It all started when I forgot how to sleep.
I’ve always been an uncanny sleeper, able to fall asleep on a dime. (Heck, I could probably even nod off on a pillow full of nickels.) For decades, I’d been able to lose consciousness almost as soon as I laid down at night. And in recent years, I could also fully recharge with 20-minute afternoon power naps. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and one I don’t take for granted.
But in late April, shortly after the world woke up and bloomed, my easy knack for sleep suddenly floated out of my reach. I couldn’t drift off at night, or even for a nap during the day, even though my mind was exhausted from not being able to fall asleep the night before. At night I felt like a piece of driftwood, floating helplessly in what Bedhead once called “the ocean of the dark.” I grew to dread going to bed. Insomnia is a waking nightmare.
This development was alarming. As was the sound of my alarm in the morning after getting a few fitful hours of sleep. Bags emerged under my eyes. My body started to shut down. I felt like I was walking around in slow motion.
At the time, I attributed all of this to work stress. Late April and early May is exam season, which is always hectic and pressurized at work, and even more so this year. So I tried to power through in anticipation of the hugely reduced workload of summer.
But my sleeplessness then stretched into June. For weeks on end, I was getting maybe 4 hours of quality sleep a night — sometimes 2 or 3 — which was running my body ragged.
Speaking of running, I ceased doing that completely by early summer. I could barely peel myself out of bed in the morning, which destroyed the sunrise running habit I had carefully maintained for close to a decade. I went 2 full months without logging one single run. I had rarely gone even half that long in the previous decade.
My body was in shock. First from not sleeping, and then from not running. I didn’t have the energy to run, and I didn’t have the energy to not run. I was too tired to sleep, and I was too tired to not sleep.
But why? Why couldn’t I fall asleep at night? Why couldn’t I wake up in the morning? By the time summer arrived, why couldn’t I summon the will to run, an activity that had come second nature — and propelled me forward — for years?
It’s because I somehow got ensnared in the paralyzing spiderweb of depression. Depression and anxiety, in fact. A brutal, back-breaking combination.
I couldn’t sleep because I was anxious. But I was anxious partly because I couldn’t sleep.
I felt depressed because I was tired. But I got even more tired from feeling depressed.
It would be difficult to overstate the viciousness of that cycle.
Depression runs in one side of my family. A handful of my relatives have struggled, or even raged mightily, with that affliction. I’ve known this fact for years and have hoped against hope that I could avoid having that genetic thread ever unravel me. I always believed, or wanted to believe, that mental health was largely a function of making good mental and physical choices. That you can stave off depression by living well, and eating healthy, and getting outside a lot, and choosing to be grateful. And there’s some truth to that.
But this dark cloud that took up residence above my head late last spring made that belief seem misguided and naive. It sabotaged me in a way I had never experienced before. It eradicated my very will to run, to write, to enjoy nature, and even at times — most unsettling of all — to enjoy my kids. Each of the things that I take the most pride in. Each of the things that carve out my sense of identity.
The best way to describe how I felt this summer is flat. My emotions and my willpower and my ability to see beauty and purpose were just flattened out. Deflated. Pulverized. Steamrolled. Life lost any sense of contour, or color, or depth. Everything felt flat and grey. All I wanted to do most of the time was sleep, which was the one thing I could not manage to do, no matter how tired I was.
I’ve had mental health ups and downs for years, but my downs were never this deep, they were never this dark, and they never shoved me this far down.
For the record, I largely feel like myself again now. I am writing all of this down for posterity, and I am writing all of this down for catharsis. I need to finally put into words what I had no ability, and even less desire, to articulate while I was in the midst of my mental turmoil.
This is the first installment; there is so much to say. I won’t share everything, because some of it is too personal, but I will share what I think might be helpful both to my future self, reading back over this account, and what might be helpful to others who can perhaps relate to my experiences.
I hope writing these blog posts offer some solidarity. And I hope it illuminates the darkness of one person’s mental health struggle, that quiet battle which so many people wage behind closed doors. The murky and sometimes terrifying headspaces that we rarely want to admit to each other. The cloudy, dark grey flip side of our bright, sunny, public-facing selves.
It is exceedingly strange to know that my social media feed from the summer likely gave no one any clear impression of what I was going through. We are endlessly capable of hiding our darkness from each other.
So here is a glimpse of my darkness, now that it’s dissipated.
Here is a window into the worst summer of my life.
This is the first in a series of posts about my recent mental health struggles. Thank you for reading! And thank you for caring. Please feel free to interact directly on my Facebook post, since that’s my primary platform for sharing this blog. I am deeply grateful for your interest.