Judaism - Torah

What I’ve Learned from my Anxiety & Staying Awake until 2:30 am

I rarely – perhaps never – have written about my experiences with anxiety on these pages. But here we are, in an age of anxiety, and for me, it’s 1:05 AM in between Sunday and Monday. I’m looking ahead to another week, wondering how we’re going to get through it all. Knowing that we will, but wondering how. Oh hey – rabbis have anxiety, too! Even rabbis who meditate…

I saw a meme or a comment a couple weeks ago which reflected that the population doing best with the changes to our world are – perhaps counterintuitively – those who suffer from crippling anxiety. “Hey, we’ve had a whole lifetime of preparation for a moment like this!” Dark humour aside, I get it. My anxiety’s not cured and probably never will be, but I’ve figured out ways to cope, work through it, and live. And remarkably, this is grounding me at a time when it’s not uncommon to feel as though the ground has been pulled out beneath us.

So, here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going to write more about my own anxieties. If it’s just for me and my own writing therapy, great. If someone’s reading this, and it helps you out – so much the better.

I’m going to begin back when I first realized I had something that I would later come to learn was anxiety, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.

But actually, we start tonight.

 


 

It’s after 1:00 am again and I’m still not in bed. I’m starting to play chicken with my internal clock.

The game goes like this: since I know that every night, mostly without fail, I will wake up – somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 am in a cold sweat of anxiety and generalized fear fuelled by whatever chemical imbalance or chromosomal abnormality or inherited trauma of which I am the beneficiary – if I can make it to 2:00 am or so, I might be able to head off the exasperating jolt of awaking, and stay blissfully unconscious until the morning. The alternative means opening my eyes, bathed in the red light of my clock-radio and the irrational fear of both everything and nothing in particular.

I used to stare at that same clock-radio as a child. I received it for Chanukah one year, back when my prescribed bedtime was before 7:30 pm. I would fall asleep to the excitement of Joe Bowen calling Leafs games (his “HOLY MACKINAW!” emerging from the speaker, a far cry from a meditative encouragement to lull me off to sleep).

Now the clock is still next to me in Washington DC, its digits flashing the exact same hours of the same time zone, in the same red glow: 3:27 am, 3:28 am, 3:29 am. 3:30 am. Still awake.

I stared at that same alarm clock as a teenager, staying awake late into the night, chasing a glimpse of the sunrise, at which point I would know it would be safe to fall asleep for a few hours. Some nights, deep into the Ontario winter, as the clock crept toward 7:00 am, and it still wasn’t yet getting brighter, I would worry: “what if it doesn’t become day, today? what if I’m in a world where the sun isn’t going to rise?”

But mostly, my nighttime anxieties were not astronomical – not, scientifically, at least. On these routine late-night journeys, I would frequently occupy myself by reading the Chicken Soup for the Soul… series, their short stories just short enough to keep my attention one after the other after the other. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III. Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul. Anyone who has read these books might recall them being a step down from Joe Bowen level excitement, but not exactly fodder for encouraging restful sleep. Many were heart-opening stories of pain, suffering, broken relationships, and coping with all sorts of anxiety. Lots of overcoming of those experiences, too. But at 3:30 am to a fifteen-year-old with undiagnosed anxiety, it wasn’t easy to internalize that side of the stories. What remained was dread. Lots of dread. Like my 3:30 am wakings today, dread of both everything in general and nothing in particular.

This snapshot might be recognizable, perhaps even passé, to anyone familiar with this kind of anxiousness around sleep. But at the time, I wasn’t aware that there were reasons, diagnoses, and definitions for the nightly pit in my stomach, the cold sweats, and the turbulent sleep cycle. Not knowing this, most of the time, I bore this anxiety alone. “Maybe I’m having a hard time growing up,” I could tell myself. That must be it. It’s just me not being able to shake a fear of nighttime or of being alone.

But most of the time, I would go it alone, struggling through the night.

There were times when I didn’t. A memory of one time when I didn’t came raging back to me recently in a most unexpected way. More on that in a moment.

On these nights, if I wasn’t reading Chicken Soup, then I was likely staring out my bedroom window, trying to catch glimpses of lights on in peoples’ homes. It was soothing to know that nearby, there were people awake and engaging in the world. It still is. This is why I adored living in Manhattan – knowing that within looking, walking, and shouting distance, there were dozens, hundreds of people awake with their lights on, going about their business from sunset to sunrise. It’s also why I was devastated when I found out in high school that Bob Parlocha, the overnight DJ on 91.1 Jazz FM, wasn’t staying up all night with me from a studio in downtown Toronto, but was broadcasting in syndication from Los Angeles.

So back to gazing out the window as a panacea, then. My graduating playwriting from my High School Drama programme was a play about the world – real and imagined – that I saw outside my window in these inky hours. The capstone to five years of intensive theatre education for me turned out to be a piece of writing therapy, though at the time, I didn’t know it. I was still a decade away from being told by a doctor: “it sounds like what you’re experiencing are panic attacks.” Without that diagnosis, I just typed up what I saw outside and what was wizzing through my head, because at the very least, it seemed interesting.

One night – one of the nights when I just couldn’t go it alone – I was looking into the window of our neighbours across the street. The lights were on. “Good. I’m not alone.” I looked down. The clock blinked 3:28 am. “If the light stays on past 3:30 am, I’ll be okay.” Frequently, I negotiated with myself in this way – finding ways to assure myself that everything would be okay. I looked up. Light still on. Looked down – the familiar red glow of 3:29. Looked up and out. The light was out. My body panicked. There really aren’t words to describe the kind of fear I experienced, because it was irrational, imprecise, and without a reference point for most people.

But there I was – careening down the hall to my parents’ room, out of breath, trying to explain to them the catastrophe of the neighbours’ light going out, and what it must mean, and wondering why nobody believed me that something was wrong.

I don’t remember how I calmed down, though I did. I don’t remember what my parents said to me, though it must have worked. I don’t remember the resolution, much as I don’t remember the resolution to the Chicken Soup stories. I just remember the fear and panic and anxiety.

And it all came flooding back recently, as I was binge-watching Black Mirror. An episode explored the consequences of a brain-implanted augmented reality video game that heightened one’s own anxieties. One scene played out as if it were pulled from my own memories: Far past midnight in an overnight stay in a decrepit manor (in his augmented version of reality), the protagonist gazes at a painting of a decrepit manor that looks eerily similar to the one in which he is lodging. He looks away from the painting. Looks back. The painting has changed. Now, a light is on in an upstairs window. He looks away. Looks back. A figure now in the window. Footsteps upstairs. Footsteps growing louder. Even now, as I write these words at 1:23 am, goosebumps raise on my arm and I look over my shoulder. I know I’m safe; I know it’s just entertainment; but then, hey, that’s not how these things work, is it?

If I can just stay awake for another thirty-seven minutes, then I’ll be okay – I’ll probably stay asleep until the morning.

I have tried different ways to avoid having to go through this nightly negotiation, many of which have worked blessedly well: no more coffee after 12:00 pm. Mostly kicked the using-the-cell-phone-before-bedtime habit. Lots of meditation. Praying bedtime Shema. Sometimes alprazolam is a good backup (thanks, 2009 diagnosis). A few years ago, we got one of those lights that fades on and intensifies in the morning as a way of gently awakening you more aligned with your sleep cycle. We used it for a while, enjoying the novelty of waking up in the winter to a room full of warm light. Maybe it was better for my circadian rhythm. But last year, I swapped it out for the same old red-LED clock that has for years accompanied me into the swampy hours of the morning. What does Panasonic know from nighttime anxiety, anyway?

Here I am, in some ways very much the same person as I was twenty years ago, feeling the same pangs, playing the same games against myself as I did as a teenager. It’s 1:33 am. And part of me very much wants to listen at my apartment door for the sounds of my awake neighbours and stay awake myself until the sun peeks over the apartment building across the street, when I know that I’ll be safe.

Isn’t that what we all always want, in some way? To know that we’re still here amongst each other, and that the sun will still rise?

Isn’t that want, that need very much the source of so much (perhaps all) of our physical-and-social-distancing anxieties? Aren’t we all, in a way, confronted with the terrifying questions: “What if I’m alone right now? What if nobody’s here tomorrow? What if it doesn’t become day, today? What if I’m in a world where the sun isn’t going to rise?”

Thanks to my decades of nighttime journeys of the mind, it turns out I actually know the answers to these questions. They’re probably the most valuable lessons – still applicable – that I’ve drawn from my teenage years. Here’s what I can tell you:

1. Learn more about yourself. And be compassionate with yourself. So much of my own learning about and coping with anxiety was just getting to the starting point of knowing that there were names for what I was experiencing. For so long, in this absence of awareness, I just assumed that something was wrong with me. I imagine many find themselves in a similar position now, confronting new and strange feelings and being unsure of what they mean.

For me, meditation has been a gift. Prayer sustains me. Mindfulness grounds me. Of course, everyone and their anxieties are different. So talk to a mental health professional. Or contact me here, and I can help connect you to systems and/or tools of support.


2. Nobody is alone, truly. Cosmically, we’re just not.
 It can be hard to remember this at times – particularly in the darkness and narrowness of a 3:30 am anxiety attack, or a global pandemic. But guess what? We’re all made of exact same bits of star dust. And if you were to zoom in close enough, you’d have a hard time telling where you stopped, and the oxygen molecules in front of you began. Judaism calls this idea Tzelem Elohim – being created according to the blueprint of the Divine. We’re all mirrors of the Infinite; all God’s twin; all fundamentally equal; all in this together. The gift of this bizarre moment is this inescapable knowledge, this Truth, despite what economics, and politics, and technocrats might tell us.

(Of course, there are people who are physically alone right now, and precisely because of this, it’s our job to be present with them in the best ways we can).

This is not something I am making up. It’s also a Truth that Pablo Neruda landed upon, tossed about by his own turbulent world. He shared it during his Nobel acceptance speech:

There is no insurmountable solitude… All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”


3. We’ll be here tomorrow.
There’s loss and sadness and devastation. But we’ll be here tomorrow, together. God-willing. And we need to do more to remind each other of that. Too much makes it hard to remember. For me, realizing that the news was making it hard for me to remember this was a revelation. I am a news junkie and have at least 11 news apps on my phone, but I have all but stopped watching the news and have disabled virtually all notifications on my devices. And now I remember.

When I was 16, it was hard to believe that I’d make it through the night. Each night was a new uncertain journey. I wish I knew at the time about clinical anxiety and panic attacks and alprazolam and not drinking coffee in the afternoon. That would have made my life so much easier. But even without knowledge and tools, each morning, without fail, there I was… a little worse for wear, but I was there. So ask yourself: what do you need to do to remind yourself that we are here now, and we’ll be here, tomorrow?


4. The sun will rise and it will shine. 
This is not blind optimism or false hope. No matter how hard I convinced myself on winter mornings at 6:00 am that the darkness inside and around me was indicative that I had landed in an alternate world where the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning, we don’t live in an alternate world. We live here – in this world – where each new day is amazing proof that life renews itself.

In another eerie alignment, Pesach (Passover) this year overlaps our current isolation. And what is the story of Pesach if not the indefatigable belief that return lies ahead, and that we will march forward together? My people’s story is one of a certain kind of stubborn conviction that while much about life is unknown, uncertain, and unfair, this much is certain: belief in our collective acts of redemption is not naive, but part of the very fabric of the universe. Why?

Because every day the sun rises. Without fail. We are created. And creation is magnificent.

It’s 3:24 am. I’m going to sleep. See you in the morning.

1 thought on “What I’ve Learned from my Anxiety & Staying Awake until 2:30 am”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing Jesse. I’m confident it wasn’t easy. I’m glad when k aee posts like this, because if it allows just one more person to feel that they’re not alone, or just one more person to better understand the general concept of anxiety (the negotiation piece hit me hard), then you’ve effected positive change.

    I’m hoping you and your loved ones are well during this unusual time. I’m doing my very best to learn from it all. It’s like drinking from a fire hose…but there’s SOME solace knowing that everyone, worldwide, is drinking from the same firehose.

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