From ages 8 to 23, I was an insomniac. I would lay in bed for countless hours wishing for sleep. My body would be exhausted, my eyes heavy and burning, but my mind would be alert and racing. I usually passed out around daybreak, only to wake a few hours later.
I tried to treat body and mind. I drank chamomile tea. I took melatonin. I had a white-noise generator. I went to a therapist. I played games like “stop thinking for a minute.” I created elaborate fantasy worlds with serial plot-lines to pass the hours in bed and still my anxiety. When I was 16, I started smoking weed. Later, Jim Beam became Mr. Sandman.
When I sobered up at 23, my biggest fear was not how I was going to have fun or what people would think of me. I feared not sleeping.
Fortunately, that fear was unfounded. By no longer annihilating myself and addressing my underlying emotional problems, I ended up with pretty normal sleeping patterns. I fall asleep easily and stay that way the whole night through most nights.
While my difficulties with sleeping are gone, my story about sleeping continues to be an issue. This became apparent to me the other night.
I was helping some friends out and what we were doing was running longer than I had anticipated. It was about 10PM and I decided I wanted to go home. The thought “I’m so tired” entered my mind. I started to yawn repeatedly. My eyes started to close and burn.
I told the people around me that I was tired as well. I wanted everyone to comprehend my situation.
There are a couple pieces of information you should know about me, lest your heart bleed too profusely for my pitiable situation.
- 10PM is not late for me. I usually finish dinner around then and go to bed about midnight. It’s not infrequent that I stay up until 1AM. When I’m having a good time, I’ve been known to stay up to 2 or 3AM.
- If someone were to handle sleep deprivation well, it’d probably be me. I exercise frequently. I eat well. I’ve been on a no-sugar diet for the last couple weeks and have been filled with excess energy. I am the picture of good health. While I enjoy sleep, my body is well-suited to do without it for long periods.
I was about to text my girlfriend about my fatigue when I had an epiphany. My body wasn’t tired, but my words made it so. By repeating the “I am tired” mantra, I convinced my body that it was too tired to perform the tasks in front of me.
Because sleep had been an issue for so long, it became my go-to explanation for why I couldn’t do something. I didn’t do well on that test because I didn’t sleep well the night before. I didn’t ask that girl out because I was too tired to be courageous. That interview went poorly because I was sleepy. And even though I sleep fine now, the story of “I am tired” remains.
My story says there is a fixed state called “tired”; if I don’t get X-hours of sleep, I am going to be tired and that will prevent me from doing the things I want to do. It’s not true. “Tired” is elastic. When I’m excited about doing something like traveling someplace fun, I wake up at 5:30 without an alarm filled with energy. When I’m dreading something, I wake up tired after 9 hours of sleep.
There is a physiological state associated with a lack of sleep, but that’s not what causes my suffering. My suffering is rooted in the story “I am tired” and I should not be that way. Without the story, there is just a physiological state devoid of meaning.
When I tell people that story—often convincing them of its basis in reality—it substantiates my powerlessness. “Poor David couldn’t live up to his potential because he needed a nappy-pooh,” we all agree.
I thought I was speaking the Truth: One cannot live a good life while tired. This Truth seems more noble than the true Truth: that I bitch and moan about a nonexistent state to smokescreen my fear and impotence.
All complaints and problems are generated in language. When we remove language, when we let go of our stories, we are left with empty phenomena—stuff that happens but doesn’t mean a damn thing.
With this in mind, here is something to try:
- What is your go-to story? This is something you consider a cause for your powerless. It’s something that seems like the truth. For me, it’s being tired. Some popular examples include I am: busy, poor, presented with too many choices, fat, stupid, intelligent (i.e. no one around you understands you) and so on.
- What if that story was not true? What if the story makes the phenomenon true, not vice versa? For example, my story “I am tired” makes my body tired rather than my tired body makes the story “I am tired.”
- Starve your story for one week. Excise the language of your story. For example, I am not allowing myself to use “I am tired” for a week. I cannot verbalize it, email it or text it. It’s already producing a major shift. Instead of expending energy on creating reasons for my why I can’t do what I want to do, that energy is being directed toward finding ways of making things happen.