Women's Health

I thought I had overcome insomnia. Then I didn’t sleep for four days.

As said to Erica Rimlinger

The night we buried my father, I didn’t sleep. The second night after he died, I walked until I was exhausted and didn’t sleep. The third night, my brain was buzzing with an incredible spiritual connection to my father. I sketched out three books and four business ideas, and I didn’t sleep. The fourth night after my father died, I didn’t sleep – and I was very, very scared.

From an early age, I was a problem solver and caretaker. I understood that my place in the world was to make others happy and to support the people around me. Growing up in a very small town in Mexico, I was the second of 10 children and the first person in my family to graduate from college. I attended the best university in Mexico on a basketball scholarship. I accumulated roles and responsibilities and was rewarded with love and respect for others and myself. I was happy. Or, I should have been.

In reality, I was stressed most of the time, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to delve too deeply into that or my occasional insomnia. That’s why they make Tylenol PM, right?

In college, I visited Beijing and vowed to return after graduation to live, work, and study Mandarin. I arrived in China on Chinese New Year’s Day 2010. Beijing was amazing, the people were friendly, the food was delicious, and I registered with the Mexican Embassy so I could meet other expats and maybe get invited at fun parties.

I got an internship at the Mexican Embassy, ​​enrolled in school, and started dating a man who lived in Sweden. I loved Chinese culture and worked hard to learn the language. I worked so hard in my studies, in fact, that I never would have guessed that I was dyslexic. Nobody did. There was no challenge that I couldn’t complete. So I pushed. Already bilingual in English and Spanish, I master my third language. I was starting to feel symptoms of depression, but I ignored them. Sometimes I had insomnia. I took a Tylenol PM. Or I would double the dose.

I married my boyfriend. Since he was living in Sweden, I packed my bags and left China to live in another new country, determined to learn my fourth language and be the best wife I could be. A year later, his work took us back to Beijing. At first it was nice to be back and we had a romantic relationship. Then he started traveling a lot, and I found myself alone, homesick, stressed and unable to sleep. I was drinking Tylenol PM from the bottle. Nothing happened. Sleep rarely came, and when it did, it was doled out within an hour or two.

2019 (Photo/Ale Saldaña)

During our second year in Beijing, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I could overcome any obstacle, but not this one. My husband and I argued a lot and I felt sick all the time. I did not understand the physical consequences of stress and insomnia. I considered myself not only healthy, but very healthy, but now injuries and illnesses that should have been minor regularly sent me to the hospital. If I could just make something work, I thought, I could get through this. But nothing in my body, my marriage, my life was working.

I finally saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression. I met a yoga therapist who taught me to recognize my feelings and take charge of them. I felt calm, present and less angry. I felt better and started to sleep again.

Friends and family had asked my husband and I when we would have children. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to have children one day, but not with my husband. We divorced and I returned to Mexico and then to the United States, where I started training to become a yoga therapist.

Shortly after, my father fell ill and passed away, and the grief and shock reignited my insomnia so much that I didn’t sleep for four days. After the fourth day, my family took me to see a psychiatrist who gave me a course of antidepressants and sedatives. Gradually I was able to reduce my medication until I could sleep again. I completed my yoga therapist certification with more insight into my responses to stress.

In my period of great stress, I had fallen back into my old patterns of perfectionism. I believe women are especially vulnerable to perfectionism and putting the needs of others ahead of their own. When life gets stressful, perfectionist thoughts arise, self-critical thoughts that tell me that I should sleep, I could sleep if only I tried harder and succeeded.

But the speech that the air hostesses hold before each flight is correct: you have to put on the oxygen mask before helping your loved ones with theirs. If you want to be kind to others, you must first be kind to yourself.

My own sleep problem was multifaceted, and so was the solution. Today, I journal, meditate, move, and allow myself to heal on my own terms. I no longer rush or push myself. I take life in small steps and simplify. Little by little, I’m getting better. I don’t have all the answers, but it turns out you don’t need all the answers to be able to sleep at night.


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