Sleep: The Unconscious Way to Cope With Pain

Have you ever had such intense pain, physical, or other, that all you could do to cope with it is sleep?

I’ve slept for the better part of the last 2 days. I had to attend a family event on Sunday afternoon. When I say “had to” I don’t mean forced to, I mean I would have felt horrible – worse than the pain I’ve had since – if I hadn’t attended because it was in honour of one of my favourite aunts who does whatever she can for everyone. However, between the drive to the home of my uncle who hosted, moving around to interact with all the family members and family friends; and then the drive home, my body had to go into near shutdown so I could cope with the resulting pain flare up.

By the time I arrived home around 11:00 PM on Sunday night, I knew I was in for a rough few days; not to mention my experience dictates that it takes at the very least two days for me to recover after going out to do anything. Upon arriving at my uncle’s house in the afternoon, my pain level was already climbing; and on the drive home, the soreness in my legs had already become unbearably intense. When my feet touched the ground as I got out of the car, it was definite that I would not escape the punishment for daring to enjoy life just a little bit while celebrating the life of someone I love. After shutting the door to my home behind me, I made a beeline for my bedroom to change into cozy pajamas then I went into the bathroom to perform the nightly rituals of brushing my teeth and putting my hair up so I don’t wake up with an equally painful tangled mess of hair to deal with.

I was in bed by midnight. It took some time to fall asleep because I was so uncomfortable with the pain building throughout my body. I vaguely remember waking a few times during the night, but I know I was too exhausted to awaken fully to take my overnight breakthrough dose of pain medications. I even slept late and missed taking my first large dose of pain medications on time at 6:00 AM. However, being late this one morning didn’t matter much because being asleep kept me unaware of the pain. The rest of Monday was spent in a groggy haze of pain medications and sleep, but I didn’t miss much because it poured rain most of the day and the grey sky outside was not at all appealing.

I woke up around 4:00 PM because my phone rang. It was my therapist calling me. I called him on Saturday shortly after coming out of my panic attack so he was responding to my message. I knew he wasn’t in the office during the weekend, but I felt that I had to talk to him as soon as it was possible to sort through why the panic attack might have happened. As usual, he helped me sort through the still lingering feelings and to realize how everything I’m coping with – including the current pain flare up – and all that I’ve lived through in my life are so deeply connected, it makes a panic attack a reasonable thing for me – or anyone dealing with so much – to experience. He also gave me some practical tips on how to cope if I have another episode: splash my face with cold water, put cold water/a wet cloth on the back of my neck, breathe into a paper bag, lay on the floor so I feel grounded, and connect visually with objects around me so I can know what’s real. I was grateful for that conversation and the clarity it brought.

I stayed awake for a few hours after that conversation. My friend R called for one of our weekly chats. Then I tried to make sense of the horrible news of the day and deciding what my stomach could tolerate so I could make a meal. I failed at both and fell back to sleep on my couch. I managed to wake up a few hours later to take my last large dose of pain medications and I might have stayed awake for about an hour or two. The next thing I became aware of was that for a second morning in a row my body opted to sleep as late as it could handle before waking to take my morning dose of pain and other medications. After doing that, I still had the need for two morning naps.

I also realize, sometimes I have to accept that it’s not always conscious methods that are best for coping with my pain.


The Beatles – Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End



Gratitude and Creativity: We Evolve

Even before the arrival of my illness, sleep was a difficult thing for me. Insomnia and I are old friends, but having to cope with it while dealing with high levels of pain is not an easy thing. When I was working, I used to take advantage of the times I couldn’t sleep by catching up on or completing work tasks early. In some ways it seemed like a blessing to be so productive, but of course there were the drawbacks of struggling to get out of bed many mornings and having to caffeinate myself to get my brain started and to stay alert sometimes later in the day.

When I can’t sleep now, I don’t feel productive, I feel restless, which makes my mind bounce all over the place during the longest stretches of the night. Sometimes I watch TV shows or movies to make the time pass more quickly. Other times I spend hours online poring over pages of articles, news, videos, and interesting writing others post here. Thankfully, many of the things people post here positively occupy my thoughts and lead to me being creative, which feels so much better than being productive.

In the dark, early hours of Thursday morning, a poem I found on Dave Kavanagh’s site, which he titled ‘Dark Eyed Woman’ sparked some creativity to help me pass the time. I was fortunate to engage with him through the comment section of his site and part of our exchange calmed the restlessness of my thoughts enough for me to write some poetry. In this respect – my creativity being sparked so I can write – I still see insomnia as a blessing sometimes. However, I know that sleep is the bigger blessing I need so I can better manage my illness.

We Evolve


Flourishing: An Ode To A Yellow Four-Nerve Daisy

After a night of mostly interrupted sleep, I was awake early this morning. To fill my time in the early morning hours I visited the sites of some of the truly interesting people I follow in the online world. One blog I found myself drawn into this morning was Portraits of Wildflowers where Steven Schwartzman shares uniquely beautiful images of wildflowers and other flora and fauna he discovers on his excursions into nature. Looking at his photographs, I don’t feel so shut away and I learn things I wouldn’t have an opportunity to otherwise.

This morning as I clicked through some of his recent posts, I had visceral reactions to some of the images. One in particular, a photo of a hairy white larkspur flower (Delphinium carolinianum ssp. Penardii) before its petals opened, made the hair on my body stand on end. I can’t remember having that kind of reaction to a flower before. The image of a rain-lily (Cooperia pedunculata) tricked my eyes into seeing the soft brush strokes of a floral portrait. While the bent stalk of a bright yellow four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris linearifolia), and the words Steven Schwartzman used to describe its fate, inspired my brain to connect with the tips of my fingers to create an ode to that single delicate bloom.

Bent but still flourishing © 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Bent but still flourishing © 2016 Steven Schwartzman


On days like today, I don’t mind not having slept much. Creating something has a way of making me feel grounded and easing agitation and anxiety that is sometimes caused by a lack of sleep. Besides, how can I not feel lifted by a bright yellow daisy or Steven Schwartzman’s generosity in granting me permission to post his image?



Struggling With Acceptance

I’m struggling with acceptance: acceptance of my own circumstances. Currently, I have no control over what my life looks like from day-to-day because my pain is so unpredictable. This past week I suffered through multiple days with feet and legs so swollen they hurt and made it hard to walk. I didn’t get much sleep either, and as I write this, I’m in the midst of a pain flare for which I’ve had to take the highest doses possible of my pain medications for a few days. If I don’t get some relief with this amount of pain medications, I have to go to the emergency room to get help.

What I’ve outlined is only some of what I can’t accept on days like this. Over the last little while, I can’t accept that after more than two years of countless tests, so many invasive procedures, and a rather risky surgery, I have no pain relief. I can’t accept relying on handfuls of pain medications to allow my body to function, while they cloud my thinking. I can’t accept that the only time I don’t feel pain, is when I’m asleep; and the irony that sleep is a state that is so difficult for me to reach because of my pain. Nor can I accept that the sleep I so desperately need sometimes never comes or, when it does come, is interrupted by my pain. This cycle makes me feel like a helpless hamster performing on a spinning wheel for a treat that never comes.

As much as I’m having difficulty accepting my pain, I’m having even more difficulty accepting the compassion and generosity of the people in my life. The people who are trying to help me cope with the pain and all the adjustments I have to make in my life. I know this doesn’t’ make sense, but it’s hard to go from living an independent life with what seemed like endless years of adventurous activity ahead of me to being someone who can barely get out of bed some days. I know I have trouble accepting their compassion and generosity toward me because I’ve always had trouble showering myself with these things. Although, I have no difficulty expressing and abundantly giving these things to others – and I never have, not even now that I’m ill.

I’m starting to question whether this lack of acceptance and being hard on myself, and having expectations that others don’t have of me – not even my doctors – are harming my health. My therapist has an exercise he asks me to do where I am to imagine that I have a close friend or a twin living with my challenges and feeling as I do. I have to give them support and tell them what I think about how hard they are on themselves. The result is always the same: I’m able to see how ridiculous it is that I can feel compassion and empathy for someone else, but unable to feel them toward myself and unable to be gentle when attending to my needs. When we finish this exercise, I promise to work harder at being gentle with myself because I know it’s the right thing and best thing to do for myself. I do try. Really, I do, but it’s hard. It gets harder each day that I don’t know what to expect from my body.

I’m afraid that my struggle with acceptance is doomed to continue as long as my pain continues and will need my attention for a long time to come. Whenever I feel this way, I remember this quote, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

If Your Compassion - Buddha

I believe this is true, so I know the right thing to do for myself, to break my struggle with acceptance of my pain and my changed life is to treat myself with more compassion, just as I would with someone I care about.


Gratitude and Creativity: Smile Every Day

Sometimes, when sleep eludes me at night, I dig through the endless pages of the interwebs trying to find things that don’t make me feel bad about not sleeping. I know I’m a grown woman who can do whatever she likes at any time of the day or night, but not sleeping often makes me feel guilt and anxiety. Writing that makes me feel a bit silly, but it’s the truth. What’s most significant about that truth, is that it’s a sad truth because I’ve had issues with sleep for as long as I can remember, so that means my body has been holding a lot of guilt and anxiety about not sleeping for a long time. Sleep is the lynchpin to good health: mental and physical, so as things go I’m not doing too well.

Sleep aside, last night I landed on a page with inspirational posters. One of them was very simple: Smile Every Day. It made perfect sense and affected me so strongly I had to create a poster of my own. At about 11:00 PM last night I grabbed my sketchbook (the one I started when I was in the hospital), a pencil, and all my coloured markers. The idea I had forced me to log on to Pinterest to find a drawing tutorial because I couldn’t figure out how to draw a mouth. Yup, I couldn’t figure out how to draw the thing I shovel food into every day and from which drool happily flows when I do finally sleep thanks to my night guard. In the end, I found an easy tutorial and I was able to draw a mouth that I think fits perfectly with the quote and my design.

Smile Every Day

This quote affected me so deeply because when I started working in sales many years ago, in the sales/customer service department of a software company; one of the things they taught us in training is that before we answer the phone we should always smile. Smiling boosts the tone in your voice and makes you sound positive when speaking to someone on the phone. Some people kept a small mirror at their desk as a reminder to put on a smile because there were days when we didn’t always feel like smiling.

Jumping to the present day, I realized when I read that poster yesterday that I haven’t been smiling every day. I’m not depressed. But my pain doesn’t’ make it easy to smile. I’m also back at home again and alone most days, which means I don’t have anyone to smile with unless someone comes to visit, or I get a phone call.

I’m glad I found that page last night. Now I have a reminder for myself to smile every day. Regardless of how much pain I might be feeling, if I’ve had very little sleep, or the sun isn’t shining; I’m going to smile every day.


Constant Exhaustion and Missing Meds

Lately, I’ve been constantly exhausted. A part of it is my messed up sleep schedule. The other part of it is my pain medication level. However, this constant exhaustion is causing a problem: I’m missing some of my pain medication alarms or falling back asleep before I take a dose of my medications – as I did this afternoon.

Missing some of my scheduled medication times is causing my pain levels to fluctuate, and my goal to taper my pain medications to a lower dose is not going very smoothly. I know that I only had surgery a month ago and my body is still healing, but this constant exhaustion is making it hard for me to develop a normal routine and it’s frustrating me.

I’m wondering if anyone has any suggestions about how I can cope with this.


Bad Sleep Hygiene

To say I’ve been having trouble sleeping is a monumental understatement. I wasn’t a good sleeper before I got ill – I had a sleep study years ago that confirmed I have a sleep disorder – and now sleep taunts me like a schoolyard bully.

A lot of the time I get the worst pain flare ups starting in the early evening. Whenever I end up in the hospital emergency room it’s because of one of these evening gifts. Most nights I convince myself that I can cope with the help of deep breathing; a mantra I whisper to myself at the worst peaks “the pain is not real”; or by numbing my mind with countless hours of internet surfing and TV watching.

I keep telling myself that I have to do something to fix this bad sleep hygiene. My efforts might work for a night or two, but as soon as the pain climbs it all goes out the window. My body wakes me at 2:00 AM, then 3:00 AM, then 4:00 AM, then… – I think you get the picture – until it’s impossible to stay in bed. Then about late-morning I struggle to keep my eyes open and have to submit myself to the pull of sleep, which only lasts for a few hours.

I read today that “it takes, on average, 21 days for a new habit to form”. I know this. I also know that I haven’t given my body a fair chance to adjust to the sleep needs controlled by my pain. To cope better I need more sleep. To keep my body strong I need more sleep. To hold on to my mental health I need more sleep.

Tonight is the first night toward forming a new sleep habit. I have decided on a bedtime and I will be tucked in between my striped sheets by that hour, full of hope that I will sleep through the night.


The Chordettes – Mr. Sandman