By Lainey Veltri
Any one of the events that hit me over a span of 18 months following a two-week battle with COVID-19 in December 2020 would be enough to break a person. The weight of those cumulative stressors finally rendered me broken, spawning a walk through one of the darkest valleys I’ve ever traveled.
Weeks after the COVID infection, the middle-of-the-night blood pressure spikes, heart palpitations and anxiety episodes began. Then came the panic attacks—one that sent me to the ER thinking I was having a stroke. Two months after that inaugural panic attack, my father died unexpectantly, leaving my mother who suffers with dementia all alone and her future uncertain.
While I was burying my dad, my long-term relationship with whom I thought was my person began unraveling. My future too was uncertain. Two months after dad’s death, I was moving into a one-bedroom apartment and adjusting to my new life as a once-again single woman. All the while, I was traveling back and forth between South Carolina and West Virginia to help mom settle in with my brother, get her house in order and work on finalizing dad’s estate.
But there’d be additional heartbreaks that added more heaviness on my already sagging shoulders. Losing two cherished friends: one to COVID and another to cancer was crushing. And mom’s progressive illness resulted in the most difficult decision her kids would have to make: placing her in a memory care unit, where she would be safer once she began wandering outside of my brother’s house.
Despite all the sadness and uncertainty that hung in the air like a layer of fog hovering over a field, there were moments of joy like planning my daughter’s December 2021 wedding and the anticipation of gathering with friends and loved ones for the momentous day my baby would say “I do” to a nice young man with an amazing supportive family.
Crumbling under the weight
It was a year of loss interwoven with periods of joy and fresh starts. Good friends reminded me how strong a woman I was. And I believed them. I thought I was handling the left and right jabs coming at me from every angle with grace and super-hero strength. But evidently, the body can process only so much stress before it finally reaches a breaking point that compromises the nervous and immune systems. My body was stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode. It was a slow clamber that ultimately reached critical mass. My sympathetic nervous system was locked and loaded while my parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body relax, appeared to have crumbled under the weight of overwhelming stress. Apparently, I wasn’t coping as well as I thought with the onslaught of rapid-fire arrows being flung at me.
When you’re in distress, this thing in your brain called the amygdala becomes stimulated and generates a flood of emotions like anxiety and fear. Then the brain’s pituitary glands send a signal to the adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney, to produce cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that elevates your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and prepares you to react to a threat or a dangerous situation. It’s beneficial if you’re face-to-face with a saber tooth tiger. But life’s little stressors can be just as threatening if you’re ill-equipped to know how to deal with them well. Without cognizant and effective self-care and careful scrutinizing of perceived situations, stress can be a monster that depletes you, robs you of sleep and keeps you stuck in the fight, flight or freeze mode.
My cortisol level when measured during a lab test to determine the cause of the panic attacks and anxiety episodes was elevated. The first mistake I made being that I’m a writer and researcher was Googling my symptoms. One batch of disturbing information led to another batch, and I began catastrophizing. I was diver deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole on a mission to self-diagnose. For far too many of us, we tend to think the worst. We gravitate toward worst-case scenarios and layer our stories with negative thoughts. And that’s exactly where I had landed: in a bottomless pit of “worst-case scenarios.”
The overload of information I gathered on the world wide web overwhelmed me and led to chronic insomnia that lasted nearly four months. I was able to fall asleep but couldn’t stay asleep. After an hour to 90 minutes of sleep, I’d wake suddenly, filled with anxiety and fear and intrusive thoughts of gloom and doom. I’d find myself Googling when I couldn’t sleep. Another huge mistake. I was making my situation worse by piling on the “what-ifs.”
Lab results also showed my thyroid, a small gland in your neck that plays a major role in metabolism and regulates many other bodily functions by releasing hormones, was completely out of whack. I was a wreck and felt excruciatingly unwell. The poorly functioning thyroid was adding fuel to the fire of anxiety, a common symptom when the gland is diseased and misfiring.
Sleep deprivation and extreme anxiety are debilitating. It’s a recipe for disaster. I felt like I was losing myself and my mind as I walked around in a fog during the day for weeks on end after one sleepless night after another.
This descent into darkness crippled me emotionally, physically and spiritually. As I tossed and turned night after night, I prayed God would gift me sleep or just take me home. He never seemed more silent. The silence while the world slept was deafening. I felt abandoned, hopeless and despaired. I cried out like David did in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” I clung to the vision of Jesus, sleeping quietly on a cushion in the bottom of his disciples’ boat as a storm raged all around them on the Sea of Galilee. Our Savior slept soundly. And so, as the darkness closed in around me, I begged Him to share his pillow with me in the bottom of the boat. If He could sleep while the wind, waves and rain battered the boat, why could I not slumber in the comfort of my cozy bed?
With my Bible as my companion, I often turned to Psalm 4 and Psalm 23, seeking comfort in the dark:
“In peace I lie down and sleep tonight, for You have made this dwelling a sure and trustworthy abode.” – from Psalm 4
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – from Psalm 23
Work was impossible with my sleep-deprived brain operating at a snail’s pace. Being a writer takes clarity, focus and concision: I couldn’t muster any of the skills needed to do it well. So, I took a work hiatus and thrust myself into learning all I could about insomnia. I listened to podcasts, read books, prayed and began meditating. I evaluated my sleep hygiene while also trying various natural sleep aids and some OTC ones. Nothing seemed to work for me.
A book I read suggested sleep restriction therapy that works to decrease variability in the timing of sleep while increasing the depth of sleep. The goal is to shorten the amount of time spent in bed in an effort to consolidate sleep until you achieve that ideal window. Didn’t work for me. I read another book that suggested the wind-down method. Before bedtime, I lowered the lighting, swapped TV watching for reading and switched my phone to night-mode because the blue light cell phones emit can trigger wakefulness. The book recommended climbing into bed once sleepy. If after about 20 minutes I was still awake, I was to leave the bed, go to another room and read or do something boring like fold clothes. That method didn’t work for me either. Who feels like folding clothes at 2 in the morning?!
The last book I read helped me realize I was obsessing about sleeping and that it would occur naturally. Eventually my body would succumb. The author supported winding down, reading, avoiding checking the time while in bed and limiting device time while in bed. He was not opposed to staying in bed even when sleep didn’t come within 20 minutes. The main point he drilled down on was to not obsess about the insomnia, which can cause sleep anxiety.
The book, “Set It & Forget It” by Daniel Erichsen set in motion my recovery from sleeplessness. Daniel follows the simple philosophy of “accepting, letting go of your insomnia and doing some tweaks to your daily life so you live NOW while you improve your sleep.” In the book, Daniel reassures the insomniac that sleep mechanisms aren’t really broken and the ability to sleep can’t truly be lost.
Light overcame the darkness
Two months in to my nearly four-month-long period of inadequate sleep, my physician prescribed medication to help me relax at bedtime. The medication with my newly adopted sleep hygiene techniques and Daniel’s advice proved effective. Finally, there was light at the end of this dark tunnel!
I’ve worked my way back up to nearly eight hours of sleep. What works for me? The low-dose medication which I’m now weaning off slowly, a bit of reading with tranquil music playing through my earbuds, lavender oil sprinkled on my pillow and a breathing and sleep meditation finale have all proven to be the perfect segue into la-la land.
During the day, I make time to meditate to cope with stress and anxiety. It’s an investment of 10, 15 or 20 minutes once or twice a day. Prayer also plays a huge role throughout my day. I pause often to be still in the presence of God.
Movement is also key. Stretching in the morning and early evening, and a walk in the afternoon, have helped with the fatigue and muscle weakness that generally accompanies a thyroid condition like what I’m battling.
Changing my diet also played a part. I cut out dairy and gluten to combat the inflammation response in my body shortly after falling ill. In doing so, I lost about 25 pounds and my cholesterol dropped 75 points!
I’m still not 100 percent well, but I’m not where I once was: in a deep dark pit feeling helpless and hopeless. Still working on getting the thyroid medication where it needs to be.
Thanks to multiple blessings that pierced the darkness along the way, I could feel myself lifted inch by inch above the haze of despair. Those blessings came by way of gift cards for food deliveries from my employers, the flowers on the doorstep, the phone calls to check up on me or to pray with me, the daily texts from a bestie and the get-well cards. All the while when I felt God was silent as I walked through dark waters, He was sending His angels—my friends and colleagues—to watch over and care for me, to remind me I had not been forsaken nor forgotten. My prayer warriors, my church family, the myriad of blessings, and finally surrendering to the Creator provided the hope that pulled me up from the muck and mire that kept me stuck in one of the darkest valleys I ever trudged.
I’ve never been more grateful for sleep, prayers and waking up to a new day every morning. The ascent to light was much more arduous than the descent into darkness, which spiraled quickly and mercilessly, but what I gleaned through the recovery and the blessings that came with the journey brought life lessons worth learning.
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” – Psalm 118-24