment.” I wish I could say getting off of Valium was the end of his problem, but instead, it was the beginning of our nightmare.

Over the next year Philip saw two psychiatrists, who were both intimidated by his understated, matter-of-fact brilliance and wound up thinking Philip knew more than they did. One briefly put him on a lithium cocktail that gave him slurred speech, while the other one suggested he take a drink or two to relax him before bedtime. A drink or two eventually turned into mass quantities of alcohol, and in time, the fascinating Dr. Jekyll I married turned into the maniacal Mr. Hyde. Because I never knew what terrors the night would bring, I never felt safe to let my guard down and go to sleep.

When he got home from work, I tried to lay low in hopes he wouldn’t find something to pick a fight about. The fights seemed to give him permission to roar down the driveway, into the night, sometimes disappearing for days at a time, or he would go down to his chemistry lab on the first floor of our house where he would lock the door. For me, both actions were equally terrifying. How could I sleep when I expected either a phone call telling me he’d been in an accident and had killed someone else in the process, or that he’d accidentally do something in the lab that would blow up our house?

Some nights I’d crawl into bed and play possum. I was good at mimicking the changes in my breathing rates so Philip would think I was deep asleep. Most nights I laid there for hours until, if I was lucky, he passed out. One night, while I was in the bathroom, Philip fired a pistol through the bathroom door. Without hesitation, I opened the second story bathroom window and jumped, grabbing onto a nearby tree with one hand. The tree broke some of my fall, but I fell hard through the branches as they tore at my flesh.

Fast forward to men in suits who broke into our home and Philip’s lab while he was passed out in bed and I had to defend myself alone (from what country or government agency I never knew) his death, my involuntary time with the Honduran Military Commandos, my GI Jane journalist phase where I flew, drove, submerged in and landed on every piece of military equipment known to man and the subsequent boyfriend from Hell. It’s little wonder I continued to have trouble sleeping. Adrenaline was always coursing through my veins. I was perpetually on high alert for any and everything. Like a soldier who’d been to war, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and began taking sleeping pills.

I was blessed when James entered my life. He was my lifesaver in every way possible. He loved and valued me unconditionally, and I no longer had to be what often felt like the sole survivor in a foreign outpost. But because I had been programmed for so long to be on alert, that it wasn’t safe to let my guard down, my chronic sleep problems continued. Breast cancer, the death of James, the dissolution of his family, financial matters and my mother’s dementia have only made my sleep problems worse. Because a side effect of the long-term use of sleeping pills is poor memory, six weeks ago, I weaned myself off of the sleeping pills I’ve been taking for over 20 years and now, I can’t sleep.

I saw what happened to Philip. In some ways I’m the victim of his sleeplessness, but I know better than to let myself repeat his destructive behavior. I pray, exercise, do Breathwork and have just downloaded what I hope will be some helpful Guided Imagery pieces. This week I’m seeing a therapist I hope can help me “detox” from my life of chronic stress and learn to sleep without help. Forgive me for not commenting on other blogs or for being absent on Twitter and Facebook, but I’ve had my hands full. At this point, I want nothing more than to sprawl out on the floor like a big old sleeping dog.