Friday, December 14, 2012

The Devastation of Sleep Deprivation

I cry. I shake. My mind tumbles into despair, spinning.  Suddenly, I come good.  I bustle around doing dishes, chopping vegetables, folding laundry.  Singing.  Another hour goes by, my toddler decides to crack the shits and so do I.  And the tears flow again.  Just. So. Thoroughly. Exhausted.

There are few things so uniquely devastating to a new parent as the sleep deprivation that strikes us all.  Perhaps a tiny bit easier the second time around, as the utter shock of it isn’t entirely unexpected, the loss of sleep that accompanies newborn-hood is enough to derail even the most supported of families.

I used to be someone who couldn’t survive on less than 8 hours of sleep every night. After a few nights of only six or seven hours I would become increasingly moody and cantankerous, inevitably affecting my performance at both work and play and straining my relationships with those closest to me.  Enter parenthood: sleepless nights; anxiety; insomnia; depression.

In my darkest days when my firstborn was eight weeks old, I was getting only two hours of sleep a night.  My son, happily settled into a budding routine, was still waking for feeds but sleeping for 10 hours at night and was thriving by every measure.  I was falling off a cliff. Tortured by constant anxiety ravaging my mind and tension locked in my body, I spiralled into a state of panic that prevented me from achieving relaxation or peace of mind at night. I was unable to find sleep even, especially, in a dark and quiet house. I became distraught.

I sought help simply by talking, talking, talking first to my partner, then my doctor, breastfeeding counsellors, and of course my family and close friends.  The talking was therapeutic, but I also listened.  I listened carefully and took note of what I heard.  You are a useless mother.  Look at this house.  You can’t keep it together for one minute, how pathetic. Look at your gorgeous baby looking up at you and all you can do is cry. Do you know how much harder other women have it? You are so weak. Get a grip. Here we go again, another night of insomnia, you must be mentally ill. You will never be normal again.

The words were poison.  Crippling. I heard the insults over and over again and noticed which ones hurt the most. Which ones I believed the most. I wrote down defiant counterpoints on sticky notes. You are a bloody good mother.  I posted them where I would see them dozens of times every day. You are not sick.  Next to my bed, on the fridge, on doors and walls and mirrors.  You are not neglecting your child.  Day after day I read those notes and gradually began to believe that they were true.  You will find your natural rhythms again. Slowly, surely the insults faded into the background.  You are EVERYTHING your baby needs. The affirmations became my mantra.  I started sleeping again.

Seven months on, the second time around, and with the luxury of perspective I compare the two experiences.  This time there was no depression, but the insomnia was worse.  The numbing drudgery of it all was potently felt. Wild mood swings during the day. The constant efforts to comfort a crying baby.  Endless breastfeeds.  Backaches, headaches, tension… monotony.  Yet through it all, and to this day I cannot get enough of her.  My embrace swallows her whole. In the darkest hour of night, an enormous gummy grin seen through the dim light sets my spirit alight - my heart burning with love - and my all-consuming exhaustion simply vanishes into the shadows.  

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