On feeling depressed…
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On feeling depressed…

We’re not talking about the extreme, most paralysing, regions of despair – where external medical help is vital. Our target is rather the times when we feel – as indicated by Henry David Thoreau’s phrase – mired in moods of ‘quiet desperation’: a large, grey hinterland in which beneath an outward surface of endurance, we feel exhausted, close to tears, beyond the sympathetic understanding of others, easily irritated and daunted by the simplest tasks. There will probably have been certain triggers for our melancholy: an intimate rejection; a humiliation around work; the growing realisation that the ambitious plans of earlier years have come to very little…

Unfortunately, sadness feels very taboo. Societies tend slyly to insist on cheerfulness. We end up not only struggling, but humiliated that we are in such difficulties. Yet, in truth, there is nothing more natural or routine than grief. We have so much to feel morose about: simply by virtue of being alive, we will inevitably so often feel badly misunderstood, unfairly criticised, overlooked and rejected. We will be struck by our own stupidity and appalled by our inner ugliness and cowardice. We will make some shockingly poor decisions, we will let others down – and will witness those we love suffer and die before ourselves having to give up the keys to life. The reasons for feeling low and demoralised touch more or less every one. It is the universality – the normality – of suffering that makes the sight of small happy children so poignant; we know, as they cannot yet, how much they are going to suffer – we don’t know the precise details but we know that in some way or another a distinctive range of horrors will, in time, befall them.

Every day, almost without noticing it, we have to fight off a range of incoming powerful reasons not to despair. We rely on an internal engine or muscle of hope to pump out consoling thoughts. Then one day the task seems too much; the muscle can’t take it any more. At such times, we need to keep a few ideas in mind: For a start, that sorrow is not an individual failing; that it is a basic reality for our entire species. We are extremely sensitive, fragile constructions, constantly exposed to danger; for the most part blind, hopeful without regard to reality and with unquenchable needs for love and sympathy. Our tribulations are a symptom of being human, never just a curse attached to our sliver of existence.
Others, who might seem successful, buoyant and composed will travel, at moments they shield us from, to the same places of despair we have been exiled to. We live so close to ourselves, we know so much about our private failings, we miss that our flaws are general: present even in the outwardly placid, the beautiful, the rich, and the people next door. If only we could see into the minds of strangers, we would feel so much less alone. We are, it’s true, sometimes hard to be around. We’re easy to caricature as grumpy and a pain. But in truth, we’re sad rather than mean, anxious rather than bad. It’s hard to make our despair sound charming, to present ourselves in the way that would win us the compassion we so require. Yet we’re being harder on ourselves than we would be on a friend. We should – at the least – accord ourselves the same degree of forgiveness we wouldn’t hesitate to direct to an acquaintance. In the end, however tempting it is, we can’t just abandon our lives. There are too many people who rely on us (even if their presence doesn’t feel real right now). Above all, we don’t know the future. It’s the other side of our dependence on chance. Things can get slightly better for reasons it’s hard to foresee. Just as pleasures fade and can seem meaningless in retrospect, so pains (at least sometimes) can pass or soften. Things we thought we’d never be able to get over gradually become bearable; we adjust our mental posture, we stoop to accommodate a new reality. Being miserable does not exclude us from the human community. It’s a sure sign that we are very normal – and that life is progressing, in its own dark way, more or less exactly to plan.

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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.
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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.

Things have been crap lately and I’ve spent hundreds of hours awake in the thin hours of morning. During that time, I stumbled across this article on insomnia which I found useful, enjoy.

In 1914, The Lancet reported on a clergyman who was found dead in a pool; he had left behind this suicide note: “Another sleepless night, no real sleep for weeks. Oh, my poor brain, I cannot bear the lengthy, dark hours of the night. Author Pagan Kennedy writes in The New York Times: “I came across that passage with a shock of recognition.

“Many people think that the worst part of insomnia is the daytime grogginess. But like that pastor, I suffered most in the dark hours after midnight, when my desire for sleep, my raging thirst for it, would drive me into temporary insanity. On the worst nights, my mind would turn into a mad dog that snapped and gnawed itself.

“Though one in 10 American adults suffer from chronic insomnia, we have yet to answer the most fundamental questions about the affliction. Scientists are still arguing about the mechanisms of sleep and the reasons it fails in seemingly healthy people. There are few – if any – reliable treatments for insomnia. At the same time, medical journals warn that bad sleep can fester into diseases like cancer and diabetes. Deep in the night, those warnings scuttle around my mind like rats.

“About 18 months ago, during a particularly gruelling period, I felt so desperate that I consulted yet another doctor – but all he did was suggest the same drugs that had failed me in the past. I was thrown back once again on my own ways of coping.

“As a child, I had invented mental games to distract myself. For instance, I would compile a list of things and people that made me happy, starting with words that began with A and moving through the alphabet.

“One night, I was in the Qs, trying to figure out what to add to quesadillas, queer theory and Questlove. Then, suddenly, the game infuriated me – why, why, why did I have to spend hours doing this? In the red glare of the digital clock, my brain rattled its cage. I prepared for a wave of lunacy. But instead of a meltdown, I had a wild idea: What if there was another, easier, way to drive the miserable thoughts from my mind?

“I began to fantasise about a machine that would do the thinking for me. I pictured it like another brain that would fit on top of my head. The next day, I cobbled together my first insomnia machine.

“Though millions of us struggle with chronic insomnia, we’re not a unified army fighting the same foe. Every one of us is grappling with a different mix of mental and physical dysfunctions. Dozens of medical conditions deprive people of sleep; these include apnoea, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, depression, brain injury, autism and restless legs syndrome.

“I suspect my own insomnia has a strong genetic component – as a child, awake in the middle of the night, I would listen as my mother roamed the house, searching for a spot where she could curl up with her detective novel and wait for the Seconal to kick in. Insomnia has affected other family members, too, and seems to be coiled somewhere in our DNA. Indeed, a 2015 study of twins found that wakefulness is significantly heritable, especially in women.

“My affliction certainly felt baked in, because it had resisted every intervention. I had done all the right things: I had consulted with a half-dozen doctors; I blocked blue light, ate carbs, avoided carbs, bought a special pillow and listened to meditation tapes. I’d done all the wrong things, too, like gobbling down drugs – from Ambien to Lunesta to lorazepam – but that hadn’t worked either.

“For a while I followed the rules of ‘sleep hygiene’ – a tough-love approach that includes dragging yourself out of bed during wakeful periods, and allowing yourself to crawl back under the covers only when you feel sleepy. But I never felt sleepy. And in our frigid New England house in winter, it was excruciating to be exiled from the wool blankets; I felt humiliated, like a bad dog, as I put one foot and then another down on the cold floor and slunk off to another room. Even the name of the therapy shamed me: The word ‘hygiene’ had an old-fashioned sting to it, an implication that the way I slept was filthy and needed to be scoured.

“So that’s why I – the dirty, disreputable insomniac – took matters into my own hands. I found a stretchy sock that was long enough to wrap around my head like a blindfold. Then I sewed the sock into a circle, from toe to topstitch, making sure it fit securely, so that it would stay in place no matter how I tossed and turned on the pillow.

“I cut two slits in the inner layer of fabric, sewing stitches to create button-hole-like openings. And then I found an old pair of earbuds, sewed foam around each bud, and threaded the foam-bumps into holes in the headgear. This way, the gizmo would hold the speakers near my ears, but not in them – more comfortable for sleeping. Once I had finished, I attached a cheap MP3 player (made by SanDisk) to the rig. Now I could roll my head around, doze, slumber or pad to the bathroom, all while listening to the new voice in my head.

“My boyfriend said that he felt as if he were sleeping next to a hostage. But weird as it looked, the device offered relief. I’d cue up an audiobook and a monologue would commence, blotting out my own thoughts. Instead of labouring to calm myself, I could just drift on the voice pumped into my head. I began to wear the machine all night long, floating in and out of sleep, comforted that whatever happened, the narrator would stay with me.

“After I’d built my headgear, I discovered companies were selling similar devices online – usually in the form of fleece headbands outfitted with flat earphones. I tried some out, but I found they weren’t snug enough to stay in place, so I still use my DIY gear.

“Of course, the insomnia machine is a humble hack. The real challenge lay in curating the audio: It took trial and error to find material that could tame my midnight mind.

“At first, I loaded the machine with the kind of dry disquisitions that, according to conventional wisdom, bring on sleep; I turned to books like ‘Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations’, an important jeremiad about soil quality that is not super-entertaining.

“But the drone in my ears didn’t keep my mind busy enough, so instead I began to pick out funny, engaging and friendly books. When I enjoyed those hours of wakefulness, I no longer tried to sleep, and when I stopped trying to sleep, I slept.

“My voracious appetite for spoken-word audio led me to discover a treasure: the free audiobooks on LibriVox, a storehouse of public-domain literature narrated by volunteer readers. I began to spend my nights in the company of great authors, wandering around in the 19th century, an era no longer protected by copyright laws. Here I befriended the ‘lady explorer’ Isabella Bird, who scaled the Rocky Mountains and survived the winter in a cabin cooped up with frontiersmen.

“Charlotte Brontë whisked me to the fictional kingdom of Labassecour. And Mark Twain confided that a flirtatious shopgirl had persuaded him to buy a pair of kid gloves suitable for wearing to the opera – even though he preferred buckskin.

“The slow pace of 19th-century novels and memoirs is perfect for an insomnia machine: You fall asleep when the characters are having dinner, and when you wake up they’ve only reached the drawing room. It feels as if you’re surrounded by friends, dozing comfortably in a corner as life carries on.

“Literature did not cure my insomnia, but transformed it into a manageable condition, and so I feel enormously grateful to the internet and its crowd of volunteers for providing thousands of hours of literary medicine. I think of Jorge Luis Borges, who lamented that he had been put in charge of Argentina’s National Library after he’d gone blind and was unable to peruse a single page. Today we live in a splendor that Borges might have dreamed into existence, a library we can stumble through in the dark.

“In 1886, the author Franklin Harvey Head reported that his contemporaries regarded insomnia as a ‘modern and even an almost distinctively American disease”’ brought about by the hustle-bustle of the railroad and the telegraph. As wires spread across the country and incandescent bulbs burned away the stars, some warned about what would happen when electrification spread into rural towns. Surely, chickens would die of insomnia – and presumably the farmers, too.

“Whenever a new technology comes along, we inevitably blame it for ruining our sleep. Today, we believe that phones and laptops will scramble our sleep, even though the evidence of that is thin. Few studies have been done to find out whether digital media can set off insomnia in adults, and the findings of what research has been done tend to be contradictory. Nonetheless, many health professionals recommend that we banish all digital devices from our bedrooms.

“Of course, there are many ways to ruin your health with a laptop – like engaging in a flame war on Facebook at 4 in the morning. But used judiciously, the internet itself can become a therapy. Both Netflix and Amazon cater to insomniacs by offering ‘sleep-tainment’ options; you can watch videos of a window fan, a train ride through the mountains, knitters chatting in Norway, drizzle falling on leaves or rain tapping on the walls of a tent. This testifies to how many people like to drift off to the lullaby of digital media – and how idiosyncratic our tastes can be.

“Most important, the internet is becoming a place for insomniacs to gather together and figure out what works, to share insights and help one another. For instance, in 2013, Drew Ackerman created a podcast to lead listeners into slumberland. Now, three times a week, he climbs into a makeshift studio in the back of a closet and spins whimsical stories about matters of no importance. ‘Fasten your sleep-belts,’ he might murmur in a codeine drawl before jumping into a tale about the glug-glug-glug sound of a water cooler.

“Ackerman told me that he has designed his ‘Sleep With Me’ podcast to tame the vigilant, overactive ‘guardian’ in the brain that feels it must stay awake to worry. ‘I’m trying to trick the guardian,’ he said. ‘It hears my voice and decides: This guy is a goofball. He’s not a threat. That ‘frees up the rest of your brain to drift off.’

“Ackerman has no training as a sleep doctor or health professional – he too, found salvation from insomnia in audiobooks, specifically aboard the Pequod, squinting out at the 19th-century sea as he floated along on Melville’s words. That experience led him to wonder whether he could fine-tune audio as a therapy.

“Nowadays, about 70,000 listeners download each episode of his podcast, and reviewers attest to the power of this treatment. Ackerman treats insomnia as a disease of existential loneliness. ‘I hear from so many people who listen to the podcast while their partners are sound asleep,’ he said. ‘They might be in bed with somebody who loves them. But in that situation, it’s the deep dark night, and you’re all alone.’

“And so Ackerman has created an alter ego named Dearest Scooter who hosts the show and acts as your ‘bore-friend’ – in the bunk bed of your mind, he’s the compassionate brother lying a few feet above you, a voice in the darkness promising he’ll talk until you drift off.

“He’s also the antithesis of the sleep-hygiene therapists. He doesn’t shame, he commiserates; he knows how horrible insomnia is, and he’s here for you. ‘People need to be validated,’ Ackerman said. ‘If I’m thirsty, I drink; if I’m hungry, I can eat. But when I want to sleep, that’s not under my control. And that’s why this is such a painful mystery.’

“So many of us are muddling along, finding relief where we can get it. At least we have one another. At 2 in the morning, with my insomnia machine strapped to my head, I listen to a volunteer reading George Meredith’s ‘The Egoist’ in a South Indian lilt. As every parent knows, there is magic in the human voice telling a story; this is the oldest and most primitive insomnia treatment. In the dark hours, when we’re wandering in the wilderness of thought, sometimes we just need to feel that someone, even a digital someone with a pre-recorded voice, is watching over us.”

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