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At the beginning of my trip, my biggest problem wasn’t adjusting to a different culture, it was the shift into a new part of my life. For my first two years of college, before leaving for Bangkok, I loved myself. I felt liberated with every choice I made. Living my life was effortless and easy—something I took entirely for granted. I remember being more happy than unhappy. Until Bangkok, where everything felt different. Sadness introduced itself to me in a new, unfamiliar way. I started to feel guilty, ashamed even, for feeling anxious all the time when I could so vividly remember enjoying my summer just months ago. I tried to ignore the depression I felt during classes when my attention would divert from the chalkboard only eight feet in front of me. Instead of practicing Statistics, I was journaling about how badly I wanted to leave, how fat I felt in my Thai school uniform, how I wished I could scrape at my arms just to forget the pain I felt. But I couldn’t justify my self-harm in Thailand’s heat; it was too hot for long sleeves. Instead, I took two or three naps a week after classes, even in the middle of the day. My anxious thoughts dictated my days and nights. My time after school was a toss up; nap or explore. When evening came in Bangkok, life back home in New York was just waking up. My brain wouldn’t let me rest knowing I so badly wanted to go back. Out of desperation, I found Motrin PM.
Over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills helped to temporarily counteract my anxious and depressive feelings. The thing with my anxiety though, is no two nights are the same. Some days and nights are relatively good, running smoothly without much tension. I was able to enjoy my life in Thailand if I got a good night’s sleep. I was even happy, almost like I was before leaving for Asia. But if I didn’t sleep, I became overridden with anxiety. One morning on the bus ride to campus, sitting across from an American classmate, I started sobbing silently behind my sunglasses looking out the window. I hadn’t slept the night before. I saw her take notice of me from my peripheral, but I couldn’t stop shaking. She looked away and said nothing. I felt dense with pain. I was angry with myself for feeling things no one around me seemed to be feeling.
When I returned home to New York, I felt a rush of relief and familiarity; I forgot about the Motrin PM I took back in Thailand. But once the spring semester started in January, I was smacked in the face with changes I wasn’t prepared for. Switching my major from Speech-Language Pathology to Writing was liberating, in a way, but discouraging in others. I finally knew what I wanted to study, but somehow was clueless of everything I needed to learn. Shame grew as I regularly berated myself for not figuring things out sooner. I thought, “I would have been so much better off had I chosen the right major two years ago. Maybe this anxiety would have never come up.” I was also working to balance an uneven amount of responsibilities compared to what I was used to. As a part-time fitness coach, unsure of how to be happy with the way my body looked, and trying to figure out what college meant was only a warm-up for what was to come.
That January was a true testament to my need for understanding what was going on inside of my head and how exactly I planned on handling it. Five classes is the standard for an average student’s semester. I was finishing up two classes in a major I no longer cared about and three in my new one. Balancing the course load was tough. Up until that point, I had worked through my college education just fine. I had to confront the inner voice inside of my head that felt embarrassed, that told me I had no right to feel overwhelmed, that other people have more work to do and they still finish on top. That voice kept me awake at night.
Days blurred into nights. A few sips of coffee in the morning would transform my heart into a pounding 808 drum for the remainder of the day and well into the night. I felt physically and mentally trapped. I started to notice how tight and sore my neck felt in the mornings after a restless night. I suffered from consistent headaches—my temples throbbing between breaths. Sleep became substituted with quiet sobs into my comforter until the pain and pressure in my head was so unbearable that I needed to get up. Laying horizontally meant I was more susceptible to an attack. I could feel my body collapsing underneath me and I knew that a simple, solid sleep would be the fix. But since I couldn’t get it without help, I continued my search for better, stronger solutions. Advil PM and Tylenol PM worked well, but they left me too groggy, even hours after I’d woken up. So I did what any other desperate person would do: I started to mix.
At this point, I had already become pretty well-versed in the OTC sleep aid world. I knew I could always rely on my painkillers, but I needed something that let me sleep and feel like the human I wanted to be, but wasn’t. I tried melatonin, which unfortunately enough for me, gave me severe sleep paralysis; I found myself laying numb and immobile in my bed even after waking. My chest and limbs felt as though someone had pumped cement into my veins, leaving me to feel all the weight. And of course, anxiety would tag along there, too. As I lay rigid at the tail-end of a sleep cycle, I could feel the pressure build in my body and clump in my head as if my thoughts were stiffening as well. I was afraid to sleep and tired of being awake.
All of this went on for about two years, with the height of my insomnia spreading over an intense seven-month span. The week before finals, I called my mom at 4:30 in the morning with the sound of my hyperventilation. I had been crying so heavily that I couldn’t breathe and didn’t know what to do. Until then, she’d never known the extent of my pain. In hopes of consoling me, she paid me a visit. It barely helped. I felt like no one could free me from myself. That’s when I started seeing a therapist.
I like to say Kristin, my therapist, saved my life by being the embodiment of everything I needed and still need to this day: Empathy. Patience. Action. She likes to say she reminded me how to care for myself. I think we’re both right. I had been to therapists before, but never to talk about anything as serious as this. I knew I needed to go back to her when I couldn’t last a week without at least three sleepless nights and four or five anxiety attacks. This was the peak. Though Bangkok was problematic at times, being home wasn’t the solution. Each week proved to be more challenging to get through. I needed help.
And I still need help. I wish I could say my anxiety and sleep are all better now, but that would be untrue. It may never be “all better.” It can, however, be clearer. I understand now what happens to my body and brain when I’m lacking sleep. I swear I can feel my thoughts separating and fading from clarity when I’m nearing an anxious breakdown. It might sound irrational and intense to someone who hasn’t experienced what I’ve described, but it actually stands out as a notable point of growth for me. To be able to see myself from a distance, to disconnect from the real and observe what I am feeling so that I can respond and not react, is a huge success. I need to acknowledge that. It means I am not only understanding myself but I now understand my brain. While I now can relax more easily and even sleep without medication most nights, it’s not every night, and that’s okay, too.
On my imperfect nights, the ones where I wake up at 3 AM from a terrifying dream, tapping my foot incessantly, my body wriggling in discomfort, I still consider the bottle of sleeping pills. I am still terrified of the outcome. Every night poses the chance of running smoothly or erratically. Lucid dreams or nothing at all. And the thing about insomnia is it’s ironically exhausting. After days of not sleeping, I’m still not drained enough to sleep. I might even be more revved up than before. Either way, I’m learning to manage it, every day and night. I learned how to meditate. I practice writing. I color and listen to music. I read books about things that bore me. I forget about sleeping, so that maybe one day I can forget about what it was like to be perpetually exhausted.