On Squeezing the Last Dregs of the Day

In Which I Give Myself a Guilt Trip, Can’t Sleep and Come to Some Epiphanies About Compassion, Productivity and Insomnia

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I’ve been sleeping not so great lately. I do this weird thing where I collapse in my bed at the end of the day because I’m super tired, and I just want to close my eyes and pass out. But my mind races, still in go-go-go daytime mode even though I’m supposed to enter into chill zone. And yet I can’t stop my brain. Did I edit this piece of writing? Did I email So-and-So back? Did I get XY and Z done? I didn’t, so maybe I should stay up just a bit later so i can start tomorrow with that wide-open buoyant feeling, instead of hitting the day feeling already behind. Oh, but I should just go to sleep. But well, wouldn’t it be nice to just get more stuff done?

And it goes on, and suddenly it’s an hour later and I’m still arguing with myself and I really should’ve just gone to sleep — but my internal argument has turned into a major fit of annoyance and aggravation, most of which is directed at myself. Bleh!

As a chronic insomniac, this is kind of bad news because it’s the mental pattern I fell into when I was living in NYC, doing film and school stuff and being that kind of person that runs around and constantly has somewhere to go and has to ridiculously schedule breakfast just to see my friends. The weird thing is that I don’t live like that anymore, so what the heck is going on?

One thing I’ve learned in my long and winding journey through chronic insomnia is it’s not just a question of drinking too caffeine or whatever: sometimes it’s situational, but there’s usually an underlying feeling or issue that needs to be tackled. And I’m pretty sure what mine is. There’s a sense of too much to do…and the creeping guilt trip I give myself when I don’t accomplish exactly how much I want. That inner dialogue I get into when I’m supposed to be getting to sleep is all about punishing myself for not reaching my own impossibly stupid standards. Frankly, it’s self-abuse. I would never nag my sweetheart or my little nieces or nephews or any loved one about how much they did or didn’t do as they were sleeping…so why am I doing it to myself?

When I engage in that whole circular stupid internal dialogue, it’s all about trying to squeeze one last thing so I can alleviate my “internal mean girl” of guilt, giving me dirty looks and looking down in me like I’m a loser. She’s the one who is always like, “You should be cooking all your meals and working out and writing another book and promoting your other one and starting a business and getting a mortgage and be a good person and take care of your relationship and be a good daughter and organize your kitchen drawers and OH MY GOD YOU CAN’T DO IT ALL AND WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU FORGETTING TO DO THE DISHES THINK OF THE ROACHES!!!”

(Yep, inner mean girl of productivity guilt is a little intense.)

Clearly the troubled sleep is a sign of something deeper — the need to bloody ease up on myself a little and to let go of the compulsion to do everything perfectly at once. A mentor once told me, “There’s a difference between being driven and driving yourself into the ground,” and clearly it’s something I need to refresh myself on. It usually involves reminding me of why I’ve taken on what I have and why it’s important to me — and whether it aligns with my bigger vision or values. It’s about gently but firmly scaling back on those things that aren’t priorities, and making peace with the fact that not everything can be done at once. And just being a little compassionate and easy towards myself and perhaps asking for a little help or time — all of which sounds easy but can be super hard.

These are things I need to keep reminding myself, and relearn and relearn again — often in different circumstances or a shift in my life or self.

I sort of need a lot of mental space for this, so I’m going to make sure to switch off the laptops and phones a good amount of time before I sleep and just give myself a better cushion to chill out. I might have to go back to my old tricks: taking out my contacts and getting ready for bed the minute I get home in the evening, since part of my mental sleepytime argument often involves arguing with myself about brushing my teeth or passing out. (Ridiculous, I know!) I may have to do some stretches before sleeping, or try some little meditation. But ultimately, it’s really a shift in my attitude towards work, productivity and constant action that needs to happen: to deliberately and mindfully choose to do fewer, more beloved things well and fully, instead of cramming it all in and wringing every minute of waking life of its potential productivity.

Being a recovering insomniac is all about being vigilant, and clearly I’ve been a little lax. My mother suffered from sleep problems almost all her life, so I’ve seen close-up how truly depleting and difficult it can be to operate in the long-term on so little sleep.

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