I have had a disrupted sleep since I was a kid, but it didn’t become chronic until I grew up and assumed the anxiety of the adult, whereupon it became a real problem, requiring drugs that were hard to get. Doctors would be abstemious and hard-nosed about prescribing them, so I tried all their various recommendations, and even taught myself to meditate which took ten years. The result? I became so depleted, I contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from a trio of the many herpes viruses which basically eviscerated my energy, and sent me into a quiet, a very quiet, too quiet life. The eight or nine herpes viruses are carried by most of us, but they need stressors to become active. I provided them with many stressors, moving countries, continents, chasing stories from dawn to dusk and parties from dusk to dawn.
We now know that 80 million Americans suffer from a variety of sleep problems and that there are 80 kinds of sleep disorders. By the time I was 40, I found that a tiny dose of an old-fashioned anti-depressant could deliver a night of sleep, and my life began to improve, radically and fast. But fifteen years of broken sleep has rendered me paranoid and worried, so last summer I bought an Oura Ring, which is the most sophisticated sleep tracker on the market to date.
Below I attach the Oura’s records of last night’s sleep. I have about 20 data points to consider. First of all, I know I was over-tired by supper-time, but instead of a nap, I powered through and by 10 pm, I was frazzled and it was hard to sleep – took me almost 80 minutes. And I woke constantly, through the night. My heart rate was high, my deep sleep low. Based on the data, I am more aware. I can make adjustments. The reason this is important is that the 20% of us (Please see my RCCX Theory essay, linked here ) who carry this sensitivity, which goes along with a more intense sensibility, can easily tip into complete sleeplessness. More and more people are recognizing that they are carriers and that their lives are impacted. Last month Justin Bieber confessed to the syndrome, his manifests as Lyme and it sent him to Christianity and marriage. Lady Gaga has it. Morgan Freeman, ‘Girl’s’ creator, Lena Dunham, Cher, and a host of others less famous. Ten million Americans and between 3 and 6% of the world’s population are sick with fibromyalgia, which is cousin to CFS.
Last week, a woman just south of me, Darden Burns, who had CFS for decades, killed herself because she hadn’t slept for months. Everything she tried worked for a while, then failed. Her life was heroic and makes it clear that, if you want to live, you must apply sleep hygiene. You must be conscious.
Next week Your Best Sleep Ever, an alternative medicine approach to improving sleep begins. It’s free and you can register here.
I read with no little fascination the New York Magazine profile of Lena Dunham, the 33 year old, relentless over-sharer who was famously on the cover of Vogue looking cute as a button, quite contrary to her public persona which is of that bloated freak of a gal who resides in the heart of all of us from the age of 16 on.
Dunham has annoyed me ever since Girls, and as she says, she’s “not for everyone”. I resisted watching Girls, because of the intense humiliation of not only the characters but because of the shame it woke in me. I felt a regression to my most vulnerable age, dumped into a group of malignant and mysterious betters. Camping appears to be another exercise in spectacular maladjustment with the incandescently well-adjusted Jennifer Garner playing the near-psychotic, crazy-ass convenor of a bunch of thoroughly neurotic celebrants. My toes curl with embarrassment just thinking about it. It’s like every bad party you’ve ever been to, rolled up into one miserable half-hour.
From what fresh hell does all this arise? Dunham herself recounts that many of her producers or editors used to say, “Love the piece, hate the main character”. The main character was always, of course, Dunham.
I grew up with a neurotic woman, who was occasionally formally completely insane, seeing the CIA or CSIS in her neighbor or tennis partner’s plans, or barricading herself in the house unable to answer the phone because it was tapped or go out because she was followed. She was mostly sane, but in those sane periods she was often malignant, and most particularly to other women who she would go after until she had reduced them in her mind, and sometimes in her social circle to prehistoric slime carrying every nasty quality she could evoke. This, of course, was the projection of her own sense of inadequacy, her own sense that she was about to vanish. Once split off from the object of her hatred, she acquired a new lease on life and felt good for a considerable period of time.
As a result of being a handmaiden and guardian of her sanity – luckily my father stood the main burden – I was for many years attracted to friends who were borderline crazy. Most people spend their conversations complaining and worrying, but I chose the ones who were most inventive in that, who could beckon the dark, the malignant, see power used for ill, every acquaintance a bully or a user or some man who’d done them wrong, and so on. Many of them were like Dunham, who is nothing less than brilliant in her demonstration of shame and inadequacy. I’d listen, attempt to mitigate, felt myself disappearing, as I did in my relationship with my mother, because to people like that, no one else truly exists. They are just that desperate to survive. They confront their own erasure in every painful moment and take your soul as recompense.
Dunham seems to be inflicting upon herself ever deeper humiliations, removing her uterus, photographing her blown-up body in more and more unattractive ways, even at her most vulnerable, in a hospital bed, visible stitches and transparent underwear and always way too much fat. She is a walking performance piece of grotesque narcissism, invoking failure with every Instagram post. That she has 3,000,000 followers demonstrates that a lot of people feel that vulnerable, that lost, that inadequate to the terrors of modern life. I had to look up all the psychoactive drugs she is prescribed. Keeping her on the rails is an apex achievement of Big Pharma.
I’d guess she’s lost and I’d also guess she’s taking her followers with her. But maybe not. I collect stories of women who have sacrificed their health and sanity to fame achieved by retailing their neuroses. To them, as the earned-it nurse to madness, I prescribe this one thing, the thing that my mother did which led her to stability: find something really hard to master, and then master it. And once you’ve done that, find something else. Get your brilliant mind off your tiny precious self. Because when you save yourself, you save us too.
Over the weekend, Lena Dunham announced that Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony triggered her fibromyalgia. This illness, which Lady Gaga also carries, along with millions of others, is barely understood. It is a kind of rheumatism, a disease of the nervous system, muscles, tendons and sinew that bears some resemblance to depression, and is often treated by anti-depressants. It is perhaps a somatization of depression, along with a maladjustment to massive structural change. Equally, as Dr. Sarah Myhill, one of the leading physicians of Chronic Fatigue and its attendant illnesses, globalization has brought home a whole bunch of new viruses which have overwhelmed our immune systems.
Women are 90% more likely to contract fibro, as my dear cousin calls it, as one would nickname her perpetual friend, her companion in life. It becomes that. As Dunham describes it, it is pain, pain in all its wondrous variations, a symphony of pain, an extraordinary mirroring of the shadow relationship between the body and the world.
I feel that this has a simple enough explanation. Has anything changed more than women’s lives in the last 50 years? Dunham and Lady Gaga have been lifestyle pioneers of their generation, and without moving to judgment on the value of their contributions, they have been impressively public in moving the goalposts of acceptable behavior for women, pushing the limits of expression of identity with a single-minded will.
Do I show my age or weariness when I wish for a consolidation of our gains? Two generations ago, women knew what to expect from life. Almost all of us spent at least part of our lives in secure marriages, in one or two cities or towns, knowing people in those towns birth to death. One hundred years ago, says Dr. Myhill, she would have spent her entire life in one valley in Wessex, eating the same food, encountering the same viruses, her life for the most part predictable, if not completely safe. Despite extreme boredom, her immune system, she states, would have loved her.
We need to catch up with ourselves on the most fundamental of levels, which is to say our bodies. I’ve moved seven cities and three continents in my lifetime, mostly on my own, mostly with very little in the way of support. I am confident that I can hack a living out of almost any wilderness now, and in my wake, and in that of millions of others, more or less accomplished, is a veritable symphony of achievement, independence, and freedom.
Blasey-Ford’s testimony last week, genuine or not, was a cry from that aching corner of women’s psyches that resonated all around the world. It felt real, it felt deep, almost every woman on the planet could see herself in that girlish woman, deeply credentialed, busted back to herself at a powerless fifteen. But that is not who we have become in actuality. Not at all. Aching we may be, but as a sex, in the last fifty years, singly and together we have hung the moon.