One of my biggest pet peeves is when people declare: “You know, sleep is really important, you should really work on getting a good night’s sleep.”
When I hear that I want to smack them across the side of the head and shout: “What a good idea! Wish I had thought of that!”
But then I take a breath, count to four, and exhale on four counts, and thank my prefrontal cortex for preventing me from having an outburst when someone is simply trying to be kind and helpful.
But if you’re reading to this, it probably means that you, like myself, struggle with sleep. And I’d be willing to venture that helpful advice like what we just heard, doesn’t help.
Instead, it reminds you how powerless and frustrated you feel every single night when you get into bed and lay awake counting sheep while the rest of the world snoozes away.
The good news is that you can sleep again and I’m going to show you how.
I was staring at the ceiling, the distant sound of the living room clock ticking in the back of my mind. The pillow beneath my head is too hard, so I punch it. It’s too hot in my room, and so I flip back the blankets.
But sleep doesn’t come.
Instead, my little “helpers” which is what I call the parts of me that step in when things seem to be going awry, take center stage.
“Did you remember to call the pharmacy back regarding Bob’s prescription?” One whispers.
“And it’s been a while since Stephanie has called, you should check on her.” Said another.
“Your rent is really expensive, you should really be adding more clients to the schedule.” A third chimed in.
A surge of adrenaline pushes up through my chest and I reach for the bottle of kava kava on my nightstand. I’m afraid of taking benzodiazepines, I’ve heard about how addictive they can be and, besides, I am an integrative physician. My expertise is mental health, including insomnia. I shouldn’t need those drugs. I should be able to “supplement” my way through this.
Kava down the hatch, I pick up my phone and ignore the whispers from my helpers, chiming in about sleep-hygiene, I open my email and check my client schedule.
The sun comes up and I still haven’t slept.
Heart throbbing with anxiety, and heat coursing through the nerves along my back and arms, I get up, shower, and head in to work.
This happened the next night, and the next.
Now I’m getting frantic. To compensate for exhaustion, my body is likely producing buckets of cortisol and adrenaline, and my helpers are now desperately spinning through all of the things that could be wrong with me, and are creating complex treatment regimens.
I try acupuncture, amino acids, herbs, homeopathic remedies, meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, EFT, sleeping aps, distraction, positive affirmations, cognitive behavioral therapy, ambien, and finally benzodiazepines.
What started as a little bit of difficulty sleeping had blown up into a full blown state of crisis where I felt trapped, afraid, despairing, and I was now taking the drugs I had feared the most.
There was one giant pink elephant in my story, and it was something I had been unwilling to face, and no one else knew about it.
When it comes to sleeplessness there is almost always a giant pink elephant.
It can range from an unresolved issue at work, to guilt, to a medical issue, or even the
need for a relationship-ectomy.
1. Elephants don’t live in the city.
This means that you have to get out of your neighborhood and go into the wilderness of your experience, get still, crouch down, and listen. If you’re lucky, and patient, after a while an elephant might emerge.
2. Elephants take up a lot of space.
This is one reason elephants are such bad house guests. They are large and they can occupy so much of your real-estate that they interfere with your day to day living. Some elephants are so big, relative to your space, that they can literally occupy every nook and cranny so you barely fit.
3. Elephants are high maintenance.
Elephants require a lot of care. Being large as they are, you have to put a lot of effort in keeping them around. This is where your helpers come into play. Constantly feeding your elephants with thoughts, rearranging furniture in order to make space, and making excuses for the giant piles of poo all over the floor. Our helpers are such adept elephant-keepers that many of us go years without doing an audit of our living situation.
4. Elephants are heavy.
My pink elephant was powerful, elusive, and clever. She did such a good job at showing me what it was that I most desperately wanted, that I did not realize that she was what was sitting on my chest, pressing the air out of my lungs, and crushing my ability to make change in my life.
My elephant came with me everywhere. She and my menagerie of loyal little helpers directed my frenetic energy from doctoring others to doctoring myself. They kept me company while I swallowed back hundreds of dollars of supplements, patted my hand during pin-cushion sessions (acupuncture), and trotted along by my side when I exercised, meditated, and crowded in the treatment room as I cried from sheer exhaustion during a massage.
I talked with some of the best experts in the field, and no one asked me about my elephant. No one thought it was particularly odd that I had a 14-thousand-pound critter at my heels.
But here’s the reason why: Because my elephant was making friends with their elephants.
We were like one big happy family.
And as I settled into my bed, night after night, six months in, bottles of pills on my nightstand, and listening to all sorts of worthless advice from well-intended friends, family members and clinicians, I decompensated.
My elephant ate up my well-being in order to sustain her massive size, and her ears gently pumped oxygen into the fire. Instead of getting the extinguisher, I scooted over and I made room for my giant pink friend. I wasn’t interested in what she had to say.
For some people, realizations seep in slowly, like an essential oil diffuser gently filling the room until it becomes detectable to the human nose. For me, it’s usually a whisper that I ignore, that gets louder, and louder, until eventually it becomes a great big explosion. And then my eyes go wide and my heart slams up into my throat and I am stunned.
For better or for worse, I have a very keen ability to compartmentalize my feelings and thoughts until they get so big that it takes a giant kaboom! in order to get my attention. Some people call it stockpiling. I call it “selective attention.”
But one day, that smack in the face got my attention. I blinked. And I blinked again. And I saw my elephant, sitting there, right in my face. And I said:
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m protecting you.” She answered.
“You.” Came the reply.
One of the worst symptoms that came with my insomnia and anxiety was burning. The best way to describe it is like coals from a fire being placed against my muscles between my shoulders in the back, my chest, and down my arms.
I was on fire.
But not in a good way.
The fire tormented me. My nerves were screaming with the best voices they knew how, and they finally had my attention.
I looked at my elephant, and I realized that I had created a life for myself that was in absolute defiance of what my soul needed.
There had been a thousand opportunities to choose differently, but ignoring the whispers from my inner knowing, I made decisions that were in direct opposition of what was right for me, my health, my relationships and my wellbeing.
I was living a life running on a hedonic treadmill, and every time the helpers chimed in and reminded me of what else I needed to do, reminded me of what I was running away from, I pumped up the speed.
For me, the giant pink elephant that had been with me all along was a representation of the life I had created, she was asking to simply be seen.
Most of us will not make a change unless the suffering overrules the effort of doing something different. For me, that moment had arrived.
I was out of air; my relationships were failing. It was GAME OVER.
Sometimes our lives hold us captive. Whether that be a belief system that is no longer useful, relationships that crush our spirits, or traumas that are burying us alive.
Sometimes the answer is this: Just let it burn.
As the burning pain tormented me, prevented sleep, and drove me into hysterics with anxiety, it also was the method by which I was finally set free. The binds that tie me down caught fire and burned up.
And so, I closed my location, packed up my house, and moved across the country. I cut back on my work hours and instead of clocking over 60 hours per week, I dropped down to 40 hours. Instead of spending my weekends studying cases and expanding my knowledge of materia medica, I had tea with my neighbor.
And I convalesced. And I healed. And then my other amazing tools worked better.
Amino acids, botanicals, breathing, counseling, and mindfulness helped me taper down on my medications and I started to sleep again. The burning embers became smaller, and my elephant visited less often.
Sometimes I miss her. But mostly, I’m happy that she’s back in the safari where she belongs.
I’d like to stop here and share with you some questions that helped me identify my elephant. Try to spend time with these questions. Let them marinate. Simmer them. Take your time. Come back and add to your responses. It’s very likely that your elephant has been with you for a while, and as you may be coming to realize, elephants have deep memories, are very highly intelligent, and are masters at their craft.
What is my deepest core fear?
What am I doing to avoid experiencing that fear coming true?
In what way(s) do I feel chained?
What is my anxiety/ anger/ grief trying to tell me?
Drop in and ask your body, ask your knowing: What is my pink elephant?
Where in your life are the holes? Where does the emptiness lie?
Look at your life and ask yourself: What are my unmet needs?
If I was living my best life, what would that look like right now?
What is your elephant saying to you?
Often the question that follows is: What’s next?
For me, it was hitting “control + alt + delete” on my life and moving east. But that might not be the answer for you. Sometimes the answer is just the opposite. Maybe it’s facing something you’ve been avoiding. Maybe it’s stopping doing something that you’ve been doing.
This is where the deep work shines.
For me, what came next was a fire hydrant of change. The trajectory that I had been traveling for 15+ years had not been honoring what my soul needed most. And my elephant came and sat on my chest and she stayed there until I finally paid attention.
And this brings us to the most important question, that no one asked me.
And so I’m going to ask you now: What do I need to let go of?
Love, you can sleep again. I promise you this.
The first step is to find your elephant and get up close and personal. Only then will you understand, and by understand I don’t mean just logically. I mean in the Kaboom sense. In that life changing “oh my god I get it” sense.
What typically follows the awakening is the burning. And then after the burning, the re-building.
You can do this.
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