Sleep is a sticking point for a body in chronic pain. It’s what I crave the most—to just lie down and close my eyes and not wake up for hours—but it’s often a craving left unsatisfied. Most mornings begin one of three ways.
I wake up as the dogs rattle around in the kitchen, sniffing for errant kibble under their blankets and bowls. I take stock of the situation—is it really morning? How much sleep was I able to get? What muscles are spasming? Am I able to turn my head or is it stuck in one direction or the other? I’m stiff, sore, and need to get out of bed quickly before I can’t get up at all, but I’m thankful to have gotten a few hours of sleep.
Or, I wake up at 3 a.m., my hips throbbing, an electric-like pain shooting across my pelvis. My neck is stiff, my leg muscles are rigid, and nerves light up throughout my body. I stand up in the dark because I can’t stand the pressure on my body as I lie on the bed.
And there are the mornings that are merely extensions of the previous night. Those are the hardest, the ones where no matter how many times I change positions or alternate between the bed and a camping mattress on the floor, I can’t get comfortable. I’m exhausted but in too much pain to sleep. Midnight, two a.m., sunrise, all come and go. Eventually I get up, defeated by my own body, and try to start another day.
I used to take sleep for granted. In college, I’d fall asleep on a cheap blow-up mattress and wake up feeling like a million bucks. Before chronic pain, if I said I didn’t get enough sleep, I meant that I’d had four or five hours of rest. Now, those hours are days. My record is ninety-six hours without sleep, and by the time I finally took enough muscle relaxers to knock myself out, I was shaky and cold and thought I might die.
I hate prescription medication. I use vitamin B supplements, sublingual melatonin, and organic tea to try to sleep. But occasionally, on nights when nothing else works, I reach for a bottle of pills. It’s one of the worst kind of defeats—to admit that my body is attacking itself, trying to stay awake through the hours meant for sleep.
I try to look at chronic pain as a test, a puzzle that must be worked with through trial and error until my body and I come up with a livable solution. I exercise daily, often spending an hour working on my core muscles to help alleviate the pressure on my spine. I eat a restricted diet, avoiding sugar and corn and gluten and a lot of other things that seem to inflame my body. I have a pretty good survival system, but chronic pain is a fulltime job. Every bite of food, every push of a heavy door, every reach overhead to pull on a fan—every single thing has to be carefully planned, because a wrong move can leave me debilitated for days or weeks.
Sometimes, when I’m able to sleep, I drift off to lucid dreams in which I’m running half marathons again, or scoring goals on the soccer field, or finishing my first triathlon. They’re beautiful dreams, but because they’re lucid, I know there’s a certain sense of falsehood in them. Willpower and hope keep me fighting through the sleepless nights. I may not be able to run again yet, but I want to, and desire is a powerful thing. I get mad sometimes—a resentful, ugly mad—but I try to channel that anger into healing. Chronic pain owns the mind as much as it owns the body, and staying hopeful that one day I’ll be okay is my way of telling it to kiss my pain-free ass.