Growing up in the Midwest, I was told to suck it up, toughen up all the time. Medicine was for the weak. Sleep was for the weak. Hard work and discipline and no excuses. I was told this by my grandfather, my mother, my coaches, and my teachers. And of course, that dialogue became part of my discourse in my own head. I was always my own worst enemy when it came to failure. It was not an option. I would do whatever it took to have the best grades, run the fastest, present at the most conferences, juggle more work than anyone else, and coach the most wins.
I broke an ankle. My family convinced me it was a sprain. We never went to the doctor or hospitals. It never healed right, and I ran on it and re-broke it again and it took me 10 years to finally have no pain. But I sucked it up.
When I was told it was impossible to work full time and be part of my graduate program, I worked full time, coached two sports, and was one of the top students. All anyone ever had to say to me was you can’t do it and I was going to do it. Those four years were impossibly hard. I became an insomniac because the only way you can do 20 hours of work in a 24-hour day is to sleep 4.
When my blood pressure was high as a young person, I blew it off saying it was white coat doctor syndrome. I ran 15 miles a week and weighed 115 pounds, how could I have high blood pressure? What was later discovered was that I had an irregular heart rhythm, genetic. This condition almost killed me and Will when he was born early.
When I was told to stop running on my knee, I ran until I created irreversible nerve damage. Medicine? Rest? For the weak. Hard work? Discipline? For the strong, and I was strong.
I have found more balance now. My husband has been trying to change that discourse in my head for years and he makes really strong appeals, but sometimes when someone is so close to you, you don’t hear them. When I learned that I may lose motor control of my leg because the nerve damage in my knee was so bad, I finally stopped. I stopped moving for six months, which wasn’t good for me either. But in that six months, I was determined that there had to be a way for me to once again be athletic or at least to move with no more pain or damage.
I found IFAST, Indianapolis Sports and Fitness Training in Indianapolis, and the remarkable duo of physical therapist Bill Hartman and exercise science guru Mike Robertson. Along with their trainers, they got me fit again. And while I can’t run, I can now powerlift, push prowlers, jump, and reset my own body to stand and move correctly. They have taught me and continue to teach me about what “strong” really means. I'm stronger now than I ever was as a recreational runner.
You see, it’s not just a gym. It’s also a place where my trainers ask me about how I am sleeping, living, working, stressing, eating? In the past 2 ½ years, I have learned to eat better, drink Green tea instead of that third cup of coffee, and if I am tired, don’t try to kill your program today. Just work out.
It’s taken me a few years to learn this. I managed to hurt myself along the way. Always in competition with that God damn voice in my head that says you aren’t strong unless you can kill a PR every time you lift. It’s gotten me into trouble, but my trainers and Bill typically nurse me back and try to once again teach me the lesson that it’s about gains, not kills.
So, while I continue to work on my physical and emotional strength, I have had one secret that no one knows about. I have taken Ambien for 9 years. I’m not proud of it, and I never told anyone.
Will was so chronically ill as a baby that he never or rarely slept, Jim was gone on active duty with the Army and we had no family close by to help and no nursing help. I was working part time and writing my first book, and I was a zombie and my blood pressure and weight were both high. My family doctor and OB pushed and encouraged anti-depressants. And I would say over and over, “I’m not depressed. I’m just tired.”
Which was true. I loved Will the way he was. Yes, it was and is a hard life having a child with severe and chronic medical and intellectual disabilities, but I was doing it. And I loved my work. I needed work to keep me sane when things got hard with Will and Will to keep me in check when work got hard.
Even with the Ambien, I remained an insomniac. I slept better with it, but not well. So, I made a decision last week. I’m done. I had tried before to titrate down and it never worked, so I quit cold turkey. Ambein is a benzodiazepine, so quitting cold turkey means withdrawal symptoms. And God, I had no idea what kind of hell I was putting myself through: sweats, hallucinations, heart palpitations, no sleep at all, like up for 48 hours no sleep, nausea, and a fogginess that made it hard for me to even walk across my house from room to room. It’s getting better, but it can take as long as three weeks. I’m still in it, trying to come through to the other side.
I’m okay being tired. I’ve been tired for years now. But not having your full brain or access to your body is surreal. Once I get through it, I am committed to better nighttime rituals to help me sleep better. And I will be okay with being tired, but I will never be okay with how unknowingly addicted I was to this monster.
My doctors were well-intentioned but ill-informed. They wanted to help me, give me a fix, allow me to find some relief. They always feel sorry for me because they understand that my life with Will is difficult, but I wish they would have recommended alternatives besides this addictive controlled substance. I asked many times if this drug is addictive and they said, “No.” Not true. And not one of them told me about the dangers of taking it daily or about the dangers with withdrawal. When I finally called my doctor on day 5 to talk about my extreme symptons, she was angry with me. There is a titration system where they give you another drug to help you get off of this drug. I said, “I’m not interested. “
I will probably always have to take medication for my heart, and I understand that and am grateful there are treatments besides having a heart attack. And I know sleep is important but this drug took such control over my brain that it scared the hell out of me.
So, I am learning a hard lesson once again about being strong and managing the demons’ discourse that wages battle in my head. I am learning that to be strong means to be honest. Start with where I am now and make gains, knowing there will be setbacks and occasional fails. I am not weak for telling this truth.