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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

“You’re not going to die from lack of sleep,” my doctor said. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”

Well, I hadn’t been worrying about that, but now I was. That and going insane due to insomnia.

“People in war-torn countries go days without sleep, and they survive,” she said with a satisfied look on her face.

“Thanks. That’s super helpful,” I thought.

It felt like I hadn’t slept in years – though it had probably only been a few weeks.

It started when my three-month-old son went through his first sleep regression. He was up almost every hour, every night, for a week. And this was after three months of getting up with him several times each night to breastfeed.

My internal body clock was a mess. His regression had been the last straw. I would lie in bed for hours until sunrise, unable to turn off my brain that was a whir of anxiety.

I watched the clock slowly tick forward, as minutes turned into hours. I loathed my husband sleeping soundly beside me.

Some nights I woke up and asked him to hold me, my body swimming with anxiety. But then I felt guilty about ruining his sleep, too. So, I tried to manage it on my own. I counted backward from 500, took melatonin, and listened to meditation apps.

None of it worked.

“I need sleeping pills,” I said to my doctor. “If I can just get a good night’s sleep, I know this anxiety will go away.”

“We don’t like to give breastfeeding mothers sleeping pills,” she said. “But let me see what I can do.”

She gave me some pills but they had no effect. The anxiety in my head was like a constant buzzing, a swarm of bees pressing down on my brain.

I researched proper sleep hygiene and started following the rules religiously. No caffeine or alcohol, no naps, no food after 8 p.m. and no screens before bed.

I also walked for hours with the baby in the stroller, convincing myself I could physically exhaust myself into sleep. But it never worked. My mind had taken complete control of my body. I felt different – I could tell there had been some chemical change in my brain.

Every morning I asked myself, “Is this normal? Do I feel normal right now? What is feeling normal?”

I felt myself slowly slipping away. Each day without sleep compounded my anxiety – I couldn’t sleep because I was anxious. I was anxious because I couldn’t sleep. It was a vicious cycle, an insomniac snake eating its own tail.

Though I know now that I had postpartum anxiety, I refused to believe it at the time. “I am strong,” I told myself. Strong was how I saw myself; it was part of my identity. If I wasn’t strong, what was I? Who was I?

I was stressed, tense, frantic. I held myself so taut – my body was wound up like a coiled spring. I couldn’t eat – I lost 20 pounds. I had no idea who I was any more.

Several times, my anxiety was so bad that my milk wouldn’t let down while I was trying to breastfeed my son. I had never given my son formula, and when I tried to, he wouldn’t take it. Every time my milk wouldn’t come in, I broke down, praying that my stash in the freezer would see me through each episode.

My husband left for work every morning, and I would sit in our living room in a panic, realizing I had to make it through 10 hours without him. I loved my child more than words could ever express, but the thought of being alone with him all day while I was hanging on by a thread terrified me.

I went back to the doctor.

“These pills aren’t working,” I told her. “I need something stronger.”

She gave in and prescribed Ativan. “Make sure you follow the dosage correctly. These are benzodiazepines. Tranquilizers. They are highly addictive.”

I was scared. I took the Ativan.

For a week, I went to bed in our spare bedroom so my husband wouldn’t wake me up when he got up to feed the baby in the night. If insomnia had felt lonely before, it felt infinitely lonelier sleeping by myself in a separate room.

I’d lie in bed and think of my mother, 25 years deceased, and wish I could feel her comforting arms around me.

The pills helped – they calmed my nerves so that by 3 or 4 a.m., I fell into what was called light sleep. I’d wake up in the morning, but I wouldn’t feel like I had actually slept at all. This was not restorative REM sleep. This was the fast food of sleep. Crumbs of rest. It left me feeling hollow.

Eventually, I was prescribed a low dose of anti-anxiety medication by my doctor. I felt like a complete and utter failure. I believe in the importance of mental health support, the necessity of therapy and the availability of medication. I just didn’t think I was the type of person that would ever need it.

It took a while for the chemicals in my brain to even out and during that time, I continued to take Ativan. After a few weeks, sleep returned. It wasn’t great, but even a night with a few consecutive hours felt like the slumber of a thousand years. Over time, my sleep windows got longer.

Over time, I stopped relying on those little white pills. But I still have them in my bedside drawer, their mere existence often enough to keep me calm during flare-ups of sleep-induced anxiety.

My son is a good sleeper now – despite his regression, he always was. I sleep well now too, but I do it with a new-found respect for its power – and how damaging a lack of sleep is to the mind. I still follow most of my sleep hygiene rules, though not quite as religiously (a mom needs her wine).

I know myself again – and I am strong. As a mother, I know now that true strength in parenthood is about perseverance. As Churchill famously said, if you’re going through hell, keep going. And for our little boy, I’ll go on forever.

Vanessa Green lives in Hamilton.

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